When the news broke that Amar’e Stoudemire had been bought out by the Knicks, my mind flashed back to December 2010 and his first season with the team. I was in a cab, headed home on the BQE — not something I would normally do, but the Knicks were playing the Heat that night and I couldn’t risk missing the first half.
New York was 16-10, over .500 through 26 games for the first time since December 2000. Stoudemire had recently broken the Knicks record for consecutive 30-point games. Yes, Mike D’Antoni was leaning way too hard on his starters, playing them more than 35 minutes per game, and the defense needed to be shored up, but they were a top-five offense and, for the first time in too long, fun to watch. As the cab threaded its way between Cobble Hill and Red Hook, I looked up and caught sight of televisions glowing in the windows of the apartment buildings as they floated by, all tuned to the game. There’s nothing like New York City when the Knicks are good.
Certainly, the Knicks’ five-year, $100 million, uninsured layout for Stoudemire and his history of knee surgeries looks terrible now. At FiveThirtyEight, Neil Paine recently anointed Stoudemire the worst free-agent signing ever, using wins over replacement and Stoudemire’s enormous salary as his x-y axes of sadness. It’s hard to argue the point. You can’t rationalize betting $100 million on a horse that loses. Even Knicks fans who were supportive of the deal at the time1 understood that the back end was likely to be more reckoning than decline. The only question was when.
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By the summer of 2010, the Knicks and their fans had weathered a ruinous decade of bad luck, worse decisions, actual disasters, and embarrassing scandals, capped off by a tedious but much-needed couple of rebuilding years that only happened because David Stern himself reached down from the mountaintop to force the clown car to the side of the road.
The original sins that led the franchise down this road are well known — the trade that sent team cornerstone Patrick Ewing and his expiring contract to Seattle and saddled the club with a pushcart full of dead salary in the form of Glen Rice and various dudes; the Allan Houston extension; the drafting of Vince Carter Olympic scissoring victim Frederic Weis one spot ahead of Ron Artest.
That’s just the beginning, though.
During the 2001 playoffs, starting center Marcus Camby’s sister Monica was held hostage at knifepoint for several hours by a deranged ex-boyfriend of Monica’s.2 Marcus, who had eight points, 18 rebounds, and four blocks in a Game 1 win, missed Game 3. He somehow managed to play in Games 4 and 5, albeit in an understandably distracted fashion. The Knicks lost in five. That was the first of only two playoff appearances the team would make over the next 10 seasons.
Years earlier, the ex-boyfriend had held another woman hostage for two days.
The 2001-02 campaign creaked to a start in a shell-shocked pall, the tragedy of 9/11 coming less than two months prior. Head coach Jeff Van Gundy — as beloved as any sitting coach in the team’s history — would quit only 19 games into the season, partially because of the death of one of his close friends in the attacks. And from there, it all just kind of went downhill. The overmatched Don Chaney took his place and the team finished 30-52; the Knicks went 37-45 in 2002-03.
In December 2003, Isiah Thomas was hired as president of basketball operations, popping the cork on the most embarrassing single period of the team’s history. Though Zeke would mostly draft well (not you, Renaldo Balkman!), he would also saddle the team with a cast of sullen misanthropes, rendered nigh-untradable because of their gargantuan contracts.
The day after Thomas’s hiring, former Knick Latrell Sprewell returned to the Garden in a Timberwolves uniform and dropped 31 points in the team’s grill while screaming obscenities at James Dolan. The Knicks would make the playoffs in Thomas’s first year despite finishing 39-43. (The East, then as now, a noxious crater.) They were unceremoniously swept by the then–New Jersey Nets.
Even when Thomas did something that made sense, he’d do it in a way that would alienate the wrong people. He told Knicks center Dikembe Mutombo that he was washed up and suggested the big man take a vacation and never come back. Then he moved him as part of a trade for Jamal Crawford. Super-agent David Falk, who repped Mutombo, basically accused Thomas of using Mutombo as a cudgel to get back at him as part of their long-running feud. “It’s no secret that we dislike each other,” Falk said. Good enemy to have, as Falk represented Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley, Allen Iverson, Ewing, and many, many others. The next season, Deke played 80 games — averaging 9.6 points, 12.7 rebounds, and three blocks per 36 minutes with a PER of 16.4 — backing up Yao Ming for Van Gundy’s Houston Rockets.
By April 2008, Stern had seen enough and persuaded James Dolan to hire former Pacers exec Donnie Walsh. Walsh then hired former Suns coach Mike D’Antoni and proceeded to gut the team with an eye toward having enough cap space in two years for that shining free-agent summer on the hill. The gutting went as planned, and the basketball was as unwatchable as ever: 32-50 in 2008-09 and 29-53 in 2009-10.
Now, after all of that, imagine what it would’ve been like for the franchise and its fans if the Knicks — after missing out on the LeBron/Wade/Bosh triptych, after all that buildup and Photoshopping — didn’t sign anyone that summer. Not being able to attract a star when the team is capped out and being shambolically helmed by a succession of notable front-office incompetents who went out of their way to enrage agents? That was understandable. Not being able to attract a star with max money, a respected basketball lifer running the show, and a truly revolutionary offensive coach drawing plays? That would have been a hammer blow.
Then there’s the Dolan factor. A rationally run team would’ve cut its losses and rolled forward to next season, cap flexibility intact. But after two years of slash-and-burn — that, remember, were essentially forced upon him — it’s not hard to imagine Dolan anticipating the “Free Agents to New York: Drop Dead” media coverage that was absolutely going to happen if the Knicks didn’t sign anyone and overreacting by firing Walsh and probably D’Antoni. Now, you might say, “Maybe that would’ve been a good thing,” until you remember that Dolan actually tried to rehire Thomas a couple of seasons later.
In 2010, after all the team had been through, the Knicks needed someone to come, and Stoudemire was the one who did. In the four and a half years since, it’s become just a bit too easy to kill the Knicks for signing him. I’m not saying don’t kill the team over this; I’m just saying at least give them a blindfold, and aim for the heart. Because the team’s heart is where you have to look in order to understand the circumstances that led to this contract in the first place.
Fare thee well, Amar’e. It was fun while it lasted — it just didn’t last long enough.