Print and Go Back ESPN.com: NBA [Print without images]

Wednesday, December 25, 2013
Knicks keep grasping for answers

By Brian Windhorst
ESPN.com

NEW YORK -- Even as the Oklahoma City Thunder were blasting the New York Knicks off their own floor Christmas afternoon, the Knicks' decision-makers were plotting a retrofit of the team.

This is good news for Knicks fans because until recently the team's owner felt this was close to a finished product. In a rare interview last month with the New York Post, James Dolan said, "I think this team can win a championship."

The 123-94 loss to the Thunder dropped the Knicks to 9-19 and 4-11 at home, an unpleasant fact that makes it hard to project a significant turnaround even if the Knicks are ever able to get healthy this season.

It has led to a reality check.

Even from Carmelo Anthony himself, who told NBA TV in an interview this week: "When I first got to New York, I always told myself it would be a three- to three-and-a-half-year plan just to rebuild. I knew we took a step backward as an organization for me to get here. So we had to rebuild."

Needless to say, that's quite the change of tune following last season's 54 victories. Now the franchise player is tossing around the "R" word.

If Anthony was so convinced the Knicks needed three and a half seasons to recover from the trade they executed to get him, why did he sign a contract that guaranteed he'd play only three full seasons in New York? Why was the team assembled last season the oldest in the history of the league if it was part of a rebuild?

Let's leave that alone for the moment because you don't need to forensically examine quotes to prove the case that the previous grand plan didn't mature. So on to the next grand plan!

Naturally, the Knicks are thinking very big when it comes to their coming makeover. That facet, however, should make Knicks fans nervous.

"They're one confident bunch," a league executive said this week. "To listen to them, they expect to have Carmelo re-signed and have another star with him in another year. They're so sure about it you'd think they already know what will happen."

Thinking big and whiffing big has been a Knicks problem for more than a decade now as Dolan and a procession of executives have chased huge and expensive names only to miss out on top targets or overpay both in money and in trades for players who aren't ultimately difference-makers.

Thinking small, slow and being measured, like the Thunder team that smashed the Knicks thanks to fantastic performances from four young players they've drafted and nurtured over the past six years, is not what the Knicks do.

And it looks like they're plotting to do it again.

Even as there has been growing speculation with Anthony's future, the Knicks seem to be quite sure he's going nowhere. And they've already got his help lined up.

According to league sources, the Knicks' first prong is to try to attract the Celtics' Rajon Rondo. This idea has been tossed around in various forms for a while now, it's not shocking. But the way the Knicks are hoping to get Rondo is a little unusual.

It's not in free agency in 2015 but later this season or next summer when he comes back from a torn ACL. The Knicks are hoping Rondo will be interested in making a maneuver similar to what Anthony did back in 2011 and eventually try to force a trade to the Knicks, sources said.

The Celtics have consistently denied they want to trade Rondo. But once this trade deadline passes, and it isn't clear if he will even play before February, Rondo will have only one guaranteed season left on his contract. Like with Anthony when he applied pressure to the Denver Nuggets by threatening to leave in free agency, the Knicks wonder if Rondo will be able to have a say in where he might be traded if the Celtics end up fearful he'll leave in free agency.

That may seem contrived, yes, but this isn't a made-up scenario. It is a genuine option. You have to give the Knicks this: It has worked before.

If that fails -- and who knows how Rondo will mesh with this Celtics team, it could work well and he could want to stay -- the Knicks fully believe they will get one or two of the following in free agency in 2015 when they expect to have large salary-cap space: Kevin Love, LaMarcus Aldridge, Roy Hibbert, Marc Gasol, Tony Parker or Rondo when his contract is up. Under certain circumstances, James himself could be a free agent again that summer.

This is what the Knicks do. They did it when they traded for Stephon Marbury, Steve Francis and Zach Randolph during the disastrous Isiah Thomas era. They did it going into 2010 when they were sure they'd have LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh or Joe Johnson in New York. They ended up with Amar'e Stoudemire, the only player among that group whose previous team didn't offer him a guaranteed max contract.

Even as the rushed pairing of superstars has failed recently with the Los Angeles Lakers and, it currently appears, with the Brooklyn Nets, the Knicks appear to want to continue their efforts to go that way.

Wednesday the polished and slowly-built Thunder got 29 points from Kevin Durant, 24 from Serge Ibaka, 18 points from Reggie Jackson and a triple-double from Russell Westbrook. The Thunder are 23-5 now, tied for the best record in the league with the Indiana Pacers and Portland Trail Blazers, all teams led primarily by players they drafted or acquired early in their careers and developed. All three of those teams have beautiful-looking futures.

Perhaps the Knicks shouldn't be blamed. Being a free-agent destination is a rare advantage, even if it is the era when the small-market majority has block voted to make it much tougher to assemble super teams. It's way more fun to hunt for big game, even when you plan the hunt for two years, than it is to gather and trap.

Even now the current team might as well swing for the fences and try to make the playoffs because there's no draft pick coming this season. That's why head coach Mike Woodson continues to stay on the sidelines. The Knicks don't have a good replacement for him available and next summer they can shoot for the stars and offer their coaching position to top names such as Jeff or Stan Van Gundy or use their vacant president position to go after Phil Jackson or something along those splash-worthy lines.

Wednesday, Woodson was once again let down as his team looked to lay down defensively, barely putting up a fight despite the Christmas stage.

"I'm a competitive guy and I want our guys to be competitive," Woodson said. "They weren't good enough, that's why the game was so lopsided."

"The game plan," J.R. Smith said, "was to take [Durant] out of it."

Durant scored nearly a point for every minute he was on the floor. The game plan, indeed, has failed. Many of them do, every season 29 teams' game plans eventually fail. The Knicks are usually among them.

When game plans fail, the prudent move usually is to change them and try something else. The Knicks will have that chance coming up.

But the signals the Knicks are sending is they're just going to change the names and rehash the same routine. One of these cycles, they might figure, it's bound to work.