BBR Mailbag: ’90s Knicks
It’s time for a very special edition of the Mailbag, since the questions come from my colleague Chase Stuart of the PFR Blog:
My memories of the ’90s Knicks is that they were a very good team that always just came up short. They were a defensive powerhouse. They probably should have won a championship or two.
But hey, I was a teenager who knew nothing about objective sports analysis. So I’m curious what an objective, intelligent view of those old Knicks would tell me. Maybe you can get a blog post out of this. But I’m thinking…
• How awesome was the Knicks D back then? It seemed to be pretty awesome in the postseason, too. I recall Miami being the A- defense to the Knicks having the A defense. Did the NYK actually have the #1 D? Where does their best D rank historically?
• How awesome was Ewing? Defensively and overall?
• Should the Knicks have won a championship in the ’90s? Were they ever the best team?
• Were any of the role players actually any good? Starks, Mason, Oakley, Ward, Childs, X-Man, etc. They all seemed like a bunch of gritty guys; they almost sound like the ’01 Patriots as I think back on them.
• Any other thoughts you can think of?
Okay Chase, let’s talk the 1990s Knicks…
In retrospect, the seeds for the team we think of as the “90s Knicks” were planted in 1989, after Rick Pitino departed as coach despite a relatively-successful year that saw NY win 50 games for the first time since 1981. Pitino was embroiled in a power struggle with then-GM Al Bianchi, and he was miserable; when the University of Kentucky inquired about his availability after the 1989 season, he promptly jumped ship, leading Bianchi to hire Stu Jackson as a coach more in sync with his own basketball philosophy. But the Pitino Affair (no, not that one) would prove to be the death knell for Bianchi as New York’s GM — while Pitino flourished in the Bluegrass State, the Knicks regressed under Jackson in 1990 and were 7-8 at the start of the ’91 season when Bianchi fired “his guy”, replacing Jackson with former Suns coach John MacLeod. With a month left in the disappointing 39-43 campaign, Bianchi was axed and former NBA exec Dave Checketts was brought on board as club President.
Checketts immediately took the reins of the directionless Knicks and put his own stamp on the franchise, promoting Ernie Grunfeld to VP of Player Personnel and making the offseason’s biggest splash when he wooed former Lakers coach Pat Riley away from the broadcast booth to coach his team in the Garden. Unlike the acrimonious Pitino-Bianchi dynamic, the Checketts-Grunfeld-Riley seemed to be on the same page, at least philosophically: Patrick Ewing was going to be the cornerstone of their team, and everything else would be dictated by that organizational goal.
Of course, this meant embracing a half-court-oriented game plan with defense as the primary emphasis. Ewing was a good offensive player capable of shouldering a superstar’s load of the scoring responsibility, but he was not the transcendent talent Michael Jordan was in Chicago (few — if any — centers have ever been close), nor was he even as gifted an offensive threat as an aging Kareem Abdul-Jabbar had been for Riley in L.A. But what Ewing was was a magnificent defender, capable of dominating a game at that end of the floor. Some coaches try to force their system no matter what, but Riley was shrewd, and saw that if the Knicks as constructed in 1991 were going to contend, it was going to be via a slow-down, grind-it-out game.
With that in mind, Checketts acquired undersized-but-tough forwards Anthony Mason and Xavier McDaniel before the ’92 season, and Riley began implementing his vision to slow the game down to a snail’s pace and take the mantle of “League’s Toughest Team” from the Bad Boy Pistons. In 91-92, the Knicks had the 3rd-slowest pace factor in the NBA and the 2nd-best defense, as Riley had transformed New York from a sub-.500 team into the league’s 7th-best by SRS. After beating the Pistons at their own game in one of the most physical series of the early part of the decade, the Knicks came within a game of knocking off the defending champion Bulls in a brutal 7-game slugfest. By holding Detroit and Chicago to a combined 104.6 Offensive Rating, the lowest among playoff teams, Riley had sent a message: the Knicks were going to be a tough out every spring.
True to form, NY returned in 1993 even tougher, winning 60 games and posting the league’s 5th-best SRS on the strength of its #1 defense. In fact, their 99.7 DRtg was more than 5 points lower than that of the 2nd-best defense, the Sonics, and 8.3 points better than the league average; since DRtg became possible to calculate in 1974, only the 2004 Spurs and 2008 Celtics have outdefended the league average by that large a margin. In the playoffs the Knicks muscled past Indiana & Charlotte to find the Bulls waiting for them again, but again they were unable to shake the defending champs, this time despite staking themselves to a 2-0 series lead.
But Michael Jordan’s retirement prior to the 1994 season made the Knicks feel confident about their chances to finally get over the hump. Again, they were one of the league’s slowest teams, again Ewing was the league’s best defensive player (despite Hakeem Olajuwon winning DPOY), and again the Knicks were one of the league’s toughest outs come playoff time. Breaking Chicago’s hold over them with a 7-game triumph over the Bulls in the East Semis, they survived Indiana’s onslaught in the ECF thanks to a dominant Ewing, and were favored to win the Finals over Olajuwon’s Rockets.
But instead of winning the franchise’s first title since 1973, the Knicks failed to capitalize on a 3-2 Finals lead and ultimately lost Games 6 & 7 on the road, giving Houston the championship. The drama intensified that fall, with Checketts and Riley unable to work out a contract extension before the coach’s walk year. On the court, the Knicks appeared to have peaked in 1994, as they slipped to 10th in SRS in 1995 (despite the #1 defense) and were unable to capitalize on the effects of Jordan’s ongoing absence and subsequent rust on the archrival Bulls. Again the Pacers pushed New York to a 7th game in the playoffs, but this time Reggie Miller (who scored 8 points in 8.9 seconds to win Game 1 of the series) and Indiana outlasted the Knicks, ending their season.
The loss also ended the Riley era in New York. His feud with Checketts finally boiled over when the coach learned the team never intended to give him complete control of basketball operations. Riley tendered his resignation in May, and the messy Riley-Checketts rift was marked by a tampering controversy with Miami after the division-rival Heat scooped up Riley to be their coach — New York accused Miami of pursuing Riley while he was still under contract to New York, and the two teams eventually settled un-amicably with the Heat compensating the Knicks with a 1st-round pick and cash. Little did either side know that this would be just the opening salvo in a war that would continue for years.
To replace Riley, Checketts and Grunfeld went after Don Nelson, who had “retired” from Golden State with a 14-31 record midway through the 1995 season amidst a controversial feud with his players, notably Chris Webber. But the Nelson era in New York was ill-conceived from the start, as he tried to force his up-tempo gameplan on a Knicks team built for half-court grinding under Riley. Clashing with the brain trust about Ewing’s future with the club, Nelson had to be fired by Checketts just 59 games into his tenure as Knicks coach. Steady Jeff Van Gundy, who astonishingly weathered 7 chaotic seasons as an assistant coach under Jackson, MacLeod, Riley, and Nelson, was named interim coach for the remainder of the season. Van Gundy re-installed some of Riley’s old defensive principles, leading the Knicks to a sweep of the Cavs in the playoffs before bowing out to the juggernaut Bulls, and Checketts was impressed enough to retain JVG as New York’s official coach going forward.
This proved to be a good decision. Van Gundy led the Knicks to 57 wins in his first full season as a head coach, re-shaping the Knicks into an elite defense (2nd in the NBA behind, you guessed it, Miami) and a tough-minded team around Ewing. But not all was well in New York: before the season, Grunfeld sent Mason to Charlotte for 20 PPG scorer Larry Johnson in an attempt to bolster their offense, but Grandmama was a shell of his former self and the Knicks’ inability to score was exposed by the Heat’s dominating defense in a grueling 7-game playoff defeat. Despite that, Grunfeld pressed on into 1998 with the same core intact, believing Johnson, John Starks, & Allan Houston would provide just enough offense for the Knicks’ defense to make them contenders. During the regular season, this plan backfired as Ewing was injured and New York fell to their worst record since before the Riley era. Though Grunfeld was partially vindicated with a 1st-round win over their bitter rivals, the Heat, New York couldn’t hang with the Pacers in the 2nd round, and something clearly had to be done to inject life into an aging, fading team.
Thus, Checketts and Grunfeld made the biggest gamble of their careers, bringing in embattled SG Latrell Sprewell, who had missed most of 97-98 after infamously choking then-Warriors coach P.J. Carlesimo. Public sentiment at the time was very much against Sprewell, who was probably neck and neck with Mike Tyson and Albert Belle in the race for America’s Most Hated Athlete in 1998, and that spilled over to the Knicks for being the first team to take a chance on Spree after his suspension. When the lockout ended and play resumed, the Knicks looked better on paper, having added Sprewell and traded Charles Oakley for Marcus Camby… but it didn’t translate much on the court, as NY struggled to find a rhythm and sputtered to a 21-21 mark with 8 games left in the shortened season. Someone had to fall on their sword for the team’s performance, and Checketts chose Grunfeld over Van Gundy to avoid a locker-room revolt.
But the Knicks responded by winning 6 of their final 8 to make the playoffs as the 8th seed in the East. And in the playoffs, they outlasted Riley & Miami again despite a hobbled Ewing, then swept the Hawks, and beat Indiana in the ECF even after losing Ewing for the playoffs. The Cinderella run ended vs. San Antonio in the Finals, but the 1990s Knicks had once again rescued themselves from the spectre of rebuilding and had extended their run to 12 straight playoff appearances, 3rd only to the Blazers and Jazz among active postseason streaks.
Building on the momentum from the ’99 playoffs, the 2000 Knicks were resurgent, winning 50 games and again advancing to the Conference Finals after outdueling the Heat in a hard-fought series. But against the Pacers, the Knicks once again fell short, unable to win on the road and unable to account for Reggie Miller, who scored 34 in the series-clincher.
The Ewing era would end several months later, as GM Scott Layden shipped him to Seattle for a washed-up Glen Rice and little else. And while the 2001 Knicks would win 48 games, they were upset by the Raptors in the 1st round of the playoffs. A week after their ouster, Checketts resigned as MSG President, turning over the reins to James L. Dolan. The rest, as they say, is history.
Just as the story of the ’90s Knicks started roughly the day Checketts took over the team in 1991, it ended the day he left in 2001. Layden had already lavished a five-year, $61.9 million contract extension on the overrated Sprewell prior to the ’01 campaign, and after it he gave a similar (but even more devastating) 6-year, $100M guaranteed contract to the equally overrated Allan Houston. The team’s success had left them with a decade’s worth of low draft picks, and when they did have a lottery pick in 1999, interim GM Ed Tapscott selected human hurdle Frederic Weis. The core that had made the 1990s Knicks so strong was crumbling, and Van Gundy’s departure 19 games into the 2002 season represented its final collapse. Under the guidance of Layden, Dolan, and Isiah Thomas, the Knicks became the laughingstock of the pro sports world, a team that got less bang for its considerable buck than perhaps any in the history of the NBA. Only now are the Knicks finally forming a plan to emerge from the post-Checketts era, and even it’s a hail mary at this point.
The 1990s Knicks were a very good team, legitimately great on defense, and were perhaps the league’s best in 1993-94 (they should have won after being up 3-2, but they squandered the Finals away). Riley was a fantastic coach who was willing to adapt his methods to his personnel, and he molded them into an amazing defensive machine. Even after he left, Van Gundy was able to maintain a strong defensive identity in New York, partly because Ewing was one of the best defenders of his generation. The brain trust did a very good job of identifying the types of players who would be good fits on the team and went after them, especially early in the run when they snagged McDaniel, Mason, Derek Harper, etc. They weren’t as good at developing an offense, though — the Knicks consistently were a below-average offensive team because they relied on Ewing (not a superstar-caliber offensive option) and a collection of inefficient chuckers (Starks, Houston, Sprewell, etc.) to propel the scoring effort.
As far as role players go, Oakley and Ward were really good glue guys; Childs, not so much, he was eventually pretty overpaid for what he brought to the table. But all of their supporting cast members had one thing in common — they were really gritty, defensive-minded guys who did their jobs well and fought hard; combined with the influence of Pat Riley (their Belichick?), I can see the analogy between the Knicks and the Patriots, especially the ’03 and ’04 versions that everybody knew were one of the league’s best teams. Which I suppose makes Patrick Ewing Tom Brady? Perhaps the reason the analogy breaks down there is the reason the Patriots won and the Knicks didn’t — Ewing didn’t seem to have the personality for leadership or the steely nerves that Brady does. Of course, if John Starks doesn’t miss an absurd number of shots in Game 7 of the ’94 Finals, we may see Ewing’s career in an entirely different light.
In short, the Knicks had one of the league’s best runs of sustained “goodness” during the Checketts era, and although they didn’t win a championship, they would probably have at least one in an alternate universe where Michael Jordan played baseball from the start. So in a way, it’s fitting that Ewing as a player essentially defines that team — they were never the most dominant force in the league, but they were consistently among the best, and they hung around for a long time, giving their fans a lot of great memories. In a game like this, there are definitely worse legacies to have.