- Ian O'Connor, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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GREENBURGH, N.Y. -- Maybe Iman Shumpert should have been the one conducting the exit interviews. Maybe the 22-year-old should have been interrogating the 50-somethings running the New York Knicks, Glen Grunwald and Mike Woodson, who refuse to see what Shumpert and right-minded fans of all ages can see.
This team isn't building toward anything. The core Knicks aren't getting one year better in the spring of 2014, just one year older and slower. In fact, an executive who has done business with the Knicks predicted they won't win 50 games next season, never mind 54.
"Not with all the injured stars returning to other teams in the East," he said. "Derrick Rose, Danny Granger, Rajon Rondo -- the Knicks aren't getting back anyone like that. I think they'll take a small step backward next year."
Now you know why Shumpert keeps calling a season that ended in a second-round loss to the Indiana Pacers "a failure." The kid looked up and down the league's oldest roster, saw how devastating injuries in other Eastern Conference places opened a clear road to Miami, and came to the sensible conclusion that the earlier exit is unacceptable and that it isn't getting any easier from here.
The Knicks aren't the Golden State Warriors, with a young and gifted backcourt, or the Oklahoma City Thunder, with two superstars who haven't seen their 25th birthdays. Carmelo Anthony, Tyson Chandler and Amar'e Stoudemire debuted in the NBA as teenagers and have played a combined 33 seasons. Expecting them to flower into better players at this point is like expecting J.R. Smith to honor a 10 p.m. curfew.
No, it's not happening. So as Grunwald, the GM, and Woodson, the coach, sat at a conference table surrounded by reporters inside the team's practice facility Tuesday and insisted that (A) this was the start of something special and (B) keeping this group intact makes sense because there's real room for improvement, they sounded a lot less convincing than Jim Boeheim sounded in The Syracuse Post-Standard when unloading on Anthony's supporting cast.
Somehow Woodson spoke of a "wonderful season" that was "a major step in the right direction." Grunwald said the franchise focus would be "to get our existing players better," neglecting to add that this focus is required because the Knicks are luxury tax payers locked into at least two more years with four players (Stoudemire, Marcus Camby, Jason Kidd and Steve Novak) they no longer want.
The Knicks can't acquire a Chris Paul in a sign-and-trade, not after Grunwald abandoned the once dreamy, big three plan of Melo-Stoudemire-Paul in New York by paying big for Chandler. And just when Grunwald exercised the amnesty rights on Chauncey Billups to get Chandler, compromising the point guard position for a frontcourt that would theoretically stand as the league's best, Billups told ESPNNewYork.com that the Knicks remained "probably a couple of pieces short" of being a true championship contender. Turns out he was right.
Anthony desperately needs a complementary star, and the veteran in-house candidates aren't up to the job. Stoudemire is a broken-down mess, and Smith -- a free agent expected to be re-signed -- unraveled in the postseason in every way you can unravel.
"When you really needed J.R., he was off chasing Rihanna or whatever," said one widely respected NBA executive. "All he did was reaffirm what everyone thought about him. The Knicks need a reliable second scorer, and it can't be Smith. It sure can't be Stoudemire, either."
So who will be that second star, if there is to be a second star at all? Several league executives said Shumpert had a chance to develop into Melo's best supporting actor, but those polled agreed the Knicks' most glaring need is a big man who can score.
"They got absolutely nothing out of the 4 and 5 positions offensively against Indiana," said one, "and that killed them. Tyson Chandler and Kenyon Martin have no offensive games outside of the lob dunk, and when they're facing big players like Roy Hibbert and David West who do, that's a problem."
A second executive pointed out that all four teams in the conference finals -- Indiana, Miami (Chris Bosh), Memphis (Zach Randolph, Marc Gasol) and San Antonio (Tim Duncan) -- deploy big players who can score. Counting Anthony as a power forward in title only and counting Stoudemire as another injury waiting to happen, the Knicks have no credible options in the post.
They have to find one, and preferably before Anthony decides whether to opt out of his contract next summer. With the capped-out Knicks a nonfactor in free agency and with Stoudemire's contract unmovable, the polled executives were asked to come up with realistic scenarios in the team's pursuit of a second star, preferably a skilled post guy. Here are their thoughts:
Kevin Love, Minnesota Timberwolves. An offer of Chandler and Shumpert for Love would work under NBA cap laws. "If I'm Minnesota, I would definitely think about that one," one executive said. "I don't know if I'd do it, but I'd consider it. Love's had injury issues, and he can opt out in the summer of 2015. I don't know if he wants to spend the rest of his career there."
A second executive cautioned that such a deal would be more likely if the ousted Timberwolves president, David Kahn, were still in place rather than the newcomer, Flip Saunders. Minnesota also has a talented center in Nikola Pekovic, a restricted free agent, whose signing would eliminate any need for Chandler. "People in the league still value Chandler, despite what happened in the Indiana series, and Shumpert is a very good young player with a very good contract," the second executive said. "The Knicks could package those two, but I don't see Flip doing anything. Love sees himself as a big star, he wants the big stage and he's got the personality for New York, but I don't see Minnesota considering something like that now. Maybe in February at the trade deadline."
LaMarcus Aldridge, Portland Trail Blazers. Like Love, he's a star on a losing small-market team, and one who also becomes a free agent in 2015. "Portland's trying to renovate their team and build around Aldridge," one executive said, "so I don't think they'd do it because of his age . I don't think Chandler and Shumpert would get him, but it might be worth a shot."
Another long-time league official said Chandler's disappearing act against Indiana would hurt the Knicks' chances of landing a player of Aldridge's caliber. "You generally don't win with defensive centers, but with offensive centers and people who put the ball in the basket," the official said. "Shumpert is definitely movable, but Chandler's a hard move."
Pau Gasol, Los Angeles Lakers. Unlike Love and Aldridge, he's on the back nine of his prime. Gasol turns 33 in July. "I'm sure the Knicks can probably get him if they want him," one executive said, "assuming the Lakers re-sign Dwight Howard. But do the Knicks really want to add another older guy?"
Perhaps they do. Before the start of the season, Woodson made a point of telling reporters, "Young guys aren't winning an NBA title." This was before his old guys crumbled around him.
Woodson hasn't proved he can reach a conference final, never mind the Canyon of Heroes; he's now 2-12 in the conference semis in Atlanta and New York. It was no accident that Chandler said everyone around the Knicks had to improve, "including the coaches," or that Shumpert felt compelled to indict Woodson's offense as one full of "dead possessions" in which the players "don't really have any cohesiveness."
The coach has a ways to go, and so does his roster. Grunwald can't swing and miss on the three-million-plus midlevel exception this time like he did on Kidd last time, and the Knicks can't make the mistake of believing that Chandler will get better by hitting the weight room and that Stoudemire merely needs a few more classroom sessions with Hakeem Olajuwon.
"I think we can be creative," Grunwald said Tuesday in a break from his stay-the-course bunk. The Knicks had better get creative, or they'd better get busy praying Iman Shumpert explodes onto the scene next season the way Paul George did in Indiana this season.
Carmelo Anthony needs another star. He doesn't need a couple of 50-something men telling him a little time will heal this wound.
Without help for Melo, the aging Knicks are doomed to further failure.