NEW YORK – As New York Knicks owner James Dolan watched courtside, here’s how he had to always imagine LeBron James introducing himself to playoff basketball at Madison Square Garden: Game on the line, and the greatness rising in the final minutes, spectacular shots and fantastic finishes. Oh, how the Knicks had come to believe it would be for them. For all the arrogance that they could dazzle James into signing as a free agent two years ago, it turned out they never had a chance.
James had a willingness to take less than the maximum contract, in less than a marquee market, for the easiest path to multiple championships. James never considered the Knicks, and left them destined to construct a contender around Carmelo Anthony. For Dolan and James, the race is clear. Do the Knicks win a playoff game before James wins his championship?
The end of this inevitable Eastern Conference playoff sweep on Sunday promises the beginning of a most inevitable pursuit: Dolan chasing his next savior, Phil Jackson. Along the way, Dolan ought to forget selling Jackson on his New York Knicks nostalgia and sentiment, on the joys of coaching Anthony. Jackson knows his own history here, and knows he never would’ve won a solitary title with the Lakers and Bulls had ‘Melo been one of his cornerstones.
Dolan doesn’t need to come with the elaborate recruiting presentation that he did for James for a simple reason: Above everything else, this is a cash deal. No salary cap, no limits.
In so many ways, this simplifies everything for Dolan. Madison Square Garden management gets to play to the boss’ strength, perhaps his greatest gift as a sport owner: overspending. Jackson has 13 championship rings – 11 as a coach and two as a Knicks player – and Dolan could need to pay him $1 million a year for every one of those titles. The Knicks aren’t chasing a coach, but a max-salary star with no max-salary restrictions.
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Three years, $40 million-plus ought to do it.
Money is never an object at the Garden, where the profits come hand over fist regardless of the fact the Knicks set an NBA record on Thursday night with a 13th consecutive playoff loss. It doesn’t matter that they’ve gone 11 years without a postseason victory. The Knicks are an ATM machine, and, now, they have to maximize the assets that they do have moving into the future. They have to get Jeremy Lin and Tyson Chandler, ‘Melo and Amar’e Stoudemire, to play ball together.
Mike Woodson is a solid NBA coach, but he doesn’t have the clout to make this work the way that Jackson can. No one else could command the room the way Jackson can command it. Anthony has too much leverage in the franchise, too much power, and he’s done nothing to deserve it. The Knicks don’t need Jackson for the sake of his résumé, his stature, but for his ability to get talent – especially talent at odds like ‘Melo and Amar’e – to play together.
This roster isn’t changing, because the three years and $65 million left on Stoudemire’s contract all but assures that. Stoudemire made a horrific mistake smacking that fire-extinguisher glass in Miami, but it doesn’t change who he’s been at the core as a Knick – and that’s a player willing to sacrifice, willing to do what’s necessary. Lin will be the Knicks' point guard, and the Knicks need not only a system to make this all work, but a mindset.
Anthony had the run of the Garden, and that only exasperated itself when Stoudemire lost his mind in Miami. It doesn’t matter that 'Melo needed 23 shots for his 22 points in Game 3, because the Knicks were never winning with this lineup. Never. “They’re loading up on him,” Woodson said, “and forcing him to take tough shots.” Anthony could’ve played better, but no one-man team is beating the Heat. No chance.
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Jackson isn’t enthralled with the Knicks' roster, a source who talks to him said, but that doesn’t mean he’d completely rule out the job. New York matters to him, and, so does money, the kind of money only the desperation of Dolan could dole out.
Yes, Kentucky’s John Calipari will listen should the Knicks come calling with $8 million or $9 million a year, but New York doesn’t need Cal’s insecurities and frailties taking over the Garden. He’s a great college coach, but commanding the respect of teenagers and decidedly different pros have little in common. There’s no correlation getting big-time talented college kids to play together and keeping ‘Melo from telling you to “Bleep off,” when you challenge him.
There’s one man for the job, one coach worth a max star’s contract when he walks into the room. For once, the Knicks aren’t restricted to the cap. For once, the Knicks can play to James Dolan’s only strength as an owner: a ridiculously rich father who lets his ridiculously fortunate son overspend how he sees fit. Whatever Dolan does, he shouldn’t insult Phil Jackson’s intelligence. This pursuit won’t be about an old Knicks’ nostalgia, nor this roster’s flawed stars. Just a big, cold and dark vault of Cablevision’s cash.
As LeBron James passes through the Garden to remind the Knicks of the failed free-agent pursuit two years ago, a most desperate Jimmy Dolan needs to tell the best coach in the world what he could never tell the best player: Name your price.
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