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Bernard King: The NBA's Invisible Genius

G – Magic 
G – Isiah
F – Larry
F – Bernard
C – Kareem/Moses

No last names are necessary.

These men make up the first team All-NBA stars in Bernard King’s last two seasons with the New York Knicks before he blew out his knee in March 1985 – the same season he led the NBA in scoring. This is the company King kept.

In 1984, King would produce a half-season scoring tear never duplicated in NBA history; upset the Pistons in the greatest playoff series performance in NBA history, and almost single-handedly upended the 1984 Celtics — one of greatest teams in NBA history. In 1984, Bernard could be found in dated Converse commercialsrap songs, and Sports Illustrated covers which bowed to “His Royal Highness”. It read: “Bernard King Raises the Game to a Whole New Level”.

With an unstoppable Carmelo Anthony balling like its 1984, and reports King's induction into the Naismith Hall of Fame, The Invisible King received another bow this week.

While starving King fans naturally celebrate, something just isn’t right. King’s 15 minutes of crumbs come too little, too late – 15 years to be exact. We could only hope this week will help raise the debate to a whole new level.

Bernard’s rightful place is in the Hall of Legends.

Where did The King stand amongst the greats? Let’s ask them

“Bernard King was the toughest matchup of my career. And I say that from the heart.” –Julius Erving [HOF 1993]

“Bernard King… is the best forward in the league, hands down”.  – Larry Bird [HOF 1998]

“We are just in awe of Bernard” — Isiah Thomas [HOF 2000]

Now consider that Larry and Isiah’s praise came before the 1984 playoffs and epic Showdown in Motown where

KING AVERAGED 42 PLAYOFF POINTS ON 60% SHOOTING!

No other player in NBA history has ever averaged over 40 playoff points on 60% shooting in the playoffs – not Wilt in ‘62, not Jerry in ‘65, and not Michael in ‘88. Not Kareem, Shaq, Kobe, or Lebron.

Only Bernard King.

King also did it while battling Isiah, the flu, and dislocated fingers in both hands.

Afterwards, King was asked about his “hot streak”. Bernard asked back:

“At what point is it no longer considered just a roll?”

Answer: The rest of your life Bernard. The rest of your life.

King’s perceived eruption on a national stage was no hot streak.

What happened right before it was even more incredible:

IN 1984, KING AVERAGED 30 POINTS ON 60% SHOOTING OVER 40 STRAIGHT GAMES! [1]

LeBron, please read that again.

No other player in NBA history has likely ever matched this half-season stretch [2].

In the playoffs, the unstoppable King simply took more shots. That’s all.

For the few mesmerized souls who watched those games on WWOR Channel 9, King’s “30@60for40” validates that we aren’t suffering from nostalgia gone wild.

Bernard King was who we thought he was.

Unlike Knick legends Patrick Ewing, Walt Frazier and Willis Reed, no one more than Bernard transforms grown Knick fans into babbling children, gets stuffy 50-year-old accountants to jump around like Spike Lee, and elicits reactions of: “I swear I saw Jesus in shorts”. No, not “Black Jesus” ala Earl Monroe’s other nickname — just “Jesus”.

Truth be told, here is what many Knick fans in bars swear to this very day: at his pre-injury peak Bernard King was a better small forward than Larry Bird and a greater scorer than Michael Jordan.

If that sounds crazy to you, please consult his peers again:

“I have never feared anybody that I’ve played against – Bird, Magic, Doctor, Michael – and I respect and love all of those guys… Bernard King is the only guy that ever scared the hell out of me.”  – Dominique Wilkins [HOF 2006]

Listen to Dominique. Few in media will publically utter such words for fear of ridicule or straight-jacket. But we are not the crazy ones.

It is the rest of the sports universe that has gone insane.

Unless long dead, there is no other athlete in any sport whose gap between greatness and recognition is larger — even after this week.

The humiliations are endless.

Will Bernard make the Hall of Fame this year? Should King have made the NBA’s 50 greatest players list? Will the Knicks finally retire his iconic #30 jersey?

The questions themselves demean NBA history. What about media?

In February, LeBron had six straight games of 30 points on 60% shooting, and ESPN.com lost their efficient minds, but no mention of King. Last year ESPN issued its 25 greatest playoff performances since 1978, and no King again. Sorry B, your 42 @60% and legendary Game 5 just weren’t dominant enough.

In 1984, The New York Times closely chronicled King’s nuanced brilliance in “Mysterious Moves” and “Never a Knick Like Him”, but on the 25th anniversary of that magical season, another small forward stole the show with a 10,000 word profile: Shane Battier:  “The No-Stats All-Star”.

What about the greatest player in Tennessee history, half of the famed Bernie and Ernie Show, and legendary Kentucky killer? When Kentucky coach John Calipari told his 2010 team that Bernard was talking pre-game trash in Tennessee’s locker room, the youngsters responded:

“Who is Bernard King?”, ”What number is Bernard King?”, and  “I’m guarding him?”

Ouch!

How did we get here?

Has there been some vast hide-King conspiracy? Not likely, but corporate interests have reduced the NBA’s Golden Era to “Magic vs. Bird”, and lesser victims include KareemJuliusMoses, Isiah, and the great small forward of the 1980’s.

Bernard’s knee injury alone doesn’t explain it either. No one adds up career stats for Sandy Koufax, Gale Sayers, Earl Campbell, or Bill Walton. We know what happened to them.

Reasons for King’s vanishing includes playoff-lore hijackings by Isiah, Larry, and Michael [see BK2:Genius Unchained]; his unspectacular style, his early-career substance abuse and off-court problems, his forgotten Warrior years, his teammates, and his plodding coach Hubie Brown [see BK3: Genius Contained].

It also involves a dysfunctional Hall of Fame and sports media largely incapable of recognizing historic greatness without historic teammates. Despite being voted Most Valuable Player by their peers, King (1984), young Michael (1989), and LeBron (2006) were all denied those awards by media, and had their status as “winners” questioned. Where players see lack of support, media perceives lack of maturity, but only a lack of imagination could deny King as champion beside Patrick Ewing [see BK5: The King of Peers].

King’s past has been forgotten, a healthy future rarely imagined, but most of all, his present genius was never fully realized too far beyond his own peers, local fans, and a few journalists [3].

Bernard’s game was historically unique, but he often gets lumped into a sea of history’s high-volume scoring forwards. While The Tennessee Terror stormed on the NCAA scene with 42 points in his very first game as a freshman, his truer legacy can be found in his nation-leading 62% shooting.

LeBron James is receiving great credit for shooting 56% this year, but King shot 56% over a five-year pre-injury prime (1980-85) and did it without any all-star teammates. The playoffs are where shooting percentages go to die (see Karl Malone), but King shot a stunning 58% in 18 Knick playoff games. Only the greatest ones maintain accuracy against playoff defense — our very best test for “unstoppability” across eras.

King also defied every selfish scorer stereotype. He was not a one on one player, never needed isolations, never took bad shots, and did it all within the game’s flow. He was a scoring scientist whose quick release, midrange mastery, and disciplined shot selection have gone the way of Kareem’s skyhook [see BK4: Genius Explained].

King also suffered from a pre-Jordan era where it was thought impossible to score like Mike, but win like Magic. If Jordan is any indication, Bernard was too unselfish. Jordan had more athleticism, style, and shot attempts, but not accuracy [see BK6: The Jordan Rules].

Today, Bernard is mostly remembered for his 60 points on Christmas Day, and scoring 50 points on back-to back nights in 1984. Mr. Hot Streak has now become Mr. Hot Game, and The King of Efficiency has been largely reduced to Jamal Crawford – a career 41% chucker.

Before Lebron’s February outburst, the last great scoring streak came from Kobe Bryant in 2004. Back then, Scoop Jackson tried to educate the youth when he asked the obvious:

“What’s up with the love? [Bernard] had scoring stretches that lasted seasons, not just games.”

Jackson continued:

“He was a genius interrupted… The universal love that evaded his career was found scrolled inside a book penned by his peers.”

Jackson’s question was ignored, so a decade later the kids want to know:

“Who is Bernard King?”

Have a seat son and move over Mr. Battier, King’s invisible genius must be explained.

[1] Beginning on January 14, King scored 1219 points (482-808) over the next three months spanning 40 regular season games averaging 30.5 points at a 59.7 average  (ending right before regular season’s final meaningless game before the playoffs)

[2] It is highly unlikely that King’s 40 games of 30 points on 60% shooting has been duplicated – even when factoring eFG. The highest FG% for a 30 PPG season is Kareem Abdul Jabbar who scored 32 points on .577 shooting in 70-71 and an incredible 35 points on .574 shooting in ’71-’72. Adrian Dantley also scored 30.3 points on 57% shooting in ’81-’82.

[3] Many journalists have helped keep King’s memory alive. Special thanks to  Dennis D’Agostino Alan HahnScoop JacksonBobbito Garcia and AliBruce Jenkins,  John HareasBill SimmonsDave ZirinIra BerkowHarvey AratonSpike Leeand others.

The Incredible Mismanagement Of Stephon Marbury

?Cartoon Character?

?King of Fools?

?He is a loser?.

These were some of the early media descriptions of Stephon Marbury after he parted ways with the Knicks to join the Celtics. If Marbury is a ?cartoon character?, we can thank our sports media for drawing the daily comic strip. For those innocent souls who have so mistakenly bought into the cartoon journalism, then... "You Don't Know Marbury"!  

If he is also a ?loser?, we can thank a misleading media once again [1]. We are told how his former teams improved ?after he left?, but not that those overall rosters also improved [2]. Sure, after two playoff appearances with Minnesota, Marbury would play on many losing teams. But how often have we read how those same rosters fared without Marbury?

41% - winning % of his games after leaving Minnesota
29% - winning % (62-152) of those teams in his absence [3].

Translation: Marbury has played on some god-awful teams!?

But that?s a whole other article about the ?Evan Eschmeyer Era?? This article is about this:

Stephon Xavier Marbury is the most mismanaged, miscoached, and misunderstood Knick talent that I have ever seen [4].

Please allow Bill Simmons to warm us up:

?As a basketball fan, I can't fathom why the Clippers would sign Baron [Davis] then bog him down in a half-court offense. It's like hiring Simon Cowell to judge a reality show then preventing him from being mean.? ? Bill Simmons

As a basketball fan, I know exactly how you feel Bill. And welcome to Marbury-land Baron, and sorry about your shooting drop from 43% to 36%. Maybe one day coach Dunleavy will allow you to call your own plays again like Nellie once did. Maybe he will also break up that clogged Clipper frontcourt next year. Or maybe your next four years will be just like Steph?s last four. Let?s hope not?

Much has been written about Marbury?s feuds with past coaches, and everyone has an opinion [4]. However, this analysis is strictly X?s and O?s. It?s time for some real basketball questions:

1)    Why would you start line-ups that minimize or eliminate the exceptional skills of your best player?

2)    How can you justify taking the ball out of the hands of your best point guard?

3) How on mother earth does an elite ?penetrate-and-dish? point guard go his entire career without playing alongside top 3-point shooters?? or even just good ones?

Before answering these questions let?s first revisit our main Knick characters. No, not current Knick coach Mike D?Antoni. His inexplicable benching of Marbury was simply the culmination of coaching that Larry Brown started and Isiah Thomas perfected. Brown and Thomas were once former all-star point-guards in the ABA and NBA. Instead of coaching Stephon according to his strengths, each coached him to THEIR strengths. The only Knick coach that ever grasped Marbury?s exceptional skills was that other former all-star point guard: Lenny Wilkens.

Stephon and His Knick Coaches

Stephon:  Marbury?s success begins with his ability to penetrate, draw double-teams, score, or find the open man on a crisp kick out. He is not a ?pure point guard? in the mold of Jason Kidd or Steve Nash, but resembles that third all-star PG on that 1996 Suns team: Kevin Johnson. Just like KJ, Marbury could destroy his man off the dribble; use his strength; finish strong; pass; get to the line; run the fast break well; and excel at running tightly executed pick-and-rolls, and pick-and-pops. This type of point-guard is usually maximized with one strong low-post threat, floor-spacing shooters (more than slashers), and two ?dirty-work? guys who don?t need the ball. While KJ would consistently have players that complemented his strengths [5]. Marbury?s post-Minnesota career would be the exact opposite.

Lenny ? Right Coach, Wrong Talent:  All-time wins leader Wilkens was hired in January 2004 just days after trading for Marbury. At the time GM Isiah said Lenny was ?the perfect person? to coach Stephon, and he was right.  Prior to Steph?s arrival, this old slow Knicks team was 14 -21, and its only top player (Allan Houston) had bum knees and a pending retirement. Enter instant turnaround. Marbury and Wilkens would lead the team to a 25 ? 22 finish and into the playoffs while averaging 20 points and 9.3 assists. The following year, Stephon would average 22 points and 8.1 assists with an efficient 46% shooting. Because the team won only 33 games, Marbury?s greatest career season went unnoticed on a squad that had no business winning 23. With the exception of fast breaks, Wilkens would harness all of Marbury?s strengths. However, Isiah would fire him at midseason, leaving him with a 40-41 record as a Knicks coach (succeeded by Herb Williams).

Larry ? Young Talent, Wrong Coach: Brown arrived to NYC with a special media moniker never afforded to Wilkens: ?Hall-of-Fame Coach?. The shield title ? repeated ad nauseum ? had a distinct purpose: ?Larry Brown was always right.? Just check the resume. Unlike Wilkens, Pat Riley, and other great coaches, Brown is a great coach like Jack Nicholson is a great actor ? he only plays one role. Seasoned veterans? Brown might land a championship. Young players? Brown might blow an Olympic gold medal [6]. Brown decided to forget coaching that season in favor of his mantra to ?play the right way? ? even if that way meant losing. ?Play the right way? was much more than a phrase -- it was a stand. It symbolized a basketball, generational, and racial ?culture war? where everyone took a side. Where Wilkens saw amazing talent worth harnessing, Brown saw a point guard who did not play the position ?the right way?. So Brown basically tried to turn him into Eric Snow. An often mechanical looking Marbury would post career low stats, and Brown would produce a 23-59 record.

Isiah ? Best Talent, Wrong Coach: After inheriting possibly the worst roster in NBA history (no hyperbole), Isiah received brutally unfair criticism for his tenure as Knicks GM. That criticism should have been reserved for Isiah the coach. His famous benching of Marbury would overshadow his dysfunctional starting line-ups, head-scratching substitution patterns, and few set plays beyond ?can Jamal or Nate take his man off the dribble??. After an adequate first year (33-49) that involved key injuries, the second year was like watching ball at Rucker Park ? except with fewer team assists. Finishing where Larry started, Thomas would render Marbury useless.

CRIME #1: LINE-UP LUNACY - From 42 to 45

Lenny:  The 2004 turnaround was a remarkable feat considering that year?s most common starting line-up was 1) Marbury; 2) Shandon Anderson; 3) Tim Thomas; 4) Kurt Thomas; 5) Nazr Mohammed. While most were usually bench players for other teams, together with Marbury, the Thomas-Thomas-Mohammed frontline was 30-31 over two seasons. Tim could still help spread the floor, Kurt brought gritty defense and his best season of rebounding, and Nazr would play his finest ball in his career. Marbury was particularly efficient at running 15-foot ?pick and pops? with teammates like Kurt, Nazr, and Keith Van Horn (before Nazr). He even made Michael Doleac look good. Was this frontline talented? No. Good floor balance? Yes. The entire frontline would soon be traded traded for long-term benefit [7].

Larry: Mad scientist Brown would: start a front-line of shot vets over promising youngsters; give no steady minute patterns; and set an NBA record with 42 line-ups. That year?s lone bright spot brought a 6-game winning streak where Marbury started alongside rookies Nate Robinson and David Lee. The latter two would soon find themselves into Brown?s infamous rookie doghouse, out of the starting line-up, and receiving 30 or three minutes on any given night. Lee, in particular, would be underutilized by both Brown and Thomas. That year, Marbury?s injuries would leave the Knicks 5-17 without him. If Larry could never make up his mind about line-ups, Isiah could never change his.

Isiah: Starting Marbury alongside a 5-scorer line-up is absurd. Starting Eddy Curry and Zach Randolph together is absurd. Starting a can?t-shoot-unrecovered-from-surgery Q Richardson is absurd. Doing all of the above requires a new word? Don?t spread the floor. Check. Clog up the middle. Check. Eliminate point-guard penetration. Check. Eliminate ball movement. Check. Duplicate defensive liabilities. Check. Blame it all on your point guard. Check? Despite plenty of better fits on the bench, Isiah would not break Eddy-Zach-Q frontline for four months! The Knicks would get crushed every first quarter, but magically play teams even in the 2nd quarter (check the stats). If the number 42 is Brown?s Knick coaching legacy, Isiah?s should be 45: the amount of games that Eddy-Zach-Q started together.

Stephon:  Eddy-Zach joined the Marbury-Steve Francis backcourt as Isiah?s second disastrous starting pair. Injuries had robbed Francis of his once great athleticism, but not his head-down-ball-stopping style. In 2006 the Knicks rolled out to a 7-14 record before Isiah decided to bench Francis. For the next 41 games or half-a-season Marbury and Eddy Curry would lead the Knicks to a 21-19 record before injuries to Lee, Jamal, and Q would end their playoff hopes (and bring return of Francis as starter). The young team was running, exciting, and even losing heart breakers with passion. The media would often credit Marbury?s suddenly new ?leadership?, or claim that the December 2006 fight with Denver ?brought the team together?. The truth? A simple line-up change. In 2005-2006:

Marbury with Francis: 12 points on 38% shooting

Marbury w/o Francis: 18 points on 44% shooting

During this same time, Eddy Curry?s dominance would also rise. Marbury ? starving for an inside presence since his Suns playoff year with rookie Amare Stoudemire was more than happy to play second-fiddle. By that summer Stephon would say:

?This is Eddy Curry's team, not Steph's team. This is Eddy Curry's team, and we all have to understand that.?

CRIME #2:  COACHING CRAZINESS - Jamal is Not A Point Guard!

By 2007-2008, it was neither Eddy nor Steph?s team ? it was Jamal?s team. Crawford?s ankle-breaking crossover, and monthly career game scoring outbursts often worked to seduce fans into thinking one-night-stands might ever become true love. Coupled with his mature off court demeanor and poised interviews, it also seemed to work on his coaches. It seemed as if one play was called in any close game: Jamal-take-man-off-dribble-from-top-of-key. The play calling became so ludicrous that one game the Knicks would lose in overtime as Crawford missed his final 12 shots including the final three taken in regulation. Such an instance is symbolic of both Isiah?s and Larry?s coaching of Crawford. There was none.

Worst of all, both coaches also decided that Marbury share ball-handling duties with Jamal as was once done with Francis. Insanity? Let?s start here.

Marbury Assists Per Game:

9.0 - under Lenny

6.4 - under Larry

5.3 - under Isiah

In Stephon?s first two years under Lenny, the Knicks averaged more than 20 assists per game despite inferior team talent. Under Larry (17.9) and Isiah (18.7) the Knicks were dead last in NBA assists. Transferring partial point-guard duties did not just hurt Stephon ? it hurt the Knicks. Having Jamal bring the ball up meant less team assists, less ball movement, less-fatigued opponents, and less wins. On the plus side, Jamal did throw nice alley-oops to Curry. On the down side, Jamal is a low percentage shooter, is a poor finisher near the rim, does not get to the line much, and can barely run the pick-and-roll. Most importantly, he doesn?t draw double-teams on his drives. Jamal can only break down his man, but Marbury can break down team defenses.

By last year, the combination of crazy line-ups, reduced ball-handling, and even the abandonment of two-man pick plays [8] would make Marbury more liability than asset. The coaching of Thomas and Brown was so perplexing that fan theories of sabotage were just as likely as coach incompetence. The most benign explanation just might be this: Marbury as a ball dominating point guard offended Brown?s ?pure-point-guard? sensibilities, and Isiah could never accept that the double-point backcourt just might fail if the other guy isn?t named Joe Dumars.  

CRIME #3: MANAGEMENT MANGLING - Where are the 3-Point Shooters?

In sports it?s like peanut butter and jelly. Pair a great quarterback with a great wide-receiver (sorry Donovan); get a great hitter some back-up protection (sorry Barry), and get an elite ?drive-and-dish? point guard some 3-point shooters.

With a one year exception of Kerry Kittles (Nets), Marbury never started alongside another sharp-shooting guard. Beyond one season, his best two 3-point shooters were forwards Keith Van Horn (Nets), and Shawn Marion (Suns) ? neither of whom could shoot prior to his arrival. In his two full seasons with Stephon, Marion would shoot 39% from behind the arc, but never higher than 34% in any other season despite playing with both Kidd and Nash.

The minute he arrived to the Knicks, Marbury?s drives to the hoop had amazing results. Spreading the floor widened Marbury?s penetration lanes, and in-turn, his ability to break down defenses aided those shooters right back. Stephon?s kick-outs often began an ?around the horn? passing sequence that resulted in no assist, but three points. As a result, every single Knicks long range shooter benefited:  

3-Point Shooting Before and After Marbury Trade (2003-2004 season):

Allan Houston:          38% to 51%

Keith Van Horn:        31% to 46%

Tim Thomas:            36% to 41%

Shandon Anderson:  24% to 34%

It is amazing what can happen when a hand is removed from one?s face! Sadly, Houston would only get to play 38 total games with Marbury, and the Knicks would never sign a top long-range shooter after him [9]. That no GM actively and deliberately sought to spread the floor for Marbury is a crime of NBA management.

Perhaps it was because so few could see through awful rosters, the villainizing journalism, and their own ?pure point guard? biases to realize that:

Stephon makes his teammates better.

It just has to be the right teammates.

No, he won?t make Crawford better. Jamal, reliant only on his crossover, will shoot 41% with the Bulls, the Knicks, the Warriors, or the Showtime Lakers. No, he won?t make Randolph better. Zach will get his 20 whether Stephon, Baron, or Mardy Collins throws that entry pass. And he definitely won?t make Steve Francis better? But he made the entire 2004 Knicks much better. During the few glimpses of sensible line-ups, he also made Eddy Curry, Channing Frye, David Lee, and Nate Robinson better. A prime Marbury would not just make the currently constructed Orlando Magic better, but possibly champions. Ditto for a younger Allan Houston coupled with an older Ewing.

Sorry Larry, there are no ?right ways? to play the point, just ?right systems?. Says Marbury?s  newest coach and former point guard Doc Rivers: ?I never thought he was a pure point guard?. Nor does he care, even if Marbury has lost a step.

This is just how it goes with point guards. High-flyers like Vince Carter, Richard Jefferson, and Kenyon Martin will thrive under Jason Kidd ? but Josh Howard won?t. Steve Nash goes from a borderline all-star to a borderline Hall-of-Famer -- just by changing his coach. Gary Payton (at any age) goes from an all-star to bum should you reduce him to a spot-up shooter role in a triangle offense. Styles make fights, styles make perceptions, and when misunderstood by media -- styles make villains. But?

What if Joe Dumars spent his whole career with the Pistons cast that averaged 24 wins in back-to-back seasons from 93-95?

What if John Stockton was told to be great, but just forget that whole ?pick-and-roll? thing?

What if Baron Davis never gets to runs the break or drive to the hoop again?

And if a player like Stephon Marbury can reach a .500 plateau with the right system and the wrong talent, what could he have done if equipped with both?

These are the real questions we should be asking.
Even if it might take away from our favorite ?cartoon character?.

Notes:

[1] Marbury?s rookie season helped bring the Timberwolves a 14-game improvement and first-ever playoff berth, but his departure began the ?selfish? label.  In New Jersey, a ?loser? label was added, but few reminders that he joined a 3-16 squad. His Suns experience would not be defined by the respectable 2003 playoff showing, but their poor start the following injury-plagued year. Despite averaging over eight assists per game, all of the above would contribute to a ?Marbury-as-selfish? narrative before playing a single Knick game.

[2] Marbury's old teams were followed by the era?s best two point guards, but few reports that Jason Kidd and Steve Nash also received vastly improved rosters. The Nets did not just receive Kidd, but had Kerry Kittles return from injury, had Kenyon Martin move past rookie year growing pains, and drafted Richard Jefferson. The Suns actually got worse after Marbury left. The following year they signed Nash, had Amare return past his second year injuries, and had a maturing Joe Johnson. By comparing Marbury?s tenure to overhauled rosters, Steve Nash is also loser because his Dallas Mavericks team went to the finals ?after he left?.

[3] The 29% winning percentage takes into account his games missed due to injuries and how his past/new teams fared without him from the two midseason trades. Marbury?s winning totals while playing: New Jersey (66-106), Phoenix (92-105), and New York (113-174). Winning totals in Marbury?s absence: Nets (7-35); Suns (17-32); Knicks (38-85).

[4] A friend tells me of Marbury?s coaching feuds: ?if you get into five car accidents, then you are a bad driver!? This makes sense on the surface, but is overly simplistic. Marbury is not blameless by any stretch, but he is both perpetrator and victim. Firstly, Marbury?s last three coaches (D?Antoni, Thomas, Brown) all have their own share of car accidents (Brown?s license should have been revoke 20 years ago!). More accurately, Marbury is that kid with a past felony on his record and cops know full well that they could treat him any way they choose while receiving immunity. His last three coaches all knowingly took advantage of this power dynamic in initiating unfair treatment while Marbury?s reactions to feeling wronged would often help their cause.

[5] After trading for KJ in 1988, the Suns soon signed a big man complement in all-star Tom Chambers. KJ would run the pick-and-roll all day and night with Chambers when not driving-and-dishing to sharp-shooters like Hornacek and Eddie Johnson. Those latter two names marked an entire career that featured two long-range marksmen (also Dan Majerle, Danny Ainge, Wesley Person, Rex Chapman, etc) for KJ to spread the floor. In a couple of years, the Suns would sign Charles Barkley and go from a perennial playoff team to legitimate title contenders.

[6] After winning a championship with the Detroit Pistons, Brown would fail to win the Olympic Gold medal. Most notably, he would leave a young Lebron James and Carmelo Anthony on the bench while Lamar Odom and Richard Jefferson logged heavy minutes.

[7]  Seeking youth and athleticism, Isiah soon traded the entire frontline in what eventually netted David Lee, Nate Robinson, Eddy Curry, and Wilson Chandler.

[8] Isiah virtually abandoned the pick play in favor of one-on-one play by his second year. Gone was Channing Frye?s floor-spacing an occasional pick-and-pops, and in came Zach ? the starting line-ups third ball-stopping vacuum. Like Eddy, Zach is only effective for a team as the only low post presence. Marbury was essentially reduced to throwing entry passes ? and not very good ones at that.

[9] In Brown and Isiah?s tenure, the best 3-point shooter would be Nate Robinson, but he and Marbury would rarely play together ? presumably for defensive reasons. When not bothered by his back injuries, Quentin Richardson is still only an adequate shooter.

Charles Modiano or ?MODI? is a contributor to RealGM and regularly writes at Sports on My Mind, and can be reached at modi@cosellout.com

Isiah?s Suicide Mission: Revisiting The Worst Roster In NBA History

Pop Quiz:  Who is averaging the least amount of points this year?

A) David Lee
B) Wilson Chandler
C) Nate Robinson
D) Entire 2003 Knicks' Roster


Answer: D?


Last week marked the 5th anniversary of Isiah Thomas taking over as President/General Manager of the New York Knicks. With history as our guide, it is time to give him a fresh evaluation.  Just how historically bad was the roster he received on December 22, 2003?

Rumor has it Barack Obama turned down the job.

Here are six reasons why:

The 2003 Knicks - A Five-Year Retrospective:

1) NO PLAYERS

2003 Knicks: 13 of 15 Knicks are now out of the NBA, and that is no misprint.

Rest of NBA: Most teams have at least half their roster still in the league. Example:

The Oklahoma City Thunder, the NBA?s worst team at 3-29, still has 10 players and five starters in the NBA from its 2003 Sonics' squad that included Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis.

2) NO STARTERS LEFT

2003 Knicks: Antonio McDyess and Kurt Thomas come off the bench.

Rest of NBA: All other 29 teams have either three starters or an All-Star still in the league.

What Would a RealGM Do?  The Memphis Grizzlies? Jerry West was widely considered the best GM in 2003 and had Pau Gasol, Shane Battier, Mike Miller, James Posey, and Earl Watson ? still a serviceable starting five today. Earlier in 2003 West drafted Troy Bell and Dhantay Jones right ahead of David West and Boris Diaw. The next summer West signed free agent Brian Cardinal to a Jerome-sized contract minus any James-sized ridicule. Besides Rudy Gay, little was received in return from this starting five [1].

In 2007, West resigned, and Memphis is currently 10-21.

3) NO TRADE CHIPS:

2003 Knicks: Only Kurt Thomas was tradable with a reasonable salary. McDyess was coming off a 2nd major surgery, Charlie Ward?s Heisman trophy had no trade value, and Michael Doleac just wasn?t creating that buzz.  Isiah?s only viable trade options were draft picks and exchanging expiring contracts for longer ones.

Rest of NBA: Unheard of.

What Would a RealGM Do? The Sacramento Kings' Geoff Petrie had Mike Bibby, Peja Stojakovic, Brad Miller, and Gerald Wallace. Only Miller remains, as Petrie was ultimately only able to parlay the rest into Shelden Williams and a 1st round pick [2]. Today the Kings reside at 7 ? 24, and Petrie remains employed.

Roster Reality: Isiah left new Knick GM Donnie Walsh at least seven tradable players and several options. Last month Walsh was able to trade Jamal Crawford because he wasn?t Jamaal Tinsley [3].  Walsh also traded Zach Randolph for shorter contracts. How? Because talented players are tradable.

4) NO SALARY CAP SPACE: 


2003 Knicks:  Isiah inherited a long-term commitment to the NBA?s highest payroll. On day 1, Allan Houston and Keith Van Horn alone were on the books for $35 million ? the 2006 books! Houston?s bum knee would soon end his career, but not his monster paychecks. Well-paid men named Howard Eisley, Shandon Anderson, and Clarence Weatherspoon were only tradable through absorbing larger contracts.

Rest of NBA: Only a handful of 2003 teams were significantly over the cap, and only one other team approached Knicks' stratosphere.

What Would a RealGM Do? After an impressive first year, the Bulls? John Paxson was quickly hailed as a shrewd decision-maker, could be found cracking ?top 5? in media GM rankings, and was a great example of ?rebuilding the right way? ? by clearing salary cap space. His $60 million 2006 signing of an old Ben Wallace coupled with giving away a young Tyson Chandler highlighted a series of terrible moves and non-moves that would eliminate the Bulls from perennial title contention. Luckily for Paxson, a ping-pong ball with Derrick Rose?s name on it will likely save his career.


Roster Reality: The notion that Knick media and fans would wait three or four years while Isiah just shed salary to make a free agent-run at ?grand prizes? Ben Wallace or Rashard Lewis is more absurd than Houston?s $100 million contract. Building teams via free agency has been a media induced myth; however, 2010 represents a once in a generation exception. Given the depth of that potential free agent crop, Walsh?s strategy to land a big fish or two has promise.  Had he inherited the 2003 Knicks in 2008, clearing 2010 space would be impossible ? sort of like the current situation in Indiana.


5) NO YOUNG TALENT (25 and under):

2003 Young Knicks: Mike Sweetney, Frank Williams, Maciej Lampe, and Slavko Vranes
2008 Young Knicks: David Lee, Nate Robinson, Wilson Chandler, Renaldo Balkman, and Mardy Collins

Rest of NBA:  Most of the NBA had at least 2-3 young players still valuable today. By 2004, even the expansion Bobcats with Emeka Okafor, Gerald Wallace, and Jason Kapono had a far superior young talent before playing a single game.

What Would a RealGM Do? Ironically, the worst management performance over the last five years was probably by Donnie Walsh-Larry Bird?s Indiana Pacers [4]. The 2003-2004 title-contending squad had still young trio of Jermaine O?Neal, Ron Artest, and Al Harrington. These three have become the well-paid Mike Dunleavy, Troy Murphy, and TJ Ford ? all solid enough to sustain continued mediocrity through 2011.

Roster Reality: Unlike Miami?s young Caron Butler and Lamar Odom, Sweetney and Lampe weren?t going to land Shaquille O?Neal.  

6) NO PATIENCE:

2003 Knick Climate:
The 1990s annual playoff runs spoiled Knicks' fans. Today, local media waxes poetic about the glorious ?Ewing Era?, but on the day he was traded, the New York Post had ?GOOD RIDDANCE? as its back page headline. Tough town? I know. However, this era was followed by the brutal Scott Layden era from 2000 ? 2003. The only center from Georgetown still around was Othella Harrington ? who Layden obtained with a 1st round pick. Knick fans were completely demoralized, and Patrick Ewing wasn?t going to walk through that door. But Isiah Thomas would.

Rest of NBA: Philadelphia is like the Bahamas next to the pressure cooker reserved for Isiah.

NYC Reality: Thomas immediately obtained Stephon Marbury for two draft picks (first used on Kirk Snyder in 2004), and virtually every Knick fan was cheering. Today it is popular not only to denigrate that trade, but the strategy itself. Today many say today that Thomas should have ?rebuilt through the draft? (he is a great drafter), and that he didn?t ?have a long-term plan?. This all sounds pretty and nice but has absolutely no basis in reality at that time, in that city, with that media, in that climate. Despite no trade bait, Thomas had to make a big splash and make it soon or he would have been run out of town in two years for ?doing nothing?. Simply losing games and rebuilding through the draft was not - an - option. New York ain?t Atlanta; patience wasn?t a virtue then, and amnesia is not one now.

Pop Quiz: If you move into a penthouse, and I move into a crack-house, and five years later you can?t tell the difference ? who is the better housekeeper?

Don?t answer that. Because if you do, some of your favorite GM's might get double the scorn as Isiah.  I would never wish that on Larry Bird. I?d much rather keep talking and reading about what a great draft pick Donnie Walsh made over 20 years ago! And while discussing Reggie Miller, Thomas deserves an updated evaluation with updated hindsight.

The impact of Isiah?s GM mistakes has always been grossly over-rated [5], and effect of his terrible coaching (and Larry Brown?s) vastly under-rated [6]. Isiah?s biggest GM errors were ones of chemistry (see Steve Francis and Randolph trades). But GM's who move into abandoned buildings can be forgiven for collecting furniture at garage sales that might not match. Talent can always be swapped for other talent to improve chemistry. Rarely is the reverse true.  While Isiah did a lot of the dirty work, few in media acknowledged his toxic working conditions [7].  

Now Donnie Walsh, who received a free media ride since Day 1, is the beneficiary. Many will allow Donnie to wait until 2010 and credit him for ?having a plan? (at least 572 Mike Lupica articles anyway).  But Walsh could only swap for Al Harrington because Isiah was able to obtain Jamal Crawford with Othella Harrington (and others). Losing Kurt Thomas for Nate Robinson meant fewer wins for Isiah and future wins for Donnie. The trade for Malik Rose brought ridicule at the time, but that draft pick became David Lee. Thomas left Donnie Walsh a far more talented, tradable, and younger team than the one he received. The before-and-after photos show that Thomas has been a good GM.

Since losses were inevitable under any GM, the only other fair measure is NBA history.  Jerry Krause?s post-Jordan 1999 Bulls is the last similarly putrid roster on record ? and they averaged 19 losses for the next six years. The post Bird-McHale-Reggie Lewis Celtics of ?93-94 also had an all-time pathetic squad  ? and would not taste more than 36 wins for the next eight years. Do we really need to talk about the Clippers? 25 year run? Without that lucky #1 pick in one of those special years, NBA history sends a clear message:  

Red Auerbach on steroids couldn?t have rebuilt the 2003 Knicks in five years.

Impatient fans really don?t want to hear this, but Isiah Thomas did his job. But he will likely never overcome his greatest mistake of all:

He took the job.

Charles Modiano or ?MODI? regularly writes at Sports on My Mind, and can be reached at modi@cosellout.com

-------------------------------------


[1] Since West resigned in 2007, some trades (see Pau Gasol) were made after his departure.

[2] This represents a trade ?translation?. Example: Peja was traded for Artest who who was then traded for a #1 pick.

[3] Indiana?s  Tinsley was signed to a long-term contract by Walsh-Bird. The point guard is currently being paid NOT to play despite another three years on his contract. Sounds familiar?

[4] Walsh and Bird have been combined because it is unclear who had a greater hand in many decisions.

[5]  The pre-2010 salary cap is meaningless; Jerome James cost nothing but a 12th spot, and if you reversed the Eddy Curry trade (includes Wilson Chandler), the Knicks would likely be in the same place. In terms of quality players lost, one could argue Isiah?s only significant error was drafting Channing Frye ahead of Andrew Bynum. At the time, most experts and fans who disagreed with the pick wanted Gerald Green selected.  

[6] Although D?Antoni had essentially the same pieces, the Knicks got off to a promising start this year before the Crawford/Randolph trades. While the trades were made for 2010, the fast and exciting start indicated that the team was miscoached the previous three years.

[7] There were few media exceptions who wrote much about the 2003 Knicks' roster.  While this column was spawned from a shorter 2007 piece, other exceptions include Chicago?s Sam Smith, and RealGM's Chris Reina.

 

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