SB Nation is staging a tournament to determine the best NBA team never to win a championship. Today they unveiled the Flameout Division, the first of four brackets, this one devoted to “teams that were upset by weaker opponents in the playoffs.” Included in this grouping: the 1992-93 Knicks. The question of whether that team is the best bridesmaid ever is up for debate. An easier point of order: the ‘93 Knicks don’t belong in the Flameout Division because they didn’t flame out. The Bulls were the better team. Period.
Though my inner 14-year-old retches at 41-year-old me writing that, it’s true. There’s almost zero evidence in support of the Knicks being the better team that year. New York won 60 games to Chicago’s 57, but the teams were tied in the standings with five games left, having spent the entire season neck-and-neck atop the East. There was no meaningful separation to speak of. While the Knicks won the season series 3-1, one of those wins came with Jordan suspended for fighting Reggie Miller; another was the last game of the season, one that meant nothing to two teams on the precipice of the postseason.
In a rare instant of the G.O.A.T. resembling Marcus Morris, MJ described battling Miller thusly: “It’s like chicken-fighting with a woman. His game is all this flopping-type thing. He weighs only 185 pounds, so you have to be careful, don’t touch him, or it’s a foul.” Talk about the pot calling out the kettle: Jordan literally raked Miller across the eyes and punched him, and not only was he not ejected, he wasn’t even called for a foul.
Back to the main point, i.e. the Knicks weren’t the better team. They entered that year tied for the third-best odds to win it all; Chicago was the betting favorite. The Bulls were balanced, ranking second in offensive rating and seventh in defensive rating. They committed the fewest turnovers while forcing the sixth-most, were tops in offensive rebound percentage, fourth in field goals made, second in three-point accuracy, sixth in assists, fifth in steals, second in fewest opponents’ shots attempted and fifth in fewest free throw attempts allowed. Only Phoenix won more road games. Oh, yeah: Chicago was also the two-time defending champs.
The only offensive category the Knicks ranked top-10 in was assists, at seventh. Almost all their honorifics came on the defensive end:
- # 1 in fewest opponents’ shots attempted, fewest opponents’ shots made, lowest opponents’ FG%, lowest opponents’ 2P%, lowest opponents’ 3P%, lowest opponents’ eFG%, fewest opponents’ assists
- #1 in defensive rebounding and defensive rating
- #2 in fewest opponents’ offensive rebounds
- #3 in fewest opponents’ total rebounds
- #8 in turnovers forced
Expecting the Knicks to top the Bulls that year required widening the scope of the argument until it was no longer strictly about that year. New York was physical, a style that helped them push the Bulls to Game 7 the year before and that the Detroit Pistons had used to knock out Chicago in 1988, 1989 and 1990. But the ‘93 Knicks were not the same physical force that the ‘92 team was, much less the Bad Boy Pistons.
The ‘92 Knicks included Xavier McDaniel at small forward. A renowned physical presence whether banging down low against players 50 pounds heavier or choking out mouthy rookies who’d go on to the Hall of Fame, the X-Man backed down from nobody. He fit in with those Knicks like he was born to.
But the seeds of the ‘93 Knicks downfall were planted January 15, 1992. That was the day McDaniel exercised an option in his contract to buy out $3.6M owed him over two years and become an unrestricted free agent that summer. After elevating his game in memorable playoffs against Detroit and Chicago, it seemed the Knicks re-signing him was a no-brainer.
But while New York expressed the desire to bring him back and had tons of cap room — more than enough for a new deal for McDaniel — they gambled they could work out some trades first. The Knicks were allowed to go over the cap to re-sign X, but not to add new players, so they figured they’d follow a certain order of operations. But after nine months without an offer, X followed the money and became Boston’s post-Larry Bird small forward.
The Knicks did make a trade, acquiring Doc Rivers and Charles Smith from the L.A. Clippers and sending a second-round pick to Minnesota for Tony Campbell. Smith was a skilled power forward who was more of a finesse big than a banger. Campbell, a wing, played briefly under Pat Riley in the late 1980s, then led the expansion Timberwolves in scoring their first three seasons.
Neither player was a classic small forward and neither’s game resembled McDaniel’s in the slightest. In the ‘92 playoffs X torched Pippen, outscoring him 18.6 to 16 while outshooting him 50% to 40% from the field. Pippen averaged nearly four fouls per game in ‘92; that dropped to a touch over three fouls per in ‘93. He outscored Smith by 10 points per game. Campbell played all of 19 minutes that series.
New York’s front office recognized that the Bulls were more talented top to bottom, especially from the perimeter. Besides adding Campbell, the team traded for four-time All-Star Rolando Blackman and drafted sweet-shooting Hubert Davis. Jordan had previously offered high praise for the former Mav:
“‘When Jeff Malone was at Washington, he was pretty tough — I will always remember my worst night came against him. [Joe] Dumars played the best man-to-man defense, but he had a lot of help against me. And John Starks did a good job scratching and clawing me. But for most of my career Rolando Blackman was the guy I looked forward to playing against the most, and he was the guy who probably had the most success against me in terms of stopping me. I always wondered what this one-on-one matchup was like from his perspective.”
Blackman’s thoughts on MJ:
“A lot of players admitted to being intimidated by [him], but I never had any success...until I passed the point of being nervous or intimidated. I never felt like Rolando Blackman had something to prove playing against Michael Jordan...When I was at Dallas, I made it a point not to watch a lot of extra film or anything like that. That would have been intimidating. I didn’t seek a lot of extra advice, and I never went into a game setting number goals as far as how many points under his average I wanted to hold him...he’s right about no one being able to stop him one-on-one, so forget about approaching it as a personal challenge.
Michael used to say it was tough playing me because we used to run him through so many picks. So you could never ignore your offense...keep him busy, wear him out or at least try and maybe that would slow him down.”
“With the offseason additions of Rolando Blackman, Hubert Davis and now Tony Campbell, we are a stronger club than we were a year ago, particularly from the perimeter,” Knicks president Dave Checketts proclaimed. Maybe they were better than the year before, when the Knicks were reliant on the erratic shooting of Gerald Wilkins and with Kiki Vandeweghe nearing retirement. But despite starting 33 games for the ‘93 Knicks, Blackman set a career-low in games and minutes played and averaged just nine minutes a game in the Chicago series. Campbell and Davis only saw mop-up duty late in the Bulls’ Game 3 blowout.
The Bulls had greeted New York’s new additions with public scorn. “Coach Phil Jackson, noting the acquisitions of ex-Clipper Charles Smith and ex-Maverick Rolando Blackman, said the Knicks had gotten players ‘with an accumulation of failure,’ Mark Heisler wrote in the L.A. Times. “Pippen put it more succinctly: ‘Same players, new address.’” That stuff hurt to hear. But it was mostly true.
The ‘93 Knicks had one player who could make his own shot — Ewing — but even he was dependent on guards getting him the ball in spots he could work. And if the rest of the team had an off-night shooting, which happened a LOT, Ewing’s job became that much tougher. Importing three players from out west who’d each averaged 20+ looked good on paper.
But Smith was immediately played out of position as a small forward. Campbell scored 23 a game in Minnesota because somebody had to; he wouldn’t have put up those kinds of numbers on a good team. And while Blackman did score 18+ a game for a decade in Dallas, he did that in an offense that played to his strength coming off screens. The ‘90s Knicks were not about motion. If you weren’t #33, your role on offense was stand somewhere, wait, and if Ewing kicks it out be ready to spot up.
The ‘93 Knicks were a lot of new: five of the top-10 minutes earners on were first-year Knicks. But the appearance of change was greater than the reality: those five ranked fifth, sixth, eighth, ninth and tenth. Only Smith played more minutes in ‘93 than Damyean Dotson did two years ago. The Knicks were like a pitcher who threw 100MPH but whose off-speed stuff was lacking. The pitcher spends all winter developing a curveball, a changeup and a sinker. Then next year rolls around and it’s all fastballs again. A professional hitter is gonna catch up to any fastball, eventually. And the Bulls weren’t just any old hitter.
New York entered the postseason with momentum. Over two months from the regular season to the ECF, they went 33-6. But Chicago had momentum, too: after sweeping Atlanta and Cleveland in the first two rounds, the Bulls record for the season was 64-25. After knocking off Indiana and Charlotte, the Knicks stood at 67-24. There’s no clear edge there.
The universe unfolds as it must. So did the conference finals. The Knicks won the first two games at home, coming back in the second half to take Game 1 and holding off a late Chicago push in Game 2. The Bulls won Game 3 in a rout, despite Jordan shooting just 3-of-18; he’d get to the line 17 times, hitting 16 free throws. While Ewing netted an efficient 21, the other four Knick starters combined for just 23. Who ducked what, Oak? The Bulls led Game 4 throughout, and while Starks scored 24, there were two problems: the Knick point guards — Rivers and Anthony — combined to score just two. Also, Jordan poured in 54.
Game 5 is remembered as The Charles Smith game, but there were other culprits. Ewing again came through with 33, but Jordan’s 29 were more than Starks, Rivers, Anthony and Blackman combined (26). The Knicks got to the line 35 times but made only 20 free throws. In the clinching loss at Chicago, the Knicks obliterated the Bulls on the boards, at one point outrebounding them 28-7, and Ewing scored an efficient 26, but Jordan again outscored all the Knick guards despite not making a shot the last 25 minutes.
Back to Game 5, when New York lost their edge for good: the Knicks entered that game having won 27 straight at Madison Square Garden, including six in a row over the Bulls dating back to the ‘92 playoffs. They hadn’t lost at home in four months. But again, this is where Chicago showed what separates champions from runners-up. Over six playoff matchups from 1989-1996, the Bulls played 15 games at MSG. Their record was 5-10. Projected over a regular season, that’s lousy.
But the playoffs are a different season; Bob Costas called them “the real season.” Winning 33% of the time on the road in the postseason means you’re winning one road game every series. That’s not lousy. And while Chicago struggled in New York, the Knicks may as well have been the Washington Generals when they visited the Bulls: in 18 playoff games at Chicago, with Jordan playing and even when he was retired, the Knicks won once. Just once.
Before the ‘93 ECF, 109 teams had fallen behind 0-2 in a best-of-7. 106 of them went on to lose the series. What the Bulls pulled off was incredible. Chicago won four games in one week against a team that entered the series having lost just six over two months. They’d go on to win their third straight championship, something no team had done since 1966. Those Bulls were a defensive terror, pressing and trapping teams with their Doberman Cerberus of Pippen, Jordan and Horace Grant. Jordan was at the peak of his powers. Pippen had already been named to multiple All-NBA and All-Defensive teams. 1993 would be the first of four All-Defensive 2nd Team selections for Grant. John Paxson, B.J. Armstrong and Bill Cartwright weren’t asked to do a ton. But they played their roles perfectly.
The Knicks were a great defensive team and a great home team, led by an all-time great center and head coach. They got as far as they could. Undoubtedly they pushed the Bulls to their limits. But while those Knicks had the chutzpah to tug on Superman’s cape, they were never going to beat him. Chicago was Superman. The Knicks were Batman. They had no superpowers, but they pushed themselves as far as they could and maxed out their abilities. But all the martial arts, Robins and batarangs in the world can’t turn you into kryptonite.
The 1993 Knicks weren’t the best team never to win a championship. They were never the best team in this rivalry. But they were the first Knicks team to reach a conference finals in 19 years. They were a founding father of the longest stretch of winning basketball this franchise has ever known. The ‘93 Knicks were not an all-time team. They were also not flameouts. To those who saw them play, they will always be an eternal flame.