More than three years ago, the New York Knicks set themselves on a quest. That quest was partially dictated by the circumstance of having been clinically destroyed, top to bottom, by Isiah Thomas, God's gift to NBA player agents. The Knicks' cap sheet was a complete mess, from Jerome James to Eddy Curry to Jared Jeffries to Jamal Crawford to Stephon Marbury to Zach Randolph to Quentin Richardson ... you get the picture.
The first step of the quest Donnie Walsh, then the Knicks' new president, faced was to clear the rubble Isiah had left. And in doing so, Walsh succeeded. He'd trimmed the cap sheet to a sustainable silhouette, and cleared enough space to become major players in the epic free agency period of 2010.
The problem was that to get to that place, a place where the Knicks could afford to become a viable free agent seeker, the Knicks had to essentially not exist for a couple seasons. Every move the Knicks made from Walsh's hire through the February 2010 trade deadline was predicated on zapping from the roster everyone with a contract for 2011. Crawford? Gone. Jeffries? Gone. Randolph? Gone. Only Curry survived, too toxic for even the leeches looking to take draft picks off of Walsh's hands.
In July 2010, when it came time to put all of that hard-won cap space to work, the Knicks had nothing but that toxic Curry left. The entire pitch to the best prospects in the class, including LeBron James the golden idol himself, was that the New York Knicks were, uh, there.
There they were, without a winning season over a decade and with the longest living lottery streak in a league that still counted the Clippers, Kings and Wolves as members. Just being the Knicks and being in New York and having Mike D'Antoni -- who'd been stripped of his robes without Steve Nash, Shawn Marion and a certain frontcourt acrobat to be discussed soon -- didn't count for much.
The only top-line player all of that mystique, all of that blank-canvas dreaming made an impression on was Amar'e Stoudemire, a man who loves the bright lights and had a relationship with D'Antoni. Dwyane Wade passed. LeBron James passed. They teamed up in South Beach, bringing along Chris Bosh. The Heat didn't have mystique or a blank canvas. They had warm weather, an enticing scene and Pat Riley.
And Pat Riley had a plan, a vision that extended beyond the 2010 free agent period. For Riley and the Heat, 2010 was the beginning. The coup he would successfully execute would unveil the path to the truly glorious quest: championships. A dynasty. Legend status.
Riley made no secret about his pitch to LeBron, that he and the other members of the Heat's presenting party brought their championship rings to Ohio before The Decision. Walsh, James Dolan and the Knicks made the quest about getting LeBron, about putting New York Basketball back on the map. Riley made his quest LeBron's quest: championships, a dynasty, legend status.
And Riley got LeBron.
The Knicks are prepared to embark on a quest similar to that which Walsh set upon in 2008. Indications are that instead of using the mid-level exception and the NBA's preserved sign-and-trade rules to improve the core around Amar'e and trade acquisition Carmelo Anthony, the Knicks will act like mimes in free agency and preserve maximum 2012 flexibility in order to take a run at one of that class' superstars, most likely Chris Paul.
CP3 is a worthy target, and when healthy a perennial MVP contender, something the Knicks haven't had in 40 years. Chasing Paul is a righteous quest for any team, especially one whose offense often resembles a game of Hungry Hungry Hippos. (Everyone wants the ball.)
But there's an unavoidable link between the CP3 chase and the LeBron chase. What is the goal ... to create what my friend Joey (@straightbangin) has termed Team Toast, a Heatian cast of superfriends linked by a love for natty sweater vests and the city of New York? Or is the goal to create a legit championship team, once which can join the Knicks of the early '70s in The City's pantheon? Is the quest to get Chris Paul, or is the quest championships, a dynasty, legend status?
Both quests are valid. But CP3 is a lot like LeBron. They enjoy the perks of stardom, of celebrity. Neither has met a ridiculously large birthday cake or party he doesn't like. But it's about more. It's about winning it all. It's about the rings that a Pat Riley can show off, the vision of history he can present. Who's doing that for the Knicks? (No really, who? The team lost Walsh in June and hasn't picked a replacement.) In 2012, if Chris Paul is sitting across the table from [Knicks GM to be hired], what is the pitch? "We have your friends Melo and STAT and we were hoping we could create Team Toast and maybe we can beat the Heat please sign here please."
The Knicks fooled themselves into believing that being the Knicks could get them places. They seem to be headed down that path once again.
(This is not where the story ends.)
It's hard to imagine given the dearth of continuity in the Knicks' front office, but there's a chance the franchise understands the post-Decision NBA and has a clear vision for 2012 and beyond. It's all about giving the players the (illusion of) control. If the Heat hadn't retained Wade and signed Bosh, LeBron wouldn't have joined the party. Other NBA cities have nice climates, other NBA cities have great nightclubs and other NBA cities have a boss with championship experience. The Heat also had two more pieces of a legit championship core who happened to be LeBron's good friends. The Knicks had Landry Fields, Andy Rautins and Eddy Curry.
I'm not sure Melo and Amar'e are pieces of a legit championship core in this NBA, which is to say in the Heat's NBA. But they aren't chopped bean sprouts. And they double as Paul's friends. This is the point at which the CP3 quest could very well depart from the path that the Knicks' LeBron quest took. In this NBA, which is to say in the Heat's NBA, perhaps having the GM is irrelevant. Perhaps the franchise's vision, the ring-waving, the pitch -- maybe they don't matter.
Maybe the vision that Melo and Amar'e cook up is the vision that matters. Until LeBron writes a readable autobiography, we'll never how much of The Decision to attribute to Riley and how much to attribute to Wade and Bosh. But the Team Toast proceedings could be a nice uncontrolled experiment of that genre. A power created itself in South Florida. Will the same happen in New York? Only time will tell.
In the meantime, the Knicks have to keep the free agent and trade diet lean, which won't reflect kindly on the Melo-Amar'e core, which outscored opponents by a whopping 1.4 points per game after the trade last season. (That's a very meh result.) In July, if the Knicks have the opportunity to woo Chris Paul, Melo and Amar'e will be trying to convince their friend that glory can be theirs and theirs alone, and they will have to hide that 35-31 (or so) record behind a large sheet. All the while, D'Antoni will watch another season of his contract (maybe the last) tick away and fans will look at their bill from Madison Square Garden (up 49 percent per game) and they will all wonder if this time will be any different than the last time this very franchise made this very sort of kick-the-can, pray-for-rain type of bet.
They will be right to worry. It's the players' league now. Just hope, if you have a rooting interest in New York, that they can do what Donnie Walsh could not.