Despite Decade-Long Struggles, Knicks and Rangers Have Come a Long Way
Mike Watts, WFUV Sports
Madison Square Garden is legendarily known as, ‘The World’s Most Famous Arena’, but that very building has had some unpleasantly long summers for quite some time now. The Knicks are going on 40 years removed since their last Championship, and the Rangers last won a Stanley Cup behind Mark Messier’s guarantee in 1994, their first and last since 1940.
Usually, as April approaches the arrival of baseball generates a sense of hope for New Yorkers that a long winter is coming to a close, but for a change the Yankees aren’t favorites. And the Mets? Well, they’re still the Mets.
It's rare for both New York baseball teams to struggle at the same time. Yet that is the scenario we may be looking at this season -- something all too familiar to the two wintery franchises that call the Garden home. This year, both the Knicks and Rangers are relevant and carrying some lofty expectations for a change.
While the NHL was engulfed in an ugly labor dispute the Knicks stormed out of the gate, going 6-0 for the first time in nearly two decades. The team compiled a 19-6 record by mid-December, which qualified as the third best start in Knicks history. Since day one Mike Woodson’s group has been saying that it’s Championship or bust, and the same can be said about John Tortorella’s Blueshirts.
In late January the lockout finally ended, which was especially good news for the Rangers as most experts pegged the Lord Stanley as theirs to lose. With hockey coming back so did the memories of when the Knicks and Rangers could both potentially play into the early summer. Those days are a distant memory and New Yorkers have long been yearning for a spring similar to the one of 1994, where the Garden was abuzz at an all-time high every night from October on, with both teams eyes set on a similar parade down the Canyon of Heroes.
However, since James Dolan took over both franchises in 1999 there hasn’t been much to cheer about in the Garden. Many credit the recent ‘dark days’ of both franchises to the Executive Chairman of MSG, but not many have been quick to credit “Guitar Jimmy” for the clubs current transformations.
In the twelve seasons following the trade of franchise stalwart Patrick Ewing, the Knicks have made only four cameo playoff appearances, with a combined record of 3-15. The Rangers have fared slightly better, reaching the postseason six of seven years since the last lockout ended. But, prior to the 2004-2005 season being wiped out, the team had missed out on the postseason for seven consecutive seasons, which was the longest playoff drought in franchise history.
Before last spring, the Knicks were without a single playoff victory dating back to April of 2001, and the Rangers had failed to advance past the Semifinals since 1997. But, that all changed as Tortorella helped morph his Rangers into Stanley Cup contenders and Woodson’s Knicks snapped the franchises NBA record of 13 straight postseason losses.
One playoff victory is certainly nothing to go crazy about, but there is no question that the win was a step in the right direction, and a baby-step towards regaining respectability. The Rangers meanwhile, got all the way to the Conference Finals before losing in six games to the New Jersey Devils, their Hudson River rival.
It seemed as if the Knicks and Rangers planted the seeds last spring for a possibly magical one at the Garden in 2013, and for the first time in a long time both teams had a foundation to build upon.
To trace the birth of both franchises’ renaissances you have to go back to two events: Amar’e Stoudemire signing with the Knicks, and Rangers General Manager Glen Sather deciding to rebuild the Rangers from the ground up.
In June of 2000, Dolan handed the keys of the Rangers to Hall of Famer Glen Sather, naming him the President and General Manager. During his first four years the Rangers failed to make the playoffs each season, despite being among the league leaders in payroll.
He traded away team icons Adam Graves and Brian Leetch. Instead bringing in high-profile and high priced players such as Eric Lindros, Pavel Bure, Bobby Holik, Theoren Fleury, Alexi Kovalev and Darius Kasparaitis, who all fizzled under the New York spotlight.
The Knicks had an eerily similar problem. In December of 2003, Dolan named NBA Hall of Famer Isiah Thomas President of Basketball Operations. By the 2005-2006 season, the Knicks had the highest payroll in the league and the second-worst record. The team also had no draft picks, as Thomas traded away several future draft picks to Chicago in a deal for Eddy Curry, including what turned out to be LaMarcus Aldridge and Joakim Noah.
Upon arriving in the Knicks front office, Thomas stated that his goal was to leave behind a "championship legacy" with the Knicks, just as he had done with the Detroit Pistons. Instead, he left a lasting legacy of futility. He will be forever remembered by handing out heinous contracts to bench-warmers Jerome James and Jared Jeffries. He’ll also be recalled for drafting busts Michael Sweeny, Channing Frye, and Renaldo Balkman. He also traded for an overpriced Curry, Stephon Marbury, Steve Francis, Jalen Rose, Jerome Williams and Maurice Taylor – to name just a few of his many missteps.
By the time he left town in 2008 Thomas had run the organization into the ground, but luckily he was replaced by one of the most respected basketball minds that this very City has ever produced. Fordham Prep grad and longtime basketball junkie Donnie Walsh came to the Knicks rescue replacing Thomas as the President of Basketball Operations that April.
He purged the team of the “Isiah era”, clearing enough cap-room for the team to make a run at the stacked 2010 free agent class. He eventually failed to come up with LeBron, Wade, Bosh, or even Joe Johnson, but he did sign Stoudemire to questionable $100 million deal.
"The Knicks are back," Stoudemire said on arrival.
Prior to his entrance the Knicks posted nine consecutive losing seasons and had an average record of 31-51 over those nine seasons. Walsh absolutely had to sign one free agent of the bunch, and even though Stoudemire never will live up to his contract he surely helped put the Knicks back on the map and made New York a credible option for Carmelo Anthony.
Only now is the organization reaping the benefits of Walsh’s work and vision, but he is left watching from afar in Indiana. While Walsh was seemingly forced out by the powers that be, Sather is lucky enough to still be watching his plan unfold.
Ten years ago fans and media alike were calling for his head, but Dolan stuck with the man who directed the Edmonton Oilers to five Stanley Cups in a 7 year stretch. During the 2003–04 season Sather finally realized that his struggling team needed to rebuild and a fire sale ensued.
He traded away numerous veteran players for a stockpile of prospects and draft picks. Sather has stuck to his home-grown approach, and since then things have been looking brighter and brighter by the year for the Rangers.
The plan has been a gradual one, but Sather has developed one of the best young nucleuses in hockey, including Captain Ryan Callahan, Dan Girardi, Ryan McDonagh, Carl Hagelin, Marc Staal, Derek Stepan, Michael Del Zotto, and now J.T. Miller and Chris Kreider.
After his team fell just two wins short of a Stanley Cup appearance, he traded for all-world scorer Rick Nash in the off-season, which led many to pick New York as favorites for this year’s Cup. However, they have not lived up to those expectations as they currently sit 8th in the Eastern Conference.
Not too long ago the Rangers and Knicks seemed poised for deep playoff runs this spring, but the Knicks have stalled and the Rangers have yet to click. Both teams hit their ‘rock bottom’ this weekend, and in recent weeks any thoughts of a spring like ‘94 have all but disappeared.
Since their blistering 18-5 start, the Knicks have gone a mediocre 21-21. On Monday they wrapped up their West Coast trip from hell with a gutsy victory over the Utah Jazz, snapping their five game losing streak. During the first four games of the trip the Knicks got slaughtered, losing each game by at least 12 points for the first time since March of ‘08.
Coach Woodson’s group has looked old, disjointed, and seemingly disinterested, especially on the defensive end. Injuries have started to pile up on the oldest team assembled in league history and their lead in the Atlantic has evaporated to just one game over the Nets, and the Celtics are still lurking at 3.5 back.
Yet with only 17 games left, the swooning ballclub is still 3rd in the Conference, and just a game and a half behind the Pacers for the No. 2 seed in the East. But, what good is winning the division if Woodson’s veteran laden team is out of gas come the postseason?
The Knicks are a lock for the playoffs and they probably can’t fall to lower than 6th. Right now it is ever important to get the likes of Carmelo Anthony, Tyson Chandler, and Jason Kidd healthy and rested for a first- round playoff series.
Sure, it would be ideal for the Knicks to win their first Atlantic Title in eighteen years and to finish 2nd, avoiding a possible matchup with the Heat until the Conference Finals. But, that matchup that late in the spring now seems like just a silly pipedream.
A few weeks back some penciled New York into at least the second round, but now nothing is guaranteed as everything has seemingly gone wrong. Many have already started writing their eulogies for the 2012-2013 Knicks, the same way many started to write off the Rangers after they dropped their third straight on Saturday in Pittsburgh.
In recent weeks the Blueshirts don’t seem to have much of a pulse, and like the Knicks they have been riddled by injuries. Marc Staal is out indefinitely and the likes of Nash, Callahan, Aaron Asahm, Darroll Powe, and others have been dinged up.
It seems as if both the Rangers and Knicks have had similar Jekyll and Hyde seasons, where they’ve shown glimpses of greatness, but then signs of inconsistency. On Monday the Rangers also pulled out a much needed victory, defeating the Carolina Hurricanes 2-1 in a shootout.
They followed the victory up with a stellar performance in New Jersey last night, which pushed the team back into the playoff picture.
The recent wins were critical for both the Rangers and Knicks and the two must finish strong during these crucial upcoming weeks, which are shaping up to be the most important few weeks for both franchises in over a decade.
Despite both team’s recent struggles, there is no question that these are two of the most talented Knick and Ranger teams to play in the Garden during the new millennium, and both teams haven’t simultaneously been this good since the 90’s --which is something that all New Yorkers should be thrilled about.
These may not be Messier’s Blueshirts or Ewing’s Knickerbockers, but both current squads have plenty of talent and storylines. At the moment they may both not look anything like Championship material, but they ultimately will not be judged by what they do in the regular season, but rather how they perform in the postseason.
It’s very possible that another spring will go by without a parade, and the Garden will once again have their doors closed before June. Even if that’s the case, this spring should be a bit more interesting than years past at MSG and both teams that call the building home have come a long way since the recent dark days and only brighter ones are ahead.