LeBron James just did the Knicks a favor, a big one. By making them play their most important game on the road, a game set for Thursday in Ohio with The King and his court, James stripped much of the glitz and glamour out of the Knicks' playbook.
Donnie Walsh and Mike D'Antoni will have to sell basketball, a program, an honest-to-God plan that has everything to do with winning titles and nothing to do with Donald Trump's money and Chris Rock's mouth.
Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh have already committed to making free-agent visits to New York, but James already knows everything he needs to know about the bright lights of Broadway. So the Knicks' roster of New York-centric entertainers and personalities -- much deeper than its roster of ballplayers -- never represented the part of the sales pitch that would make like Mariano Rivera and close the deal.
By forcing the Knicks to hop on a plane, James is forcing them to focus on the real issues that will make or break their bid. Those issues include:
• Can Walsh acquire the right complementary players around James and, if so, how quickly can he do it?
• Is D'Antoni capable of designing and inspiring championship-level defense?
• Will Jim Dolan remain more committed to paying the luxury tax than the most prominent peers he'll be competing against, Chicago's Jerry Reinsdorf and Miami's Micky Arison?
• Will Danilo Gallinari develop into an All-Star?
Yes, the Bulls hurt the Knicks' chances of signing James when they dealt Kirk Hinrich's contract to Ernie Grunfeld's Wizards and cleared enough cap room to offer the same two full scholarships to free agents New York can offer. The Bulls have a stronger team in place, and the Heat have a megastar in Wade and the potential to make one more trade to allow James and Bosh to join him.
It's a ton for the Knicks to overcome before LeBron even weighs the fact they haven't won a playoff series in 10 years. But the notion that the Knicks were caught napping by James' choice to have all corporate raiders come to him belongs on the fiction shelf.
For weeks the Knicks have been piecing together Plans A through Z. Sure, they would've loved to host James for the dinner of his dreams. But by the time The Plain Dealer of Cleveland reported the Knicks were preparing a feast for James, the team had already been informed LeBron wasn't leaving Ohio, at least until he signs.
That doesn't mean the Knicks threw their ambitions into the garbage with the defrosted meat.
They still want to believe LeBron loves D'Antoni, whose agent, Warren LeGarie, described his client's relationship with James as "very good" from their days together with the national team. The Knicks still want to believe LeBron is intrigued by Gallinari, who had better second-year numbers than the likes of Peja Stojakovic, Rashard Lewis and Hedo Turkoglu.
The Knicks still want to believe that James won't want to deal with the 24/7 comparisons to Michael Jordan, and that James doesn't adore Jordan nearly as much as some assume.
Hey, nobody said this would be easy. The Knicks will remind James that their owner, Dolan, has a Steinbrennerian stomach for the fight when it comes to paying the luxury tax, just as they'll remind him that Derrick Rose prefers to dominate the ball in Chicago and that Wade prefers to dominate it in Miami.
But they know they'll have to do better than that. They'll have to convince James that D'Antoni is a safer bet than Tom Thibodeau, the Belichickian defensive coordinator who's never been a head coach. They'll have to convince James that D'Antoni has a more creative offensive mind that Pat Riley, because nobody believes Riles would let Erik Spoelstra coach LeBron for long.
They'll have to convince James that D'Antoni can indeed coach the more manly side of the ball.
"You have to want to play defense first, and it has to be stressed in the locker room," James said before a Cavaliers-Knicks game at the Garden on Nov. 25, 2008. "It has to be stressed on the court. It has to be stressed during the games in order for you to be successful in the playoffs."
If that message was meant for D'Antoni, there's ample evidence the Knicks coach didn't hear it. LeBron will likely ask why on Thursday, when the Knicks try to survive their own intra-market knockout round -- the Nets are scheduled to meet James the same day -- before advancing to their very own free-agent finals.
The Knicks will have a plan for Wade and Bosh on their New York visits, and they'll have a plan for the rest of the Class of 2010, too. But first, during whatever speeches and video presentations they plan to make in Ohio, the Knicks will have to talk basketball.
It's a surer way than the stomach to LeBron's heart.