A few years ago, I was working in Washington, D.C., when a slight ice/snow storm hit the area. My usual 40-minute commute took three hours as all of my efforts to find a slightly shorter way home resulted in even more delays. When I described the commute to one of my co-workers the next day, he responded with angst. He said, “Oh no, I don’t sit in traffic. I blow my horn and try to move people out of my way. I’m that guy,” he noted while pointing to himself with his thumbs. My immediate thought (which did not reach my lips) was, “Oh, you’re that a-hole.” I have a feeling that we are going to be saying similar things a lot over the next few years about Laker and Knick fans.
The two franchises are now connected not only by their downward trajectories but the presence of Phil Jackson. Both teams also showed off their current basketball prowess last week as the woeful Lakers scored 51 points in the third quarter to beat the Knicks, who were grasping to slim playoff hopes. Other than Jackson, the teams are both led by scorers who don’t necessarily make their teammates better. This will likely be the first year that Carmelo Anthony has missed the playoffs in his career. He is a top five scorer in the league, but it is hard to say that what he does makes his teammate better (unlike someone like LeBron James).
Then there is Kobe Bryant. He has had a spectacular career with five championships and two scoring titles. I thought it was telling that Bryant took the largest two-year contract extension that he could worth $50 million over the next two seasons. A Laker fan recently told me that the Lakers owed him that money, but a smart franchise would not pay an aging superstar so much if they were intent on winning. And said superstar might take a relative pay cut if he were really interested in helping the team win. According to Basketball Reference, Bryant has made over $275 million in his 17-year career, but he still needs his respect!
While the Lakers have never been quite as terrible as they have been this season (by winning percentage this is their worst year since moving to Los Angeles in 1960), they have shown a remarkable ability to rebuild quickly as the one prime destination for free agents. From Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (who forced a trade out of Milwaukee) to Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal (who left Orlando as a free agent) to Kobe and Pau Gasol (who was traded as a salary cap chip, even if the trade netted the Grizzlies Marc Gasol), Los Angeles has had three long stints as champions and champion contenders. However, it seems hard to believe that they will be able to rebuild into championship contenders again quickly.
After this season, they will have plenty of cap space, but will that be enough to lure big-name free agents to southern California? My guess is no. If you were a good, young player, would you want to play with a megalomaniac like Kobe as he ages and likely does what Michael Jordan did for the Washington Wizards? (No, nothing as damaging as drafting Kwame Brown first.) The prime candidate could be Kevin Love who played his lone college season for UCLA. As good as Love is, he has never been in the playoffs. The Lakers do have their first pick and should get a top five player, but as I’ve mentioned before I don’t think there are any transformational players in this draft. Los Angeles may need to break it down 76er style and rebuild slowly and patiently. I don’t see that happening because the Lakers have become accustomed to a certain level of excellence, but they could quickly turn into the other team that I’d like to discuss this week.
The Knicks have not been a championship contender since Patrick Ewing left after the 1999-2000 season. Yet, they have tried to put things together quickly time after time. From Larry Brown to Isiah Thomas to Donnie Walsh to Mike D’Antoni, no one could bring the Knicks very far. Last year, they raised hopes by opening the season on an unsustainable run of 3-point shooting (ahem, Portland Trail Blazers, I may be talking to you about this next year.) Now, Jackson has joined the squad to bring basketball mysticism and the triangle to Madison Square Garden. The Knicks have no salary cap room through 2015 (the dynamic quartet of Anthony, Amar’e Stoudemire, Tyson Chandler, and Andrea Bargnani are set to make more than $73 million next year) and no draft pick this year. How is Phil going to fix this? Like Larry, Isiah, Donnie, and Mike before him, I don’t think he can.
This is a pretty dour report to digest for Knick and Laker fans. Will the NBA be able to survive with losers in two of its biggest markets? That is the type of question that drives my dad crazy (much like people who mention whether two teams from smaller markets will be able to draw eyeballs in the NBA finals: “San Antonio and Indiana? That would be the end of the NBA!”) I think it is a pretty stupid point as well. If ever there were a league that could survive (and even profit) from a match up of Miami and Oklahoma City, it would be the NBA. While I don’t think tanking is the answer, people in New York and Los Angeles had better get used to mediocre results (or else jump ship to the Nets or Clippers). Or maybe LeBron will go to the Lakers and the Knicks will somehow be able to trade Bargnani and Stoudemire for Durant and Westbrook. No, those things won’t happen, and neither the Lakers nor the Knicks will win any time soon.