The Knicks Finish an Encouraging Season Running on Fumes

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Danilo Gallinari, a problem to be solved. Photo: Getty Images

The Yankees open up their massive new palace today, but before you’re thrust into the maelstrom of raves about that, let’s take a look back at the New York Knicks, whose season ended last night. They beat the New Jersey Nets 102–73 at the Garden, finishing with a 32–50 overall record. It was a nine-game improvement over last season, but still, it has now been five full seasons since the Knicks made the playoffs, and eight since they had a winning record. To give you an idea of how long that has been, Latrell Sprewell and Luc Longley were on that team.

It is telling that this season was the most wildly successful one in recent memory, not just because of the slightly improved (but compulsively watchable) product on the court, but also because so much cap space was cleared out for the great LeBron James–Dwyane Wade 2010 sweepstakes. But this team still has a long, long way to go — and it’s very possible it’s going to be worse next year. That won’t be too big of a deal theoretically — everyone knows LeBron’s the real prize anyway — but once the novelty is gone, another wretched season could try fans’ patience and potentially scare big-name free agents away from a massive rebuilding effort that seems to be making no headway.

The Knicks have plenty to deal with this off-season. Here are the big issues.

1. David Lee? Nate Robinson? Both? Neither? The two best Knicks — in terms of both on-court play and off-court popularity — are restricted free agents this summer. Robinson is flashy and fun, but he's a point guard and too small to play any other position. Thus, he's expendable: entertaining but extraneous. The Knicks would like to keep Lee, but only at the right price; meanwhile, he’ll be looking to cash out after his career year. If they both leave, which would probably be through sign-and-trades, it will feel like the Knicks are completely starting over. Again.

2. Mend the Italian. Danilo Gallinari, the team’s first-round pick last year, showed occasional flashes of brilliance but was hemmed in by injuries. He had back surgery a couple of weeks ago and should be ready to go by training camp, if not earlier. The only two Knicks you can count on seeing for the next few years are Gallinari and Wilson Chandler. Gallinari, who is ideal for Mike D’Antoni’s style, is key.

3. Trade Eddy Curry to someone who wants him. Ha ha ha ... no, really, they’re going to try.

4. Hope the Ping-Pong balls fall their way. We’re a month away from the NBA Draft Lottery, and the Knicks have a 2.8 percent chance for the No. 1 pick. That’s actually better than the Bulls’ 1.7 percent chance last year, and they won, allowing them to draft eventual Rookie of the Year winner Derrick Rose. But it’s still not good odds. The Knicks would love to bring in Oklahoma’s Blake Griffin (he’s perfect for D’Antoni’s offense) but they’re more likely to end up with someone like Stephen Curry, or even Brandon Jennings. They also need to figure out a way to get a draft pick back for 2010: They don’t have one, because somebody — and we won’t name names, but he’s coaching Florida International now — traded it away to the Utah Jazz a few years ago. So losing a ton next year won’t even help them.

5. The playoffs. LeBron James seems poised for a historic playoff run. Will what happens in the playoffs benefit the Knicks’ hopes in winning LeBron, or hurt them? If he wins a title, will he feel finished up in Cleveland, or as if he couldn't dare leave them? If he doesn't win, will he feel like he must stay there until he does, or accept that it might never happen for him there? Who knows? But no matter what, it’ll be fun to watch.