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Monday, August 21, 2000
Updated: August 31, 12:04 PM ET
With or without Pat, Knicks are no better

By Eric Karabell
ESPN.com

The San Antonio Spurs, Florida Marlins and St. Louis Rams have each won championships in the past few years. Jaren Jackson, Craig Counsell and Dick Vermeil have rings. Meanwhile, Patrick Ewing has not won a championship, and in New York, reading that doesn't have such a good ring to it.

So if you're the Knicks, and you've had a Hall of Famer manning the middle for 15 seasons, yet you have been to the Finals only twice (only once with Ewing playing) and never won it all, it becomes easier to understand why you part with Ewing. Why not? Try something new. Depending on when you read this, Ewing will either be a Knick or a Sonic, but our point is that the Knicks couldn't win with the big fella, so giving it a try without him is certainly worth a try.

Never mind that we don't think the Knicks are any closer to meeting up with Shaq, Scottie or Dunc in the next Finals whether the deal goes down or not. But that's another issue, and part of our 18th offseason team spotlight, the New York Knicks. As always, we have our opinions, which are below, but we also appreciate yours. Check out your user comments to the right of this page.

Why the Knicks were 50-32: As usual, the Knicks came up with a successful regular season, then went on to make former coach Pat Riley weep in the playoffs. But the overachieving Knicks of 1998-99, who made it out of the East as the No. 8 seed, couldn't make it work when they were close to the top regular season seed this time. The Pacers ended their season in the third round. And as usual, it was Ewing who picked up a lot of the blame.

Ewing did play a big role in getting the Knicks to 50 wins and as far as he did in the playoffs. Finally convinced he doesn't deserve to shoot on every possession, Ewing had his offensive responsibilities lessened by coach Jeff Van Gundy and transferred to swingmen Allan Houston and Latrell Sprewell. Neither thrived, but both were effective. It was amazing how others were able to score once the basketball was surgically removed from Ewing's hands.

Expect that to continue even if Ewing does return to Gotham. While Houston and Sprewell combined for more than 38 points a night, the Knicks got 15 points and 9.7 boards from Ewing, who played in 62 games. He was a consummate team player and did some nice work on defense. He can't be faulted. And those who point to statistics that the team is better without Ewing are wrong. The fact the Knicks went 5-1 vs. Indiana the last two years without Patrick and 1-5 with him is coincidence. The guy is still easily among the top 10 centers in the league. You think Rik Smits, Michael Olowokandi or Matt Geiger are better? C'mon.

After Houston, Sprewell and Ewing, though, it's not so pretty. Larry Johnson is a brutal shadow of his Hornets days, struggling to get 10 points and 5 boards. He is no starting power forward, or at least not on a team that expects to win. Having a center like Ewing masked LJ's deficiencies. Marcus Camby is even more brittle than Ewing, despite being much younger. He isn't really a starting power forward or a starting center, though he has a world of talent and could lead the league in blocks every year if he wanted. It would be nice to see him learn at least one low post move. And thug Kurt Thomas has learned the Charles Oakley way to play real well, but he's not starter material either unless there's a big center around (he'd look great next to Shaq in L.A.). So what we're saying is that the Knicks need frontcourt help.

Don't even ask about point guard. We'll say this about Chris Childs and Charlie Ward, though. In 15-20 minutes off the bench, these guys are fine backups. But there are 48 minutes in a game. Ward did play much better in the playoffs, contributing some huge games while shooting 50 percent. But Tim Hardaway could still post him up with ease. The Knicks did play Houston and Sprewell at guard together, but it's a drain on each of their games to expect them to distribute the ball effectively. If you get down to it, Sprewell really isn't a small forward at all, he plays Houston's position.

The Knicks have been to the playoffs every season since 1987-88. And their 50 wins last year was their best in three seasons. But it's not enough anymore.

Current projected top 6
PG Charlie Ward
SG Allan Houston
SF Latrell Sprewell
PF Larry Johnson
C Ewing or Baker
6th Marcus Camby

Team MVP: When he first got to New York, Houston struggled. In his fourth season, he led the team in scoring and shot an impressive .483 from the field. However, he didn't play assertively or confidently. He needs to be the guy who always takes the final shot. Don't be surprised to see him traded. Team LVP: We could blame LJ, but Childs was worse. He produced his lowest scoring output, shot a meager .409 and wasn't very effective on defense. Think the Nets still wish they had him? Surprise! That Ewing was able to share as well as he did. Sure, he didn't have a choice, but his shots per game were a career low 12.5 (down from more than 18 for his career) and his turnovers also were way down. Up and comer: This is not a young team. Who do you choose here, Frederic Weis? With trepidation, we nominate Camby, who stands to benefit if Ewing leaves. Whether Camby can stay on the court is another matter.

What they need: Whether or not the Knicks do trade Ewing for Baker in some form, they still are a big man short. Johnson and Thomas are bench players, albeit valuable ones, but neither should log 30 minutes as the power forward. The Knicks could use Baker, a near 7-footer with good skills who supposedly is in great shape, in the middle, but they would lack rebounding and toughness. And Camby brings neither of those desire traits. If Baker, Camby, Thomas and Johnson get all the time at center and power forward, the Knicks really wouldn't be much better off than they were last year.

Baker has struggled the last few seasons to regain any semblance of the form he had in Milwaukee. He stopped rebounding, blocking shots and hitting his free throws. He gained weight and sulked. Some say getting him back near his Connecticut home will help. But how will he react the first time he sees the back of a tabloid where he is sure to be treated unkindly after one bad night. One New York paper used the headline "Good Riddance" when the Ewing trade news leaked. Vinny needs this?

Also, the Knicks must get a point guard who not only can pound the ball to the big men down low and find Houston and Sprewell when they spot up, but one who can hit a shot. Ward and Childs are not reliable shooters and really never were portrayed that way. Erick Strickland, acquired from the Mavericks on draft night, is more two-guard than anything else.

What the plan is: The Knicks are going to be a playoff team. No matter how this team changes before the season, whether it's Ewing or Baker in the middle, whether Glen Rice is here or not and even if it's Tiny Archibald manning the point, the Knicks have talent and will spend the money to make things happen. The East remains wide open, despite the improvement made by the Florida teams and the fact the Pacers look pretty much the same.

What people in New York remember from last season is not another playoff win over the Heat, or the Raptors series, it's losing to the Pacers. And it's hard to make a case that the Knicks are that much better or can get much better in the trades we've been hearing.

The Knicks did re-sign Thomas to a big deal and someday -- maybe this year -- they expect Camby to take that next step into more of a inside presence, which is to say he can make a difference not only on defense. And who knows, maybe Ward can avoid those stretches where he can't hit shots and become a legit starter. Ward had as many games where he missed all five or six of his shots as he did games where he made 8 of 11. The Knicks would take something in between that if it were consistent.

Direction heading: The Knicks should be able to win at least 45 games with some form of their current team, but unless they play the Heat each round in the playoffs, don't bet on them getting to the Finals.