What's next for Knicks?

Updated: April 27, 2004, 3:15 PM ET
By Mitch Lawrence | Special to ESPN.com

NEW YORK -- If the Yankees weren't starting their season as the worst team money can buy, there is no doubt that Jim Dolan's mention of Kobe Bryant a day after the Knicks' season ended would have made the back pages of New York's tabloids in screaming headlines.

But when the Madison Square Garden CEO raised the issue of Bryant coming to the Knicks a day after his basketball team got swept out of the playoffs by the Nets, it created nary a stir.

And not just because Yankee-land is in full-blown crisis mode.

The Knicks have about as much chance of getting Bryant this summer as Isiah Thomas has of being hired to coach the Indiana Pacers.

"Maybe we can get Kobe, Tracy (McGrady)," Dolan said. "That would be some charisma, wouldn't it?"

It's dreamin', that's what it is.

As Thomas tries to continue his total makeover of the Knicks, he doesn't have the one crucial asset to get a free-agent superstar: Money.

It's not as if Cablevision, Dolan's company, is suddenly filing for Chapter 11. As Dolan told reporters, "The money is there to use well, not to waste."

But the money isn't there in the form of salary-cap room for this coming season. The Knicks already are on the books for next season for a whopping $94 million -- more than double the cap. So unless he can pull off a next-to-impossible sign-and-trade, all Thomas can offer Bryant or other free agents he has his eye on, including Rasheed Wallace, would be the mid-level exception. Any superstar want to come to New York for a starting salary of $5 million? No?

We didn't think so.

So what are the Knicks to do, now that they've put a cast of expensive role players around Stephon Marbury and found that they're sitting squarely in Mediocreland? Coming off their 39-win season and total bombing in the postseason, the players were told in their exit interviews by Thomas that he's looking to see what this team can do with the benefit of a full training camp.

That doesn't mean that Thomas won't try to make moves. Of course he will. He has to because this team is still miles from challenging the Nets, Pacers or Pistons. But he's got little to offer, starting with Kurt Thomas, who has been dangled in numerous trade offers before.

"I don't think he's going to do something that shakes everything up, where we are starting all over again," Allan Houston said. "He might try to do something."

At some point, Thomas needs to get a bona fide big man. The Knicks are still too small up front, at power forward and center, and desperately need the kind of offensive threat on the baseline that can take the pressure off Marbury, who didn't do anything in the playoffs to enhance his reputation of being a talented player who doesn't win.

Among the big names that Thomas has his eye on for frontcourt help are: Chris Webber, Marcus Camby, Erick Dampier, Antawn Jamison and Shareef Abdur-Rahim.

Adding just one of them would be helpful, because even with his team missing Houston and Tim Thomas, Marbury didn't show that he can make a difference in the postseason. When the Knicks had a chance to win Game 4, he put up bad shots in crucial spots. His record in playoff games is now 4-14, with four first-round exits.

Kobe Bryant
Kobe Bryant playing at the Garden nightly? Forget about it.
"The season was a success," Marbury said. "The playoffs weren't."

It's no lock that even in the woeful East, the Knicks will make the postseason in 2005. It's not just that Philadelphia, Cleveland and Toronto all could get better, along with expected improvement from LeBron James' Cavaliers. Marbury clearly needs help. But it's going to be almost impossible for Isiah Thomas to significantly improve the roster to improve on a seventh-place conference finish.

After missing the playoffs because of a season-long knee problem, Houston probably is headed for another round of offseason surgery. He says no, but how good will he be next season? One thing we do know: He's about as unmovable as the Empire State Building, having turned 33 this month and with his maximum-salary contract that will pay him $21 million in two more seasons. Penny Hardaway and Tim Thomas -- two role players who would be backups on contending teams -- are also making top dollar.

"Working hard this summer is going to be very important for us," Houston said. "We have enough offensive talent. I don't think that's the issue. The issue is defense."

That leads to Lenny Wilkens and his future. Under Wilkens, the Knicks couldn't stop more than a few teams from getting to the basket. Against the Nets for the series, the Knicks were ripped for 96.8 points per game on 48-percent shooting. Standing in the Garden tunnel next to a dozing Woody Allen, Isiah Thomas saw the Nets constantly ravage his team's undersized interior for dunks and layups and easy, point-blank baskets in the final 12 minutes of Game 4.

Thomas must have flashed-back to his playing days. His Bad Boys made a name for themselves and hung two championship banners in Detroit by getting fourth-quarter stops. Surrending 31 points in the fourth quarter, the Knicks turned Kenyon Martin into Tim Duncan and showed New York fans that it certainly isn't the '90s in the Garden anymore.

Pat Riley and Jeff Van Gundy left the building and must have taken all the defensive blueprints with them. All the tough interior defenders are long gone, too.

The Knicks' defensive shortcomings won't cost Wilkens his job. Afterall, even if they had their full roster, they weren't expected to beat the two-time defending Eastern Conference champs.

"We have a great coach," Dolan said. "We have a lot to build on. We're headed in the right direction."

There's always the chance that Isiah Thomas will one day head to the bench and take over for Wilkens. All of New York expects that. But conventional thinking suggests he won't make a move to return to the bench until he knows for sure that this team can go deep into the playoffs.

The only trouble is, they're still a long way from that point.

"With Isiah, he knows the makeup of the team, and he knows what it takes for a team to get to where it needs to go," Marbury said. "I have 100-percent confidence in him."

As does Dolan, who can only dream about that Kobe Bryant signing ceremony in the Garden.

Mitch Lawrence, who covers the NBA for the New York Daily News, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.

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