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March mailbag part 3 - What is the Knicks’ biggest mistake the past 15 years?

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I love this team, but....

NBA: Oklahoma City Thunder at Los Angeles Clippers Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

In part two of this mailbag, we dove into some of the Knicks’ worst decisions over the past 15 years. Here in part three, let’s dissect the big three, in ascending order of WTFness:

The Chauncey Billups/Tyson Chandler exchange

At the end of 2011, the Knicks picked up the option on Billups’ contract: one year, $14M. That December, shortly before the lockout-shortened season began, the Knicks used their one-time amnesty on Billups in order to give Tyson Chandler a four-year, $58M deal (not the first time the Knicks screwed up a one-time amnesty).

While Chandler was a big part of this century’s only good Knick team, his presence blocked Stoudemire from playing center, where he’d always enjoyed his greatest success. The only reason the Knicks enjoyed the benefits of Melo as a small-ball power forward was Stoudemire’s injuries freeing up the spot; had he stayed healthy, Melo would have been stuck in a lesser position, like Amar’e. To be fair to Chandler, he wasn’t just another center. Dude was a 2013 All-Star as well as Defensive Player of the Year. Playing STAT and Melo at the 5 and 4 spots would have been a defensive war crime.

Adding Chandler to a team that already had Stoudemire and Anthony was classic Knicks: add big names and big dollars regardless of fit. Those three players didn’t make each other better. If all three were ever on the floor at the same time, two were always stuck playing their secondary positions instead of their ideal ones. Pairing the three together was subtraction by addition. Imagine Golden State adding Rudy Gobert. Nothing wrong with Gobert. But if it forced Draymond to the 4 and Durant to the 3, the impact would go far beyond whatever Gobert did or didn’t produce.

In a vacuum, the move made sense. Billups was 34, Chandler just 29, in the same ballpark as Carmelo (27) and STAT (29). The Knicks built a literal “big three” as the league continued moving in the opposite direction. Had they let Billups walk after 2012, they could have made a run that summer at Goran Dragic (26 at the time), Eric Gordon (23), or Lou Williams (25). Chris Paul was traded that season; a Knick team with Melo and STAT as drawing cards and an expiring Billups as a trade chip might at least have drawn a little attention from Paul — er, David Stern. Stoudemire probably wouldn’t have been waived after 2012 after the rave reviews his 2011 season produced, even though he missed 19 games that year as his body began breaking down. But the breakdown was fast and obvious; he’d play just 94 games combined the next two years. Would’ve been nice having that amnesty then.

Not every decision boils down to age or salary. Chandler was good when the Knicks were. When the team began to struggle and fray, he wasn’t someone who was going to pull them together. He wasn’t going to confront, say, Carmelo when necessary; he was more apt to say something cryptic to the press. Not everybody is cut out to be a vocal leader. But by Chandler’s third season in New York he started looking and sounding like a guy who just wanted out. Hard to blame him; few Knicks under this ownership seem to enjoy extended success here. But that’s the guy you threw all your chips in for. Worth it? Not for one second-round run.

Billups, in addition to winning a Finals MVP, also won the inaugural Twyman-Stokes Teammate Of The Year award in 2013 (stay with me here). He may have been a better locker room fit, ultimately. Maybe Jeremy Lin never ends up a Knick if Billups had remained, but if he had, and Billups were there while it was happening, maybe he could have helped deal with the tensions that arose in some Knicks who seemed jealous of Lin’s success and were publicly critical of an Asian player being overpaid when they never made a peep about black or white players being overpaid.

Firing Marv Albert

Albert has been as big a part of Knick history as anything else: the building, the championships, all of it. When he started calling Knick games, this was the number one song on the charts.

By the time he was calling his last games for the team before being unceremoniously fired 37 years later, as the Knicks were being swept with extreme prejudice by the Nets, the charts, if not the world, had changed.

It’s one thing for a team to be bad. The Celtics have won one title in 30 years and have played a lot of bad basketball in that time. The Lakers are going to miss the playoffs for the fifth year in a row; before this current streak, they’d miss five postseasons IN THEIR ENTIRE HISTORY. The Bulls haven’t sniffed the Finals in 20 years. The Spurs are in danger of missing the playoffs for the first time in over 20 years.

It’s quite another to shit all over your tradition and the people who came before you and built something you didn’t. Marv Albert is the premiere NBA announcer, ever. Full stop. Not just for his legendary calls, either, though there’s plenty of those.

What made Michael Jordan the greatest was that he didn’t wait for May or June to be Michael Jordan. When he suited up for a meaningless game in mid-March against a hopeless opponent, home or away, he knew people were always watching to see Michael Jordan. So he always delivered. What made Marv the best was his storytelling and humor during seasons and games that were less than high-stakes. Whether the team was great, mediocre or terrible, their games were always entertaining; even if you didn’t care about the outcome, it was worth it hearing Marv riff.

After 2004 the Knicks had gone four years in a row without winning a playoff series. That’s a drop in the bucket nowadays, but back then that meant something. Marv, a true New Yorker, called it like he saw it. Dolan didn’t like it. Nobody likes criticism. Pat Riley and Jeff Van Gundy were at times unhappy with Albert’s honesty with viewers. But they had thick skin. They dealt with it. When your skin is thin, you get this:

Last season, according to a confidant of Albert’s, his superiors conveyed their belief that he was too negative and sought to have him minimize remarks about the Knicks’ losses, turnovers and subpar shooting. He was told not to build up opponents and to refrain from speaking extensively about the firings of Don Chaney as coach and Scott Layden as general manager. There was even joking by the Knicks’ production crew about not giving the final score if the team lost, the confidant said. The confidant also said that Dolan reprimanded Albert for saying that management had ‘’tortured and embarrassed’’ Chaney by dragging out his dismissal. Albert was also reprimanded for suggesting during a game that a bad call ended up giving Stephon Marbury an extra free throw, the confidant said.

Here’s what Albert had to say about Dolan’s MSG after Steve Kerr chose Golden State over New York: “...it never ends well there. Just look at recent history. It’s because of one man (Dolan). There is no happiness there. I say this with all kinds of friends I have there and (the ones) at the MSG Network. Everybody hates being there.”

Here’s what Dolan had to say after canning Mr. Knick for refusing to become a one-man Pravda shill: “Marv didn’t like the team. I basically felt he didn’t like the Knicks...I’ve asked him not to say they’re bad for the season, because why would anyone watch?” 14 years later, many fans are stuck asking themselves the same question.

Choosing Isiah Thomas over Larry Brown

The biggest mistake the Knicks made the past 15 years became official on March 8, 2007.

But the roots of this abomination stretch back a horrific nine months earlier, like some kind of demonic, Rosemary’s Baby pregnancy.

The Knicks made their biggest coaching splash since Pat Riley when they landed Larry Brown in the summer of 2005 and gave him the biggest coaching contract in league history. Any team hiring Larry Brown knew the deal: early struggles followed by rapid improvement.

Brown’s first year coaching the Spurs, they won 21 games; a year (and one David Robinson) later, they won 56. He coached the Clippers for a year and a half, finished 11 games over .500 and led them to the franchise’s first consecutive playoff appearances since they were the Buffalo Braves 20 years prior and their last consecutive postseasons for another 20 years to come. The Pacers were stuck between 40 and 42 wins the four seasons before Brown’s arrival, then won 47, 52 and 52 his first three years at the helm. After winning just 31 and 28 games his first two seasons in Philadelphia, Brown’s Sixers won 49 and 56 games the next two. Sunrise, sunset; Brown’s teams struggle, Brown’s teams resurrect.

Naturally, the first year in New York did not go well. The Knicks won just 23 games, which back then was considered bottoming out. But this was Brown’s m.o., so whether he was losing games or publicly insulting his players, it didn’t seem like a big deal, because when it came time for winning time, you figured Brown would be on it like white on rice. But by the time Brown stopped at a traffic light and got out of his Audi to talk to reporters — a week after the Garden called the police to threaten to arrest reporters for trying to talk to Brown in the players’ parking lot — and gave his famous “dead man walking” quote, the marriage was all but officially over. Brown cared more about winning (“the right way”) than he did about being admitted alongside the Isiahs and Herb Williamses and Sprewells and Larry Johnsons of the world to Dolan’s Super Secret Treehouse Of Besties. So out with the guy with a track record of success and in with the promotion for one who’s failed spectacularly as:

That’s why, for me, this was the darkest moment in my life as a Knick fan. Because it proved beyond any doubt that the emperor wears no clothes, that he cares more about being liked by famous people than winning, and that this franchise will most likely never sniff contention while he’s in charge. Think how hard it is to win for organizations that make it a priority. For the Knick owner, it isn’t. So they’re left trying (we hope) to pull off a high-degree of difficulty maneuver with one hand tied behind their back, like Lieutenant Dan trying to be Tatiana Gutsu. That’s a self-imposed handicap, one it’s impossible to ever grow comfortable letting slip from my mind. Winning requires sustainability. The Knicks most sustainable quality is their history of making mistakes.

Riley changed that, for a while, because he set the culture. Maybe Brown wouldn’t have done the same; maybe Next Town Brown would have left after another year or two, anyway. But trusting Isiah over Brown to turn things around is emblematic of the same values and approach that leave us still, all these years later, hoping against hope this ship rights itself again somehow, someday. Until it does, I’ll be here and so will you, learning to live on crumbs of hope and joy. The bright side of making so many mistakes is there’s so many lessons to learn from them.