The New York Knicks broke camp at the College of Charleston this week with more questions than answers; none bigger than the obvious: Can this team really be worth $195 million?
That's the combined bill -- for the new coach Larry Brown ($10 million), the players (about $125 million) and the estimated luxury tax penalty (about $60 million) -- that Madison Square Garden Chairman James L. Dolan will dole out for a team that won't contend for an NBA championship this season and might not make the playoffs.
The Knicks won just 33 games last season, continuing the team's worst four-year run since that miserable period from 1985 to 1988 when it won just 33 percent of its games. "In New York, that's not going to cut it," Knicks guard Jamal Crawford said recently.
In the past five months, Knicks President of Basketball Operations Isiah Thomas has aggressively tried to change the fortunes of the Knicks' misguided fortune with another expensive incarnation. Thomas hired Brown in July to what is believed to be the largest contract for a coach in professional sports history (a reported four years at $40 million). He traded for center Eddy Curry, swingman Quentin Richardson, guard Nate Robinson and veteran forward Antonio Davis. He drafted big men Channing Frye and David Lee and signed free agent center Jerome James to a $30 million contract.
Only five players remain from last season's 15-man roster, with guards Stephon Marbury and Crawford the last remaining starters. And what can the Knicks expect for all of this change? "To get better and have a better year than we had last year," Thomas said. "It's that simple."
Thomas made his shrewdest move this summer by waiting out Brown's ugly divorce with the Detroit Pistons before deciding on a coach. The Pistons, having grown weary of Brown's flirtations with other teams and his uncertain health following hip surgery last season, bought out Brown after he led them to back-to-back trips to the NBA Finals and one championship. Thomas wasted little time in luring Brown to the team Brown rooted for as a kid, signing him less than 10 days later. "I never thought that it would happen," Thomas said. "Fortunately for us, it did."
Brown provides "confidence and credibility" for the Knicks, Thomas said. The Knicks are the 12th team in Brown's coaching parade and he claims this is his final stopover.
Brown has been an extreme makeover artist with nearly all of his teams, once piloting the lowly Los Angeles Clippers to the postseason. In Detroit, however, Brown was finally given the job as closer after team president Joe Dumars handed Brown a ready-made contender -- then added Rasheed Wallace to put the Pistons over the top.
The Knicks, one of just two teams in the league with a payroll of more than $100 million [Dallas is the other], are trying to go to the postseason for just the second time in five seasons. "I'm looking forward to this challenge," Brown said. "I love Isiah. I know this is kind of an uphill battle, but . . . I think if you ever do a good job in New York City, I think it could really help our game because there is such attention given to our sport in that area. Knowing it could help our sport, it makes me feel good."
Brown would feel better, but he acknowledged last week that he is still carrying baggage from Detroit. "I don't know if I've recovered from what happened this summer yet," Brown said. "I'm trying to move on. I'm trying to realize the two years I had, the last two years were such a blessing that if I didn't do anything again I would've been fulfilled, just to know I had the opportunity to coach that Detroit team."
Brown described his first day of training camp with the Knicks as "scary" because he knew his reputation as one of the game's greatest teachers preceded him. "Their expectations, obviously, were pretty high hearing about me. I didn't want to say all of a sudden, 'I fooled you, I'm a fraud.' "
While trying to adjust from a savvy, veteran team to the youngest team he has coached in years -- 11 players on the roster are age 25 or younger -- Brown has been asked to teach more than he has in recent years. But he has found a group ("like a college team," he says) that is receptive to his criticism and knowledge.
"We have so many different personalities and so many talents, but Coach Brown is the straw that stirs the drink," Crawford said. "Coach Brown has proven he can win on every level. So with him, I think everybody will come together very well. I think we can give people some problems." Brown, 65, said the health concerns that forced him to miss 17 games last season and to visit the Mayo Clinic last June shouldn't keep him from coaching the entire 82-game season.
The Knicks will closely monitor Brown and Curry, whose refusal to take a DNA test after an irregular heartbeat caused him to miss the final 19 games of last season. This forced the Chicago Bulls to move him and forced the Knicks to explain why they would assume the risk (and give him a $60 million contract).
Bulls General Manager John Paxson feared Curry, 22, had hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a potentially fatal heart disease. The Knicks' team of specialists and a cardiologist hired by the league cleared Curry to play. "I couldn't find where a person said Eddy was afflicted with this disease. No one ever said that," Thomas said. "So, we shouldn't keep attaching a label to him or giving him a condition that he doesn't have."
Thomas felt that Curry's potential was too much to pass up. Curry provides the Knicks with their best low-post presence since Patrick Ewing and has placed Thomas in a position where he can relax, somewhat, and watch this team develop. With Curry, Marbury, Crawford, Richardson, Robinson, Frye and Lee, Thomas said he has the young, athletic core that he has been trying to assemble since he replaced Scott Layden in December 2003.
It has taken Thomas nearly 20 months, eight major trades, 25 former players and three coaches (Don Chaney, Lenny Wilkens and Herb Williams) to get to this point. The downside, however, is that Thomas has absorbed bloated contracts in exchange for huge ones and the Knicks' payroll has ballooned almost $30 million since "Trader Zeek" took over in December of 2003. That didn't keep Marbury from proudly proclaiming last week, "I think Isiah's a genius!"
Davis, also acquired in the trade with the Bulls, came to training camp long enough only for a short dinner meeting to express his displeasure about being traded. Then he returned to Chicago to be with his ailing mother-in-law. The Knicks could buy out his $14 million contract. Allan Houston, 34, the Knicks' last link to the 1999 team that advanced to the NBA Finals, has yet to recover from a nagging right knee injury that has robbed him of most of the past two seasons.
Although veterans Davis and Houston may not contribute to the Knicks this season, Thomas is excited about the future of the team. "I'm very pleased with where we are right now. We've got one of the greatest teachers in the game teaching them while they're so young, so that as they continue to grow older they can have their mark in the league," Thomas said. "I finally feel like right now, we've got our head above water and we have the type of personnel in place and we can go ahead and start building from here."
And should the Knicks struggle, they shouldn't have any trouble patching up the problems with more dough.