Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Best of the rest part I: The 1996-2000 Knicks

Avg Wins per season: 46
Playoff Finishes:
1997: Lost in 2nd round to Heat in 7
1998: Lost in 2nd round to Pacers in 5
1999: Lost in NBA Finals to Spurs in 5
2000: Lost in Eastern Finals to Pacers in 6

Here it is, the first in my 'best of the rest' series. Each post will feature some background about the team, speculation about what squashed their title hopes, and a chronicling of their best season in the run. Keep in mind that I am looking at teams that had, and sustained a level of excellence for a number of season. Usually this means stretches of making it to, and sometimes beyond the second round of the playoffs.

Absolutely a bit of bias here, I’m a Knicks fan and these four years featured some exciting Knicks basketball, but its my blog and if I want to feature these guys first I will! In 1995-1996, the Knicks went up against the Chicago Bulls once again, only to be ousted in five quick games. Though the Knicks had been an elite Eastern conference team for years (look for a separate post later on the 1991-1996 Knicks), their win total had dropped every year since 1993, bottoming out with their 47-35 showing in ‘95-‘96. With Patrick Ewing aging, the Knicks knew that they would have to retool, adding youth in their backcourt and increasing the depth of their bench. In the 1996 off season, the Knicks signed young guards Chris Childs and Allen Houston, and then traded backup forward Anthony Mason for Larry Johnson. That season featured a more perimeter oriented Knicks squad, crafted around a rejuvenated Patrick Ewing and recently promoted head coach Jeff van Gundy. The results were great, the Knicks win total increased ten games in ’96-’97 and were, arguably, the best team in the East not featuring Michael Jordan. Over the next four years, the Knicks continued to transition away from a Ewing-oriented game. These were fairly forgettable regular seasons, but this paved the way for two of the biggest upsets in NBA history in 1997-1998 the Knicks finished 7th in the East, only to upset the Miami Heat. The following year, after acquiring Latrell Sprewell and Marcus Camby, they upset Miami again, becoming the first and only 8 seed to make the NBA Finals, and they did so playing an exciting, up-tempo style. The Knicks enjoyed one more year of success before making the ill-fated Patrick Ewing trade that launched the team into a period of salary cap issues and irrelevance.

Highest High: Going into the lockout shortened 1999 season, the Knicks had a newly tweaked cast predicated on exciting, up-tempo guard play. It took time for the team to come together, they sputtered through the regular season just making the playoffs with a 27-23 record. However, the team began to mesh in the playoffs, upending the weak #1 seeded Miami Heat, sweeping the Atlanta Hawks, and taking the #2 seeded Pacers by surprise. Though they fell to the Spurs in one of the most lopsided finals ever, the Knicks had made their mark on history.

Why didn’t they win? Stu Jackson. This version of the Knicks was best in their first year, 1996-1997, and they coasted in the playoffs, sweeping the Charlotte Hornets and taking a 3-1 lead on the Miami Heat going into game 5. Late in the game, Knicks point guard Charlie Ward jockeyed for position with Heat forward PJ Brown. Agitated by Ward’s aggressive box out, Brown picked up the smaller player and body slammed him. The Knicks best players, Patrick Ewing, John Starks included, rushed off the bench to aid their point guard. Stu Jackson’s trademark suspensions resulted, and the Heat easily beat a depleted Knicks team in the next two games to come back and take the series. Many people believed that if the Knicks were going to beat Michael Jordan, this would have been the year they could have done it.

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