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To Fix The Knicks

Can Ernie Grunfeld Bring an NBA Championship back to New York?
Kenneth Shouler
From the Print Edition:
Demi Moore, Autumn 96

(continued from page 5)

The NBA reached its zenith with the flourishing of team basketball ushered in by Bird and Johnson and modified of late by Jordan. This threesome prized team success first; the trappings of success--money, glory and commercials aplenty--arrived later. What must they think of the new breed, these agent-driven slackers who have the world handed to them before making the All-Star team or playing in a single NBA playoff game?

Grunfeld has more to worry about these days than players' behavior. He righted the Knicks' drifting ship last March by firing coach Don Nelson and hiring Van Gundy. "Nelson was regarded as one of the best coaches in the league for many, many years. Two years ago he coached Dream Team II [the NBA all-star contingent that won the world championship in Toronto], so obviously he was held in very high regard in the basketball industry," Grunfeld says, explaining his original choice of Nelson. "It was unfortunate that it just didn't work out. The players were not responding to him. We were sort of in a downward spiral and I felt a change had to be made in order to give ourselves a chance to be competitive toward the end of the season. We're a proud organization, a proud bunch. We pride ourselves on defense and rebounding. Those are our strengths. We got away from that and lost our identity and our work ethic. A lot of people will say, 'You play like you practice,' and you know different coaches have different philosophies. Unfortunately, what Nellie thought was the right thing for this team wasn't working."

Prior to the playoffs, moves were made to upgrade the Knicks. A major move, in early February, was Grunfeld's prudent trade of Charles Smith, a favorite whipping boy of Garden fans, who believed he was impersonating a shrinking violet trapped in a 6-foot-10-inch body. Most of the time they were right. Sending him to the San Antonio Spurs (with Monty Williams) rid the Knicks of Smith's 39 percent shooting percentage (lowest among the team's regulars last season) and prohibitive salary and brought over forwards J.R. Reid and Brad Lohaus last February. Ten days later, Grunfeld unloaded guard Doug Christie and center Herb Williams to the Toronto Raptors for guard/small forward Willie Anderson and forward/center Victor Alexander. The Knicks subsequently re-signed Williams (he was waived by Toronto) and waived Alexander. The Knicks renounced their rights to Anderson and Reid on July 14.

The moves gave the Knicks nearly $10 million to maneuver with under the cap, money that they were hoping could be used to acquire one or two top-shelf free agents. It wasn't an accident that Grunfeld was named Knicks president on Feb. 23, five days after the second deal. When asked what he thought of Trader Ernie's deals, Garden president Dave Checketts dubbed them "miraculous."

In June the Knicks used their 18th, 19th and 21st draft picks on three forwards. With pick 18 they snatched 6-foot-8 Syracuse forward John Wallace. They also used picks 19 and 21 on forwards, getting 6-10 Walter McCarty of Kentucky and 6-7 Dontae' Jones of Mississippi State. All are athletic, all come from winning college programs and all can score. Few analysts expected that the Knicks would get such talent with late picks.

Grunfeld was also pleased. "We had three picks and we never thought a player like John Wallace would slip to us. All of them are athletic players, good scorers and very versatile players. They can all play more than one position. They all have good size." By themselves, however, they were not the solution to the Knicks' championship quest. And Grunfeld and Checketts knew it.

In an effort to further bolster the team, the Knicks in July signed free-agent guards Allan Houston and Chris Childs and obtained forward Larry Johnson in a trade that sent forward Anthony Mason and Lohaus to the Charlotte Hornets. Houston, 25, addresses the Knicks' perimeter shooting needs and gives them another three-point shooter; last year he averaged 19.7 points per game for the Pistons. Childs, 28, will play point guard for the Knicks after two seasons with the New Jersey Nets. Johnson, 27, is expected to play small forward. In one fell swoop the Knicks likely replaced three-fifths of their old starting lineup.

How will Ewing mesh with these new players? "I think the addition of these players will help the entire team," says Grunfeld. "Everybody can score and opponents won't be able to double-team any one player." Hubie Brown was also impressed. "So far, New York has probably done the best job of revamping themselves with the trade, the free-agent signing and the three drafts picks," says TNT's resident professor of hoops.

Even so, there will still be major question marks. Michael Jordan is 33, and his indefatigable, ultra-competitive self should be around to haunt NBA teams until 2000. Another hill to be climbed is Orlando, a younger team with one of the best players in the league in Anfernee Hardaway.

So Grunfeld and Dave Checketts have their hands full, trying to devise a way to beat the Bulls and the greatest player that ever laced up sneakers.

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