For this week’s magazine, Will Leitch talked to ESPN.com super-columnist Bill Simmons, whose new book, The Book of Basketball, hit shelves yesterday. We’re running three expanded sections from the interview this week. The first discussed Simmons’s role as executive producer of the 30 for 30 documentary series that will be running on the network all this year. Today, he discusses our own New York Knicks. Part Three will run Friday.
Will there ever be another Charles Oakley? You seem to love him, but hate those old Knicks teams. Was there anyone on the Riley Knicks whom you liked?
Oakley was overrated and underrated at the same time. Overrated because he was a rebounder, banger, enforcer during the last era, when scoring was down and games were slower and more physical, so his skills were valuable. It’s a more wide-open game now. If he played today, teams would just go small and force him to guard a perimeter player; he wouldn’t be able to do it, and he wouldn’t be able to make the smaller guy pay on the other end. And he couldn’t shoot threes and stretch defenses like a Charlie Villanueva does, so he’d be essentially useless. We know this because there are no successful power forwards with Oakley’s game right now. They’ve all been drummed out of the league. He’d be a role player at best.
On the other hand, he never got enough credit for basically being the real-life Shaft — the coolest guy in the league, as well as the toughest — which is a point I argue vehemently in my book, and threw in a firsthand story as evidence. You couldn’t have played Rileyball in New York without Oakley. He had to be there as the bouncer in the bar, so to speak. Oakley was so cool that MJ adopted him as his real-life enforcer. What does that tell you?
You joke in the book about Donnie Walsh getting tons of good press because of his friendship with Peter Vecsey and Dan Klores. What do you think of his moves since taking over the Knicks? Was it a mistake for him to come here?
Definitely not a mistake, because he made a ton of money, and on top of that, it’s a no-lose job. Replacing Isiah is like being the next boyfriend of someone who was engaged to a dude with a two-inch dick. You’re getting rave reviews no matter what happens. Still, I think he’s done a lousy job, other than signing Mike D’Antoni and masterfully manipulating the local media. They made a huge mistake passing on Eric Gordon in 2008, and you never hear this mentioned, ever. They made an equally big mistake not preparing for a 2009 draft-day scenario in which Rubio, Flynn, [and] Curry went five, six, seven; they seemed to be blindsided by it, which is crazy. I prepare for my fantasy drafts by sketching out any conceivable scenario with my No. 1 pick; so do you. And yet, the Knicks seemed to be completely flabbergasted that Jordan Hill was the best guy on their board. They were “That Guy” in a fantasy draft who’s frantically shuffling through magazines while their friends scream, “Come on, just pick someone!” They ended up taking someone who didn’t fit in with their team at all — a rebounder who can’t shoot threes for a team that wants to shoot threes and play Nashball. How does that make sense? They should have taken Terrence Williams; at least he fits in with what they’re doing.
I also believe that they are misleading their fans to some degree. The perception is that LeBron, or someone else almost as good, is coming in the summer of 2010, so that’s why they haven’t signed anyone to long-term deals or traded for any star players. But really, they won’t have enough cap space to add LeBron and two more quality guys until 2011. Remember, they badly underestimated the economy and how it would reduce their available cap space. If LeBron was dumb enough to sign with the 2010 Knicks, it would be like Gretzky and the Kings all over again. Why should he take a risk like that?
If they were smart, they would have targeted the summer of 2011 and used this year’s cap space to make the team better in the short term, with the ultimate goal being, “we will entertain you for these next two years, and in the summer of 2011, we’ll make our run.” New York fans are smart enough to get that. And if LeBron is smart, he will keep signing one-year deals in Cleveland until he wins a title and/or the day arrives when he can make that move to New York from a position of strength. Guaranteed that one or both sides will end up screwing up. That’s a recurring theme in my book: Over and over and over again, you can count on an NBA team to do the wrong thing. Just look at the history. Hell, the two greatest players ever (MJ and Russell) landed on their teams only because two other teams evaluated them improperly. What does that tell you?
Percentage odds on LeBron coming here? People here really do assume he will.
Again, why would he want to be Gretzky with the Kings? He understands the value of quality teammates and won’t have any interest in playing with a bunch of schmucks on the 2010–11 Knicks. He’s not going to slum it in his prime just so he can purchase a penthouse on Park Avenue, go to parties, and possibly end up making a cameo in The City. I actually think the Bulls or Clippers have a much, much, much better chance of getting him. Both are big markets with good talent foundations and cap space. I’d say the odds for the Knicks next summer are like 3.5327 percent. Highest odds: He stays in Cleveland, tries to win the title there, and keeps signing one-year deals until he finds a big-market situation that’s more appealing. Although I wouldn’t rule out Russian Mark Cuban “convincing” LeBron to play for the Nets. For all we know, LeBron isn’t going to have a choice. Don’t rule out a press conference next summer where a crying LeBron signs with the Nets for $10 million for three years and ducks questions about his black eye and swollen cheekbone.
I’d be curious what your thoughts are on the league’s current state overall. You seem up on Stern, but one can definitely argue that basketball is a clear-cut third behind football and baseball in terms of national popularity. What is it about the game that’s not appealing to people? You have as much access to the collective sports-fan consciousness of our country, with all the mail you get — you must know that readers don’t care as much about the NBA. Can that be fixed? Or should anyone even try? Or is anything even broken?
See, I feel like the NBA is doing better than baseball and the ratings would certainly back that up. The last three World Series were the lowest rated ever. Baseball’s audience gets older each year, and they aren’t replacing it with younger fans, whereas that’s the NBA’s wheelhouse right now. The NBA is grabbing those kids between YouTube, video games, sneakers, and everything else. So that’s one problem. I also think baseball has a real credibility issue with sports fans in terms of trust (because of the steroids thing, which has tainted the past two decades, basically), and the time of the games (interminable); basketball doesn’t have either of those issues (although it does have the lousy ref issue). The union runs baseball; Stern runs basketball. Big difference. And baseball has turned into a small-market/big-market sport — the NBA is protected from that happening to some degree because of its draft and salary cap.
The biggest thing in the NBA’s favor: Don’t they have ten times as many marketable players? Name five baseball players under 30 that could sell a shoe or be the focal point of a commercial. Basketball has, like, fifteen of those guys. And LeBron and Kobe are bigger than any baseball player, by far, nobody comes close. There’s no star power in baseball anymore. It’s pretty much gone. I think baseball is in more trouble than people realize. Part of the reason attendance remained relatively strong is because teams keep opening new stadiums and coming up with these “buy four tickets for the price of one and get four free hot dogs” deals. Well, what happens in 2016 after the new stadium rush has worn off? That’s what I want to see. And again, the length of the games is interminable. For us, we’re used to it. No 12-year-old kid wants to spend four hours watching a baseball game.