The Moment It All Went Wrong...
...or was it?
As we continue to get adjusted to life without basketball, welcome to the first edition of “What If?” Wednesdays, where I’ll take a look at a key moment in Knicks history and think about what would have happened if the sliding doors stayed open for a half-second longer.
Full disclosure: there is no rhyme or reason for how I’m going to do these. I could try to generate a set of rules - i.e., “It has to be realistic” or “It can’t be something based completely on chance” - but honestly, how the hell would I even begin to litigate what qualifies and what doesn’t?
So I’m just kinda flying by the seat of my pants here.
There will also be a podcast that Jeremy and I will do at some point on this topic, and hopefully I don’t step on my own toes with what I write here. But I’ll figure that out later.
Anyway, today’s “What If"?”…
What if the Knicks Never Traded Patrick Ewing?
Before we get into this, keep in mind: for as much as Knick fans look at the Ewing trade as the first domino in a chain of events that led to the franchise’s eventual downfall, thinking that the relationship was salvageable is probably unrealistic.
Before Ewing even played a game in his final season in New York, he was on rocky terrain with pretty much everyone in the franchise, including his head coach (check out this classic early Berman article for a snapshot). He was also in fairly significant decline, having missed the first 20 games of that final season with Achilles tendinitis. He averaged just 15 points a game when he came back.
All that being said, it’s impossible to deny how badly the team screwed itself with that deal. Some numbers of note:
Ewing’s salary in the last year of his contract (played in Seattle): $14 million
NBA Salary cap in 2001-2002 (the year after Ewing’s deal expired): $42.5 million
Rice’s new contract with the Knicks, via a sign & trade with the Lakers: four years, $36 million
Remaining time and dollars on Luc Longley’s contract when acquired in the Rice trade: three years, $19 million
Luckily, Longley retired in 2001, so the Knicks were off the hook for the back end of a deal that would look like an overpay now. With Rice, they weren’t so lucky.
(By the way, check out the quote from then-Knicks GM Scott Layden upon completion of the Ewing trade:
“It become clear, he was looking for a change. When he requested a trade we respected his request. It was important, in doing so, that we had the ability to add value and with Glen [Rice] and his All-Star credentials and with two veteran big men and draft picks, we believe we have done that.”
I feel like I’ve heard something like that before…might be my imagination.)
Despite the fact that New York assembled Daryl Morey’s wet dream two decades ahead of its time, the fit of three big, shooting wings was too revolutionary for the turn of the century NBA. Rice came off the bench most of the year and the team was all too happy to get rid of him after only one season, which led us to:
Shandon Anderson: signed to a six-year, $42 million contract in a sign & trade to get Rice out of town, and…
Howard Eisley: three years and $16 million remaining on his existing contract that was also acquired for Rice.
If you’re keeping track, instead of having Ewing’s $14 million come off the books, the Knicks added Anderson and Eisley’s more than $10 million on the books.
Not great, Bob.
It also made perfect sense. That’s because earlier in the summer, New York inked Allan Houston to his brand new six-year, $100 million deal, as well as Clarence Weatherspoon for five years, $27 million using their midlevel exception.
Basically, New York boxed itself into a corner. Once Houston and Weatherspoon took them over the cap, Layden said “to hell with it!” - hence, nearly $60 million worth of Anderson/Eisley. So really, today’s “What If"?” shouldn’t be “What if the Knicks never traded Ewing?”, but rather, “If the Knicks never traded Ewing, do they still re-sign Houston and make the accompanying cap-crippling moves that followed?”
We know Dolan loved (and still loves) Al, but there’s at least some logic to say things could have gone differently.
As noted, Luc Longley retired later in the summer of 2001. That same summer saw Larry Johnson call it quits due to a bad back. They made nearly $18 million combined.
Even with those two salaries off the books though, not even counting the Houston/Weatherspoon signings and the Rice for Anderson/Eisley trade, New York still had nearly $40 million in committed money beyond the 2001-02 season: Latrell Sprewell ($11.2 million), Marcus Camby ($7.3 million), Charlie Ward ($5.1 million), Kurt Thomas ($4.4 million), Mark Jackson ($3.8 million), Travis Knight ($3.6 million) and Othella Harrington ($2.4 million).
So not only was there no realistic possibility of the Knicks making a free agent splash in 2001, but likely none in 2002 either (especially with the cap decreasing in the summer of 2002, to $40.2 million).
That said, there are a couple of different, better ways this could have gone:
Without Houston (who was actually quite good in the first two years of his new deal), the Knicks bottom out, and instead of drafting seventh in 2002 and grabbing Nenê (who was immediately traded for Antonio McDyess) and ninth in 2003, picking Mike Sweetney (gurgles bleach), they’d have been in the running for the Yao Ming/Jay Williams duo, and more importantly, the LeBron/Melo/Wade/Bosh spots the following year. I’d have signed up for that.
They’d have had to move a little money to do so, but the Knicks could have made a free agency play in 2002 for a promising young point guard who nonetheless hadn’t found a home: Chauncey Billups.
With more space opened up by 2003, they’d have been able to offer Jason Kidd the chance to remain in the Metropolitan area when he hit free agency that summer. Instead, Kidd re-signed in New Jersey and was eventually traded to Dallas.
The other prize of 2003, Jermaine O’Neal, could have theoretically been on the Knicks radar as well (although that contract aged poorly midway through).
So no…aside from properly tanking and getting lucky in the 2003 draft (with our good fortunate, we’d certainly have ended up with Darko), there was no immediate or even semi-immediate path to contention that the Ewing trade took off the table. Oh well.
That said, once Layden officially spelunked them into cap hell, it led directly into the the Isiah Thomas era and whatever is worse than hell. Watching Cats on loop while sober, perhaps? That probably comes close.
And really, it was the Thomas years that gave the franchise the reputation as a walking cluterf—- that it hasn’t been able to escape. Could not making the Ewing trade have avoided that fate? Who knows?
I guess that’s what makes it a good “What If?”
News & Notes
Just one nugget: according to Ian Begley, the Knicks might be interested in Christian Wood, and I for one couldn’t be happier.
Signing Wood would almost certainly mean dumping Randle. Two birds, one stone. Sign me up.
Since he wrote that, Woods continued to shine, and I wouldn’t be shocked if someone offered him a fourth guaranteed year this summer with an AAV of around $15 million.
Would I go that heavy on a guy who anyone could have had basically for free last summer, and who hasn’t shown much aside from the ability to put up nice numbers in meaningless games this season? I’d think about it, yeah. Unrestricted stretch-bigs under 25 who can move a little with the ball don’t come around very often.
That’s it! See everyone tomorrow for our first Throwback Thursday! Everyone stay inside please!!!