Over the next week, we are going to turn back the clock and reexamine the Summer of LeBron by attempting to figure out what would have happened had he signed with a different team in 2010. As he met with five teams besides Miami, we are going to look at all five. Today’s Part 3: the New York Knicks
It took two painful years of planning, over a decade of losing, and an incalculable amount of time spent speculating, but it’s finally happened: LeBron James is a New York Knick. Look out Broadway, New York’s new main attraction resides at Madison Square Garden.
Not unlike everything else with the Knicks, it didn’t come without its fair share of controversy. Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh are left jilted at the altar as the three superstars had previously agreed to team up in Miami. They even spent the days leading up to The Decision leaking it to the media. James doesn’t even give them the courtesy of a phone call before announcing his New York dreams on live television.
“I would’ve gone with him,” Bosh is reported as saying to close confidantes, “we could’ve owned New York together.”
But alas, the job of Robin next to LeBron’s Batman is dutifully filled by Amar’e Stoudemire. And Alfred? Well, the league’s deepest group of three-point shooters (Danilo Gallinari, Wilson Chandler, Eddie House in free agency), energy guys (Landry Fields, Ronny Turiaf) and long term projects (Timofey Mozgov, Toney Douglas) flank the star duo to create one of the league’s deepest teams.
Wade and Bosh, still looking for a third star, make desperate pleas to Dirk Nowitzki and Paul Pierce to join them in South Beach, but both quickly deny the Heat in favor of their original team. Rather than chase a slew of mediocre free agents, Pat Riley decides to take a gamble and offers prized young forward Michael Beasley to Charlotte for center Tyson Chandler, who takes the deal after Dallas fails to offer a better one.
Carlos Boozer settles in Chicago, Dallas uses the assets they got for Tyson Chandler with to pry Al Jefferson from Minnesota, and Miami uses their last bit of cap space (thanks to Wade and Bosh agreeing to slightly below max deals) to sign point guard Raymond Felton.
But nothing measures up to LeBron’s welcome party to New York, where the King pledges to bring “not six… not seven… not eight…” championships to a raucous Big Apple crowd at MSG. Many deride him for his hubris, but when James, Stoudemire, and Mike D’Antoni’s unstoppable offense leads the Knicks to an unfathomable 37-5 start, the rest of the NBA begins to accept the dawn of the LeBron era.
Desperate to throw a monkey wrench in those plans, the Celtics scour the league for another scorer who can push their offense into contention with New York’s. They find one in Oklahoma City, as they trade center Kendrick Perkins to the Thunder for the unproven bearded shooting guard James Harden. The Thunder, who desperately pushed Danny Ainge to accept Jeff Green instead, finally relent when faced with the possibility of meeting either LA’s twin towers of Bynum and Gasol or Dallas’ surprisingly stunning duo of Dirk and Jefferson in the playoffs. Boston coach Doc Rivers embraces the small-ball revolution New York starts, and spends the rest of the year with Paul Pierce and Ray Allen at the forward spots.
The Knicks close out the season at 67-15, and even as they stumble with Amar’e Stoudemire resting his ailing knees, the rest of the league prepares for the playoffs to turn into their coronation as the league’s next dynasty. Chicago, Miami and Boston take the next three seeds, with the Heat barely squeaking past Boston on a tiebreaker. The final four teams in the East are simply sacrificial lambs; none win more than a game in the first round.
Interest begins to peak as Boston surprisingly steals Game 1 in New York thanks to a James Harden buzzer beater with Stoudemire on the bench. At the start of Game 2 LeBron points to Harden and says “I’ve got him.” Harden scores seven points on 2-12 from the field, and the Knicks never miss a beat as they sweep the next four away from Boston.
Meanwhile, Miami and Chicago engage in a seven-game war for the right to challenge league MVP James in the Eastern Conference Finals. Each team steals a game on the other’s home court to head back to Chicago tied at two. Derrick Rose steals the show in Game 5, scoring 43 points (including 19 in the fourth quarter) as the Heat head home desperate. They need a big game out of their star and they get it: Dwyane Wade ties Michael Jordan’s 63-point playoff record against his old team as Miami forces the Bulls back home. The winner-take-all Game 7 is decided on the final possession as Chandler blocks Rose on a pivotal fourth quarter drive to win the series.
Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals goes according to plan as the Knicks run Miami right out of the gym, but Game 2 is a different story. Despite facing a 15-point deficit at the halfway point of the fourth quarter, Wade leads an incredible comeback to give the game to the Heat. It’s more of the same in Game 4, with Wade once again winning the game for the Heat as LeBron continues to be stifled by Tyson Chandler and Miami’s surprising defense. Miami wins the next two games to stun the basketball world en route to the second NBA Finals in franchise history.
Waiting for them are the Los Angeles Lakers, who feasted on Dallas’s utter lack of defense in the second round and OKC’s youth in the Western Conference Finals. The narrative becomes a battle of the shooting guards: can Kobe Bryant tie Jordan or will Wade get ring No. 2?
It takes six games to figure out, but as the final buzzers sound in Miami, it’s Bryant who is named Finals MVP for the third time. As a devastated Wade walks off of the court in defeat, he can’t help but consider what might have been had James been on his side rather than watching at home. The nation debates whether or not Kobe has finally matched Jordan, LeBron and Wade wonder where they went wrong, and the NBA celebrates some of the best television ratings they’ve ever had.
Alas, even as three-time champs all is not well in Laker-land. Another disappointing playoffs for Andrew Bynum combined with an already checkered injury history has the team wondering if they can truly hand the reigns of the franchise over to him when Kobe is ready to retire. Things come to a head when Bynum is caught on a cellphone camera saying “I am the best player on the Lakers, Kobe just gets all of the credit” to a group of players at a club.
At this point, not even Jim Buss can save the sinking Bynum ship. Luckily for the Lakers, they find a willing suitor in Denver, who would love to gamble on the enigmatic center as payment for Carmelo Anthony. Anthony, who originally had his sights so firmly set on the Knicks that he wouldn’t even accept a trade to Brooklyn, agreed to the deal after his close friend Bryant publicly pleaded with him to join the team.
The Nets, furious over their loss of Anthony (whom they assumed would drop his grudge for Brooklyn once the Knicks made their lack of interest clear), turn their attention to a different star: New Orleans’ Chris Paul. Hornets’ “owner” David Stern makes his interest in a Brooklyn package clear, but tells the team he will not accept any less than full value. After an initial deal is rejected by the commissioner, the Nets eventually agree to include both Brook Lopez and Derrick Favors in their offer along with several first-round picks and point guard Devin Harris. Their plan becomes clear as soon as the trade is consummated: pair up Paul and Dwight Howard.
The Howard plans are so obvious that David Stern has to quietly remind the Nets of league tampering policy after the Bulls complain when Howard refuses to come to Chicago in a separate trade. Finally, the Jazz decide to stand pat with their point guard Deron Williams, banking on the fact that a better option for him doesn’t exist on the open market.
The season starts just as the last one had; the Knicks race out to a 24-3 start and appear to be the overwhelming favorites to finally win a championship. Meanwhile, the Celtics look old, Derrick Rose misses time for the Bulls, the Lakers struggle to fit Kobe and ‘Melo together, and even Miami begins to show signs of aging. The title is New York’s to lose.
That is until a meaningless March game against Milwaukee, where on a seemingly standard missed shot Amar’e Stoudemire goes up for the rebound. When he comes down, he comes down hard. The verdict comes in a few hours later: a torn ACL. Stoudemire would miss the rest of the season. Considering his injury history, the rest of his career is in doubt.
The Knicks spend the rest of the season adjusting to a world without Amar’e, and since they built up such a large lead early in the season, no other team could catch them in the hunt for the East’s best record.
The Knicks catch another major break: on the first day of the playoffs, the No. 2 seeded Bulls are essentially knocked out of the tournament when Derrick Rose suffers an ACL tear of his own. Despite some early hiccups in round two against No. 4 seeded Miami (who had a litany of injury problems of their own), the Knicks manage to reach the Eastern Conference Finals relatively unscathed. Their opponent? LeBron’s mortal enemy: the Boston Celtics.
The Knicks hold serve in the first two games at MSG. The Celtics do the same in Boston. Things start to shift towards the end of Game 5. With the score close at 87-86, Paul Pierce nails a back-breaking three-pointer to win the game for Boston, yelping “I’ve got the balls to take that shot!” at the Knicks bench. At that point, to the Celtics at least, the series was over.
With his legacy on the line, LeBron delivers. 30 first half points, 15 rebounds by game’s end, and a big win for the Knicks to send the series back to New York. Once there, LeBron seals the deal. 17 assists, 11 to three-point shots, lead the way as LeBron makes it back to the Finals for the first time since 2007.
Waiting for him is the same opponent that embarrassed him on the national stage back then: the San Antonio Spurs, who come into the series 12-0 in the playoffs as not even the No. 2 seeded Thunder could beat the league’s hottest team. Once again, no matter who ends up with the title, the big winner is the NBA.
Things start out roughly for LeBron. The Knicks shockingly lose Game 1 at home, leading many to believe his explosion against Boston was a fluke. He silences the critics in Game 2, and the teams proceed to trade games until a classic Game 6, where Danilo Gallinari ties the game with a three-pointer in the final moments. LeBron leads the way in Game 7 as the Knicks win their first championship in 39 years.
The Knicks are the odds-on title favorite heading into the following year, even with the Paul-Howard duo set to make their Brooklyn debut and Deron Williams taking his talents to Los Angeles to play for the Clippers. Despite the best efforts of Chicago, Brooklyn and Oklahoma City, nobody can stop LeBron and a now healthy Amar’e Stoudemire from winning their second consecutive championship.
LeBron announces after Game 6 that he plans on signing a five-year contract extension with the Knicks and finishing his career in New York, Stoudemire pulls Gallinari and Chandler aside to tell them that it’s their turn to be the complementary stars to King James as he slides into a supporting role, and Mike D’antoni is hailed as the NBA’s greatest offensive innovator since Phil Jackson brought the triangle to Chicago over 20 years earlier. For the first time in over 40 years, the center of the basketball universe is back where it belongs: Madison Square Garden.
By: Sam Quinn