Sunday, November 29, 2009

The State of New York Basketball

Once upon a time, New York could be incredibly proud of the basketball played in the 5 boroughs. Its local college basketball team powerhouse, St. John's were a yearly lock for the NCAA Tournament and its players were often 1st round draft picks for NBA teams. And New York's pro team—the big, bad Knicks, headed, yearly to epic, and often brutal, playoff series. Both teams filled Madison Square Garden each night with devoted, and very loud, fans.

Those days are long gone.

All that's left nowadays for basketball in the New York City area are pale, boring mediocre imitations of those great teams of the past. They wear the same uniforms, but they are an embarrassment to New York's former basketball glory.

The New York Knicks
Back in the 80s and 90s, even when Jordan's Bulls were winning championships, the team nobody wanted to go play—in their house, Madison Square Garden—were the tough and ornery Knicks. With the core of Charles Oakley, Anthony "Mase in your Face" Mason, John Starks and The E-Wing, Patrick Ewing, the Knicks were blue-collar to the bone, tough and scary.

And it showed, with consistent winning and two Championship series. And while they lost those Championship series, the Knicks won a lot more than they lost overall. And it wasn't just that the Knicks won; it was how they won. With tough, often brutal defense and scrappy guard play, the Knicks played a brand of basketball reviled by the rest of the league as thuggish and ugly, but that New York cherished.

And it worked. Starting in the 1988-89 season, the Knicks finished no worse than 3rd and made the playoffs every year through the 2000-01 season, averaging over 50 wins a year.

Since 2000-2001, however, the Knicks have made the playoffs only once, and have not one a single playoff game. This despite consistently having one of—if not the—highest payroll in the NBA.

The once proud franchise, in recent years is a sad joke, where soap opera scandals mixed with apathetic, if not downright terrible, play have provided fans with absolutely no reason to get even remotely excited.

While there are a variety of reasons for the Knicks drastic downfall, the main reason is mismanagement. For example, since the late 80s, the Knicks drafting has been, well, God-awful isn't a big enough word. Jerrod Mustaf, Fredric Weis and Michael Sweetney are just some of the "talent" the Knicks have taken in the 1st round of the draft. Also, in 1996, the Knicks had the 18th, 19th and 21st pick in the draft. Instead of using the picks to trade up or indeed, select a core for their future, the Knicks picked John Wallace, Walter McCarty, and Dontae’ Jones. With the 20th pick, the Cavaliers picked Zydrunas Ilgauskas. With the 22nd pick the Grizzlies picked Roy Rodgers. The Lakers, with the 24th pick, selected point guard Derek Fisher.

Poor draft is by no means the entirety of the Knicks mismanagement. Consistently terrible trades have both sapped talent, and clogged the Knicks' roster can cap. For instance, instead of keeping Patrick Ewing for one more year, then getting gaining a huge amount of cap space once his contract ran out, the Knicks traded him for Glen Rice and his longer contract. Rice averaged 12 ppg for the Knicks and lasted one season.

The Knicks then decided to take bad situation and make it worse, by trading Glen Rice for the nondescript but exorbitantly paid (6 years, 41 million dollars), Shandon Anderson, who also came with the Who Dat? point guard, Howard Eisley. For his gargantuan contract, Anderson average 5 ppg for the Knicks, Eisley 4 ppg.

In 2002, the Knicks trade the number 7 pick in the draft (with which they could have drafted Amare Stoudemire), as well as Marcus Camby and Mark Jackson for the broken, but highly paid, Antonio McDyess. McDyess played 18 games for the Knicks averaging 8 ppg before he blew out his bad knee again. The Knicks then were duped into trading McDyess—which should have been a good thing—for Stephon Marbury. Marbury was not only a shell of his former dominant self; he was also a team cancer. The most "reviled athlete in New York"—by fans as well as his own organization—Marbury was ultimately banned from the Knicks for a variety of destructive acts. Oh, and to get Marbury, the Knicks not only gave up McDyess, they also gave up 2 number 1 picks, including the 2010 number 1, meaning the Knicks are still paying for that trade.

There were other mistakes by the Knicks, often expensive ones, including Eddy Curry, Keith Van Horn, Jerome James—to say nothing of the Isaiah Thomas disaster. But the result all of this is that a once-proud franchise—once the lifeblood of New York sports, and a veritable religion in the New York City region—are now an embarrassment of an organization. An embarrassment praying for a superstar to sign with them next summer, and save them, mostly from themselves

Question: Why would he? Aside from David Lee, and maybe someday, Danio Gallardi (maybe?), the roster is filled with retreads, nitwits and filler. As of this writing, the Knicks are 3-13; the Cavaliers are 11-5 and have a real chance to win it all. If you were LeBron, who would you sign with?

Hope, it would seem, is not really hope, but an unlikely prayer.

St. John's Red Storm
The St. John's men’s basketball team, at one time, was one of the most winningest franchises in the NCAA—up there with Kentucky and North Carolina—in number of wins. It's true. And it wasn't that long ago.

Times, however, have changed. Drastically.

From 1976 through 1993, the Red Men missed the NCAA tournament a total of two times. Since then, from the time Hall of Fame coach, Lou Carnasecca, retired in 1992, St. John's have only made it a total of 5 times. They have not made the Tournament since 2002.

It wasn't too long ago that St. John's basketball provided the NBA with a steady stream of talent. Starting with Chris Mullin and Bill Wennington going in the first 15 picks of the 1985 draft, the Red Men (later the more p.c. Red Storm) put a huge number of players into the NBA, including NCAA Player of the Year, Walter Berry, Ron Artest, Mark Jackson, Jayson Williams and Malik Sealy, to name just a few. However, since 2001, not one St. John's player has been taken in any round of the draft—by far the worst 8-year period of St. John's basketball.

The consistently mediocre play of St. John's, dating back to the retirement of former coach, Lou Carnesecca has reduced St. John's to scrambling all over America for recruiting. It used to be that St. John's would rarely have to leave the basketball talent-rich New York City area for their recruits—the 5 boroughs was St. John's personal backyard and recruiting ground. Nowadays, the city's best players, however, all leave for programs that reliably make it to the NCAA tournament like UConn, Pittsburgh, Villanova, among others.  Once upon a time, guys like Charlie Villanueva, Joakim Noah, Jamaal Tinsley, Stephon Marbury and Elton Brand—all New York City kids—would have played for St. John's. However, of late, St. John's recruits, are either lesser NYC recruits, or come from outside New York City.

Indeed, as Marc Jacobsen wrote in 2005, in New York Magazine, covering a Pitt Panther-St. John Red Storm game, half the Pitt Panther team, 21st in the nation came from the New York region. Last year, the Pitt Panthers made the Elite Eight in the NCAA Tournament—2 of their starters were from the New York City region.

On the other hand, the aforementioned Mullin, Sealy, Williams, Jackson and Artest were all from the New York City area, and while Wennington wasn't born in New York, he played his high school ball in Long Island. Their success showed local high school kids that St. John's was a verifiable conduit to the NBA.

Like the Knicks, poor coaching, mismanagement and arrogance were the main culprits leading to St. Johns' fall. Carnasecca's successor, Brian Mahoney was a nice guy, but a poor choice as head coach, steadily sinking the program in his 4 year coaching reign. Too laid back for the job, Mahoney was the first coach to go under .500 in win percentage at St. John's since Ed Kelleher's one-year reign in 1921-1922.

His successor, Mike Jarvis, among other things, was one of the worst recruiters in Big East memory, single-handedly damaging St. John's influence in New York City, possibly permanently. One New York City high school coach commented on Jarvis' recruiting:
“Everyone knows St. John’s lives off getting the local kid who wants to stay home. Everyone except this guy. He was from out of town. He didn’t understand New York. He’s got the biggest pool of players in the world and says he doesn’t get out into the gyms, to the camps.... I’d tell him about a player and he’d either blow me off or not show up.”
Combine that with his general arrogance and poor demeanor with the public—as well as his constant, and very public, complaining against the university he worked for, and you have a marriage that failed miserably. And along with Jarvis' failure, St. John's had a number of player-related scandals, the smallest (by far) and decreasing fan base in the Big East, and facilities that were comically outdated and not renovated up until about 2005. Add all that up and you have a perfect recipe for a flailing program. And a steady slide for St. John's from national prominence.

The Future of New York Basketball
Madison Square Garden, the home of the St. John's Red Storm and the New York Knicks, calls itself the "Mecca of basketball" and it was once true. The 1980s-90s Chicago Bull-New York Knick wars were required watching for anyone with a pulse in the NYC area. The mid 80s Georgetown-St. John games with Chris Mullin, Mark Jackson, Patrick Ewing and Reggie Williams were some of the best college basketball games ever played at the Garden—which is saying something.

However, it hasn't been a Mecca for any type of basketball for a long time now. Anthony Mason, former Knick and father of a Red Storm player told his son how the Garden used to rock like no other place in basketball. Nowadays on game day he was quoted as saying that arena felt like "...a bingo game with everyone dead."

Both teams, to get back to the road to respectability, need to get an identity. For a long time now, the Knicks have been a bloated morass of bad ideas and large contracts. If a miracle occurs and Lebron comes to New York, it would be a start of a direction for the Knicks. But the Knicks still need a core base—a base group of players on which to build a foundation. Right now, for instance, the Cavaliers have built a core of young veterans—upper echelon role players—who complement LeBron James. Guys like Mo Williams, Delonte West and Anderson Varejao, not stars, but guys any team would be happy to have. The Knicks' roster has nothing like them.

And the same could be said of Saint John's. For years, the identity of St. John's basketball dressed in Cosby-esque sweaters and coached smart basketball. Lou Carnasecca was the core, lifeblood and identity of the program. Since his retirement though, the Red Storm organization have been floundering, leaderless—with program course corrections, underachievement and scandal—and with seemingly no one in charge to address these issues. Until they can get a face to the program, and a strong hand—a Mike Krzyzewski, Tom Izzo, Jay Wright, Mark Few, Gary Williams—somebody with whom the buck stops and who has a vision for the program, they will flounder and the program will move in fits and starts.

Hopefully, the Knicks have taken that step. In hiring GM, and New York basketball lifer, Donnie Walsh, the hope is that the Knicks have someone in control that is not just competent—which would be a step up—but who has a vision. Walsh is widely regarded as shrewd and with a good eye for talent. They will need it.

Like the Red Storm, the Knicks have a long way to go. It is a long way back to not only respectability, but to the level of basketball New York expects.

1 comment:

Travis said...

Well look on the bright side, you might be getting the Nets. Oh wait...