Isiah’s four big-ticket imports aren’t merely ill-disciplined and brittle in adversity. (“For the money they make, they shouldn’t be so sensitive,” says Penny Marshall, a loyal regular.) What kills the team is that its highest-paid players are literally defenseless. They leak at the perimeter and get deluged inside. Opponents shoot 47 percent from the field, third highest in the league. “There’s not one thing they do good defensively that’s going to take you out of your game plan,” says an Eastern Conference scout. While Thomas may rank low as a bench tactician (“bottom third, and that’s being polite,” the scout says), he’s done his greatest mischief as a fantasy-league refugee. His roster affronts the NBA’s bedrock principle: Offense wins games, but defense wins championships.
It seemed so elementary, so obvious, yet Isiah kept trading in denial. Between 2000 and 2004, a series of NBA rule changes legalized zone defenses (which gang up on back-to-the-basket big men) while limiting contact on the perimeter (enabling slashers like Kobe and Iverson to thrust to the hoop unfettered). The new model in seven-footers was Dwight Howard or Andrew Bynum, rangy, explosive athletes who could block the slashers’ shots. But instead of drafting Bynum in 2005 over the nondescript Channing Frye, Thomas opted for Curry at a much steeper price. “It’s almost like the Knicks have a team that would have been good eight years ago,” said Donnie Walsh, before rumors hardened that he’d be leaving the Indiana Pacers. “Now we’re in the age of high-fliers, all these kids shooting up and down the court. The world changed.”
When pressed about the beefy Randolph and bovine Curry and their inability to defend in transition, Thomas resorted to magical thinking: “Our big guys got to get better, they’ve got to get quicker, they’ve got to get faster.” They failed to transmogrify in time to stop Yao Ming. He scored a season-high 36 points, spinning through the moored Knicks like a ball in bumper pool.
“He thinks he’s a genius,” says a Western Conference scout. “There are so many people who are happy that this is happening to him— not to the Knicks, to him.”
At six eleven, Curry is a true giant: leonine noggin, foghorn bass, derrière the size of Rhode Island. But his rounded shoulders betray him. Here was the big kid who hated to be stared at, who liked gymnastics more than basketball—who wished to be smaller than life. “I’ve never really been that physical-enforcer kind of guy on the court,” Curry said. “I think that now I’ve gotta kind of do that a little bit.” For fans who cut their teeth on Charles Oakley and Anthony “Mace in the Face” Mason, this was less than reassuring.
Weight has long been an issue for Curry, even before Thomas lavished a $60 million annuity, payable over six years, on a guy who can dunk and not much else. (The 2005 deal also cost the Knicks a pair of draft-lottery picks that became LaMarcus Aldridge and Joakim Noah, and will haunt the franchise for a decade.) Curry reported to camp last fall at a svelte 280, but somehow—despite a private chef and the attentions of Tim Grover, personal trainer to the stars—packed it on through the season, till rolls of flab peeked through the armholes of his jersey. When asked where he tipped the scale, he begged off with an ingenue’s giggle.
“I like Eddy a lot, but he’s just too big,” says Oakley, the soul of Pat Riley’s obdurate squads of the nineties. “You can’t move when you’re like that.” As the leviathan fatigues, he reaches and fouls, drops easy passes, clanks dunks off the rim. After the Clippers trimmed the Knicks by nine, I asked center Chris Kaman how he knew when Curry was tiring. Kaman smiled and said, “When you run down court and he’s 30, 40 feet behind you.”
Back in the day, no arena could rival the Garden for sheer voltage, for that rising aural current when a fast break ran just right or a help defender leaped into the breach. The Knicks were the NBA’s charter flagship. They played in the mecca, a place for pilgrimage. “I had millions of people to represent,” says Oakley. “I didn’t want to be a failure.”
In 2004, just before his first Knicks training camp, Thomas spoke of wanting the Garden “to be hot again, with steam coming off the building.” Mission accomplished. As the Knicks lost more and more operatically this season, their customers gave vent to a murderous singsong that filled the great bowl: “Fire I-si-ah!” An anthem for the dispossessed, it spread to Houston and Seattle, wherever the Knicks diaspora gathered to gnash and burn. “New York City fans aren’t stupid,” Spike Lee told the New York Times just before Thomas was hired. “They’re not going for okeydoke. They’re not going to be hornswoggled or bamboozled.” Even the MSG announcers, who served at Dolan’s pleasure (see Albert, Marv), were getting fed up.
Mike Breen (despairing): “There is no spirit, no fight.”
Walt “Clyde” Frazier (wryly): “No fire or desire.”
Gus Johnson (in budding epiphany): “Is it just a bad team?”
By February, with the owner bucking a regime change, the Garden faithful were lulled into resignation, and in absentia. Official sellouts aside, there were swaths of empty seats as corporate-owned tickets went begging. Courtside saw a brutal celebrity cleansing, with Woody and Spike mostly MIA unless a Kobe or LeBron came to call. At home, the fans voted with their remotes, as Knicks ratings plunged below the Rangers’, below a sport played on ice.
As the season wore on, Thomas’s pregame spiels melted into one long and winding narrative, rich with doublespeak. One week, he spoke of getting his troops “back to trusting and loving each other”; the next, he skewered them for lacking “heart” and “pride.” There were nights of suspense (“To me, it’s win or die”) and of bombast (“I want to leave a legacy ... an imprint, a blueprint”). Most of all, there were alibis: illness, injuries, broken shot clocks, bad bounces. Coming from “the baby-faced assassin” of the Pistons’ Bad Boys, who’d asked no quarter en route to a pair of titles and the Hall of Fame, it was piteous to watch.