The way most teams lure great players is to first lay the foundation of a great team.
It’s the same idea with five-star hotels. If you want A-list guests to beat down your door, you don’t do it by building a place where the toilets don’t flush, the bar serves nothing but Old Milwaukee Light and closes at 6 p.m., the chef is a graduate of Greasy Gary’s School of Microwaving, the mattresses are stuffed with corn cobs, and the walls are made of cardboard.
The Knicks and the Nets didn’t get this memo.
They want the biggest name in basketball to check into their arenas. It’s the object of everything they’ve done for two years as they’ve dumped players and payroll, freeing scads of money under the salary cap to throw at LeBron James next year when he becomes a free agent.
Yet with all the roster moves and all the salaries shipped out of towns, all the brilliant basketball minds running the two teams have missed one teeny tiny detail.
The detail's barely noticeable. If it were made of rock and dirt, it would barely be bigger than the Rocky Mountains. So you can understand how the Knicks, a team that so recently clung desperately to the belief that Isiah Thomas was the man to straighten out a once-proud franchise, might have missed it.
The Nets’ excuse for also failing to notice the detail is that it’s what they do. Ever since they sold a mediocre talent named Dr. J, the Nets have been finding new ways to make a mess of things.
The detail is this: Neither the Knicks nor the Nets have a team that any sane superstar would want to come to.
If LeBron leaves Cleveland, it won’t be for the money. The NBA salary structure dictates what anyone can pay him. He might be tempted by increased commercial opportunities in New York, but the bottom line is he wants to win. And the Knicks and the Nets have both done everything in their power over the last several years to lose.
As of Sunday, the Knicks and the Nets were a combined 1-19, with the one victory between them owned by the Knicks, who also have nine losses in the young season. Those awful records aren’t an accident. Both teams come by their losses the old-fashioned way: they earn them.
The Knicks are 11th of 30 teams in points per game, but they make up for it by being 27th in points allowed. The Nets are 29th in offense and 15th in defense. It’s possible that one or both of the teams are better than the 1-10 Timberwolves, but even that’s not certain.
Both teams would be playing for the draft lottery, but the Knicks don’t have a first-round draft choice next year, having traded that to Utah. The Nets do have a pick, but even if they got a top player, that would give them exactly one top player — one top kid player — to go along with LeBron. Neither team has a legitimate center. Neither team has enough to make the playoffs, let alone win a title in the next few years, not even with LeBron aboard.
We know that LeBron loves New York, perhaps even more than he loves Cleveland, if such a thing is possible. Whenever he comes to the city and talks about it, he gets so excited you practically have to throw sawdust under him.
He worships the Yankees and idolizes their players. It’s a privilege and a thrill to play in Madison Square Garden. New York is the greatest city in the history of cities.
One thing that even Nets management has to have noticed is that not once in his paeans to New York had LeBron ever said, “And my favorite part of the city is Brooklyn.” It’s a borough that doesn’t come up, like Staten Island and Queens.
This is not a good sign for the Nets, who keep insisting that they will eventually escape the swamps of New Jersey for the glitz of Brooklyn, where a new arena is to be the centerpiece of a massive commercial development. The Nets say construction will finally begin in either December or January, but they are assuming that the final legal challenges to the arena will be decided in their favor.
If they are, Russian plutocrat Mikhail Prokhorov is set to become the majority owner of the team. His deep pockets and the panache added by minority owner Jay-Z, who is also one of Lebron’s good buddies, is supposed to lure King James to Brooklyn, where he would join a team that lacks pretty much everything needed to win.
Dream on, Nets fans – both of you. All the Nets have done is dump payroll with no hope of landing LeBron. Even if the new arena goes up in the midst of the worst economic slump since the Great Depression, the Nets still have no base to build on. Plus, for the next couple of years, they’re probably going to be playing in Newark in the Prudential Center. From James’ perspective, once you’ve experienced the bright lights of downtown Cleveland, what charms could Newark possibly hold?
So the Nets are out. Even Jay-Z prefers Madison Square Garden to the Nets’ current home, the Izod Center. He probably knows better than anyone that LeBron is not going to play in the Meadowlands, Newark or Brooklyn. If he comes to New York, he’s playing Broadway, not Exit 16W.
I suppose the Knicks are in play because they are the Knicks and they play in the Garden, and LeBron is a kid from Ohio who is really impressed by that. But he’s more impressed by the prospects of winning a championship. And right now, even with him on the team, the Knicks aren’t a championship team.
They would argue that they have a couple of good players. Notice, I didn’t say a few. They don’t have that many. But the Italian kid they picked up in the draft a couple of years ago, Danilo Gallinari, looks as if he can play. Wilson Chandler could also develop into a player. And, as already mentioned, the Knicks don’t have a No. 1 draft pick.
Maybe LeBron doesn’t care. Maybe he knows that all by himself he makes the Knicks – we’re forgetting about the Nets – a playoff team. Add another top free agent, he could be thinking, and they could be a top playoff team.
That’s a big assumption to make. James is already on a team that’s knocking at the door to a title. Would he go to a team without a big-time center in the hope that management could spackle together something that might work?
I don’t know. It depends on just how much he loves New York and just how big his capacity for kidding himself is.
But right now, if the Knicks and Nets are trying to build a foundation that will convince him they’re got what it takes to win, they’re doing a lousy job of it.
And if they don’t get LeBron, what do they do next?