As Knicks host Rockets, a look at two very different ways to build

January 9, 2015 Posted by admin

About a week before the 2010 trade deadline, in the dying days of the old collective bargaining agreement, the Knicks and Rockets completed a non-descript transaction that set so many forces in motion.

By acquiring Tracy McGrady’s $23 million expiring contract, the Knicks became players in that summer’s vaunted free-agent class. It was the Summer of LeBron, and you had to be in it to win it, and all that.

Armed with cap room for two max players, a capable executive in Donnie Walsh and the bright lights of Broadway bolstering their latest master plan, the Knicks were all in.

Oh, how things have changed since that fateful day.

The Knicks swung and missed on LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Joe Johnson, Curly Neal, Abercrombie, Fitch and Ralph Lauren that July, instead saying, “We’ll take Amar’e Stoudemire for $100 million, Alex.” But Stoudemire still had some good basketball left at that point, and he paved the way for Walsh to acquire Carmelo Anthony from Denver via the now-defunct “extend-and-trade” arrangement in February 2011.

(Subplots from those events are still reverberating today, with Denver shipping Anthony trade chip Timofey Mozgov to Cleveland to protect the basket for LeBron. That’s two more first-round picks the Nuggets have managed to extract from the post-Anthony scrap heap, and there’s still no sign of LeBron at Madison Square Garden, except in various visiting jerseys. But we digress.)

The Knicks had some good times. They acquired Tyson Chandler from Dallas and made the playoffs in that lockout-shortened 2011-12 season, losing in the first round for the second straight year. Linsanity happened, and then quickly un-happened. They fired Mike D’Antoni, who couldn’t get Anthony to share the ball, and appointed Mike Woodson as Anthony’s personal enabler. They won 54 games and made it to the second round for the first time in 13 years.

Alas, all Plan B’s must come to an end — in this case, badly. Woodson limped through a 37-win season last year that cost him his job and ushered in the shiny glow of the Phil Jackson era. Looking for the soft landing of a consulting job with the team that last won a championship when he was ambling up and down the floor in short-shorts, Jackson instead wound up with a $60 million contract. Zen-sanity!

Jackson tried to hire Steve Kerr, who proved smarter than Jackson anticipated by taking the Golden State Warriors job instead. He hired Derek Fisher, whose dumbfounded expressions and rambling soliloquies on various Manhattan sidewalks came to define the 2011 lockout. He re-signed Anthony, now 30, for $129 million over five years. Somewhere in there, he asked Garden overlord James Dolan, “We gave up what for Andrea Bargnani?!?” And right on cue, the Knicks’ next five-year plan had begun.

Plan C, I guess it is. Or D. Or Z.

The Knicks' Plan A with Carmelo Anthony and Amar'e Stoudemire never worked. (USATSI)
The Knicks paid big to get Carmelo Anthony and Amar’e Stoudemire, but it hasn’t led to wins. (USATSI)

Chandler was sent back to Dallas, and Jackson already is in the process of unloading virtually all of the assets he received in the deal. Stoudemire, a pro’s pro, is doing everything in his power to remain a productive NBA player — a task that becomes ever more difficult with his chronically bad knees propelling him around the gym on team with the worst record in the NBA.

Anthony, surrounded by wreckage and hobbled by knee pain, is contemplating when, if and for what he will return to the floor this season.

So what of the Rockets, the Knicks’ houseguest Thursday night at Madison Square Garden? Their evolution since clearing all that cap space for the Knicks with the McGrady deal five years ago has been equally erratic, if not nearly as painful. GM Daryl Morey has turned the roster over multiple times in that span — from Kyle Lowry and Luis Scola, to James Harden and Chandler Parsons, to Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik, to Harden, Dwight Howard, Patrick Beverley and now, Josh Smith. Morey’s various personnel and analytics-based gambits have gotten Houston past the first round only once (in 2008-09), but they’ve also disproved a common theory about team building in the NBA.

While in the process of making the incalculable mess that Walsh had to clean up, Isiah Thomas used to say, “You can’t rebuild in New York.” This logic, it turns out, works tragically well on the BQE, but not so much in basketball. The gist is that fans paying top dollar to sit in the Garden’s expensive seats and be entertained won’t tolerate bottoming-out and then building back up. Of course, that’s what happened anyway, but follow me.

The Knicks stripped the roster down to the studs from 2008-2010, all for the promise of cap space, a nebulous commodity that has never drawn a foul or knocked down a 3-point shot. It worked for one season, and yet here they are — under the soulful guidance of Jackson and his Zen principles — trying it again.

On Dasher and Dancer and LaMarcus Aldridge! On Comet and Cupid and Marc Gasol!

The Rockets, while imperfect and, if you please, gimmicky with their insistence on attempting to score only A) in the paint, B) from the 3-point line or C) from the foul line, have disproved the very theory on which the Knicks are once again banking. Cap space is fool’s gold. You need players, draft picks and assets to build an NBA team — and a little bit of luck, too.

When Oklahoma City realized it couldn’t afford to keep Harden, the Rockets were ready with the goods. When Howard decided he disliked Los Angeles so much that he was willing to take a $30 million pay cut to leave, Morey was there with tampering tweets and open arms. Sometimes, calculated gambles don’t work out, as the fiasco that led to Parsons signing with the rival Mavericks illustrates. But by and large, the Rockets have managed to remake their roster as many times as the Knicks have (or more) in the past five years, while remaining competitive and entertaining.

The Rockets’ post-lockout win totals: 34 (in a 66-game season), 45, 54 and 24 against 11 losses this season. For the Knicks, it’s 36, 54, 37 and 5 (against a league-high 33 losses and counting).

Morey’s madhattery hasn’t paid its full dividends yet, and in the ultra-competitive West, it may not this season, either. But this will likely be Morey’s fourth 50-win season since taking over from Carroll Dawson as GM in 2007. The Knicks have four 50-win seasons in the past two decades.

It’s funny, since these two teams cross paths on national TV tonight (a NetFlix kind of night, if you ask me), it’s worth remembering the glory days for both and how they got there. The Knicks and Rockets met in the 1994 NBA Finals (about which I wrote a million words here). How did they do it? They both got really bad and won the No. 1 pick in the draft. Houston won 14 games and got Ralph Sampson (whose career was derailed by injuries), then won 29 games and got Hakeem Olajuwon. New York won 24 games and got Patrick Ewing.

So if you spot Jackson in a back hallway of the Garden tonight, burning incense and chanting, “Jah-lil Ok-a-for …” over and over, you’ll know why. Maybe there’s still hope, though it didn’t have to be this hard.

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