Knicks and Nets have been caught up in this vortex before
The Knicks and Nets cut, slashed, saved like Scrooge. Both amassed an alarming array of defeats. But all was done to chase other-worldly free-agent stars.
That was in 2010 when free-agency excitement mesmerized New York. LeBron James, after all, was on the market.
“He dominated the whole thing,” said Donnie Walsh, a Pacers adviser now but the Knicks president who spearheaded the 2010 tactical machinations.
It did not go as hoped.
With the upcoming star-studded class headlined by Kevin Durant (despite his ruptured Achilles), Kawhi Leonard and Kyrie Irving, free-agent fervor again grips New York. The city hopes for a better outcome than 2010 when, through “The Decision,” James famously, or infamously, announced he was joining Miami.
“A lot of teams had cap room,” said ESPN’s Bobby Marks, the Nets’ assistant general manager in 2010. “It was the first class where we saw an All-NBA class. LeBron James, Joe Johnson, Chris Bosh, Amar’e Stoudemire. That made it appealing and when LeBron is a free agent, that’s a different ballgame.”
Pain and suffering seemed acceptable to land LeBron all those summers ago. The Knicks, after a 29-win mess, were armed with $34.1 million. The Nets, off a 12-70 nightmare, entered their July 1 meeting with James at the IMG Center in Cleveland with $30 million.
Both sides pitched New York. Everybody wants to play in New York, right?
“It was starting to change. Athletes began realizing the value of their social play,” said sports business consultant and Columbia sports business professor Joe Favorito. “Between 2005 and 2010, people started to embrace using mobile as their means of communication. You could reach anyone anywhere in the world if you had a mobile device. That made physically being in New York less important.”
So it may not be a valid pitch anymore.
“Name one athlete in New York who is a global brand now,” Durant’s agent, Rich Kleiman, said at a recent Sports Business Journal summit in Chicago.
Regardless, that has been a free-agent pitch for the Knicks and Nets. But in 2010, James didn’t need New York. He would have been huge in Sheboygan.
“Everybody underestimates these players,” Walsh said. “They have an idea where they want to go. I don’t care what spiel you give them. … Before you even get a chance to talk to them, they know where they’re going.”
Still, the Knicks and Nets utilized complex presentations in 2010 for James, who ultimately broke the hearts of most suitors by joining Dwyane Wade and Bosh with the Heat, who had won 47 games and made the playoffs the previous season.
The Knicks had not seen the playoffs in six seasons. The Nets, after their most forgettable season ever (which yielded the draft’s third pick, like the 2019 Knicks), were shackled to Newark for two more years.
Not the way to lure A-list talent. Players want more.
“It’s a delicate balance between winning and being comfortable,” Bosh told The Post in a phone interview. “Definitely, guys want to compete for championships. … For me it was winning and comfortability. As media kicks up more and more and the NBA gets more popular, there are those situations where they make fun of guys — unfairly make fun of guys — that don’t win a championship.
“It’s like, ‘Damn, I’ve got to win a championship.’ Hell, it motivated me. I didn’t want to be one of those guys so I decided to go for it.”
Bosh, like Wade and James, met the Knicks and Nets. Both impressed. But there were other proposals.
“You play out in your head how you think it’s going to go, but when negotiations start, it’s intense,” Bosh said. “Chicago offers you a $100 million deal and they point out the team they already have and put you and/or LeBron and Dwyane in the mix, and say ‘Hey, this could be our team.’ ”
The Knicks stressed the future, the city. So did the Nets.
“One of the advantages of living in New York is the opportunity for marketing,” Bosh said. “That was a big deal at the time.”
Not big enough. Neither was an up-tempo offense nor familiarity with then-Knicks coach Mike D’Antoni, who Bosh knew as an assistant from the 2008 Olympics.
There was the typical marketing pitch: “They said, ‘This is what New York brings and the possibilities.’ Then we sat down with [owner James] Dolan and he talked about his vision for the Knicks,” Bosh said.
The Nets’ pitch also inspired.
“It really was the same thing, but the difference was they have Avery Johnson who is a tremendous speaker. That guy could sell water to a whale,” Bosh said.
But he couldn’t sell Bosh, Wade or James on New York. There was a major obstacle.
“Pat Riley,” said ex-Nets president Rod Thorn, who led the first contingent to meet James. “Him with all of his rings and stature in the league was a big selling point for Miami.”
Bosh and his father met Riley, who sold the deal by emptying a bag of championship rings on the table and stressing, “This is what it’s about.”
“The opportunity they had with the cap space and potentially playing with LeBron and Dwyane was something I wanted,” Bosh said. “I was really looking for that opportunity and it was there. I had to take it.”
The biggest target was James. There were all the reports. Done deal with Miami. No, Cleveland. No, elsewhere. Everybody lined up with fingers crossed. The Nets thought they had an advantage: longtime James pal Jay-Z was a minor shareholder. Add the Brooklyn future and new owner Mikhail Prokhorov. Hope floated.
“My feeling was we had a chance,” Thorn said. “We had a really good presentation. Our ownership was willing to do anything to make the team better. And we had Jay-Z, who was big buddies with LeBron. In all reality, I thought we had a shot.”
Hope eventually sank.
“A week before when we weren’t getting any feedback from Jay-Z, that was when I said, ‘We’re not going to get him,’ ” Thorn said.
Marks assessed the Nets chances before the meeting: “Realistically? None. You were coming off a 12-70 season. You were going to play in Newark for the next two years.”
But officials were encouraged and directed Marks to plot necessary financial moves.
Early in the process, the Nets’ backup plan imploded when Rudy Gay elected to stay in Memphis. After James’ July 8 televised announcement pinpointed Miami, the Nets signed Travis Outlaw, Anthony Morrow, Johan Petro and Jordan Farmar.
See why fans didn’t follow the Nets to Brooklyn?
The Knicks realized far sooner their chances at James were doomed. At the Knicks’ meeting, Walsh was wheelchair-bound after surgery. He went in hopeful.
“Well, it was New York we were pitching,” Walsh said.
He exited discouraged.
“I didn’t think we’d get him,” Walsh said.
Walsh was realistic. Whatever the Knicks offered financially could be matched or bettered elsewhere. But there was the New York factor.
“At the time, and I’ve changed over time, I thought if you were a top free agent, how could you not go to New York? It’s a great stage. Madison Square Garden. The fans. The vibrancy of New York City. It has everything. I thought the top player would have to think about it,” Walsh said.
A presentation turnoff emerged when marketing eclipsed winning. James listened politely but seemed unimpressed. Walsh noticed. He knew the Knicks were toast.
“I could tell by the body language,” Walsh said. “I had just gotten out of the hospital. I’m in a wheelchair and know I’m not making a great impression. They were very good to us but there wasn’t that ‘oomph’ you would expect.”
The Knicks contingencies included Stoudemire. They knew he wanted to come. That “meant a lot,” Walsh said.
What was the appeal for Stoudemire? Part was the big stage. But largely, it was reviving a dead team.
“It was the challenge. Amar’e loves a challenge,” said Happy Walters, Stoudemire’s agent. “It was a chance to bring the Knicks to relevancy. It was New York City which has an allure like no other city. He liked some of the young players on the team. … When he met with Donnie and D’Antoni, his coach in Phoenix, it just all felt right.”
Stoudemire was impressed by young Knicks Danilo Gallinari and Wilson Chandler. The Knicks added another prominent free agent, Raymond Felton, who came after hopes of signing Joe Johnson collapsed. The Knicks wanted Johnson to team with Stoudemire. D’Antoni, who coached both in Phoenix, again loomed as an advantage. But Johnson stayed in Atlanta for a whopping six years and $123.7 million.
“He would fit on any team,” D’Antoni told The Post after the Knicks lost out. “We made our pitch, it didn’t work.”
Why? Rosters were important. The Hawks had won 53 games in the third of ultimately 10 straight playoff seasons. But don’t overlook money. And other minuses: like the real estate market, city traffic and practices outside the Garden.
“The Knicks were the first team I met,” Johnson told The Post afterward. “I met with D’Antoni, [assistant GM Allan Houston, the owner [Dolan]. They had a great presentation.”
So what happened?
“What threw me off more than anything, obviously there was the money difference, but they said you needed a place in Westchester and a place in the city,” Johnson said. “They said you would roughly spend like $5 million.
“I was like, ‘Aw, no,’ as opposed to being in Atlanta where I was already established with a solid team getting better every year. I didn’t have to buy nothing or make any changes. We had the arena and practice facility in one place,” Johnson said. “It took me roughly 20 minutes, with traffic, to get there. … I heard them out but I’m not sure how close I was to signing.”
D’Antoni didn’t recall the two residences thing.
“I don’t know if we told him that. But he could afford it anyway,” D’Antoni said.
The Knicks still landed a star in Stoudemire, who lacked the incredible leaping ability he had in Phoenix before microfracture surgery but still was very formidable. In five Knicks seasons, he averaged 17.3 points, 6.7 rebounds and made three playoff appearances. Much of the young talent he admired was traded for Carmelo Anthony in February 2011.
“I had a beautiful time playing for the Knicks. The organization, the time I was there, was amazing,” Stoudemire said on a recent Sports Illustrated podcast. “Jim Dolan was doing a phenomenal job, trying to do whatever it took to build a championship-caliber team. Unfortunately, we fell short.”
But Stoudemire propelled a mini-turnaround.
“My first two years was just trying to get salaries down,” Walsh said. “The third year, we ended up getting Carmelo and Amar’e. We made the playoffs for the first time in seven years and had a winning record [which] they hadn’t had in 10 years.”
Knicks fans, who seemingly have lived under a torturous cloud, demand more, especially with the rival Nets making the playoffs and looming as free-agent buyers. The Knicks will make their 2019 pitches — after winning 17 games. That’s a tough sell.
“You have to really want to go for it. Some guys look at it and go, ‘Nah, I don’t really want that situation,’ ” Bosh said. “The Knicks are going to be ambitious. Fiz [Coach David Fizdale] didn’t take that job just to sit there and get killed in the papers. So it deters some people but it attracts others.”
While winning attracts studs more than bright lights, fans still come.
“There is a tremendous value to still being physically in New York, but it’s not an absolute necessity,” Favorito said. “At the end of the day, no matter who is on the court, 19,763 people will show up.”
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