New York wins, even without LeBron

NEW YORK -- The New York Knicks didn't get LeBron James, and a few of the rabbit punches they launched Thursday hinted they might not even care for him as much as they once did.

But the chase itself was worth it, all right -- the two seasons of losing, the groveling courtship of James according to his unprecedented rules, the absurd sight of Knicks team executives jumping through flaming hoops such as flying out to California last Thursday to talk to Joe Johnson when the clock struck midnight on the first day of free agency, just because they heard LeBron might like to play with Johnson.

All of it was worth it in the end.

As alternately overdone, brilliant, irritating and completely understandable as James' unprecedented approach to free agency was, James did the Knicks a huge favor by encouraging them to woo him, and then teasing them along to the bitter end before he revealed Thursday night he was joining Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and Pat Riley in Miami.

The Knicks were a franchise going nowhere for nearly a decade before James decided to become a free agent this summer.

Without James out there as the carrot they were chasing, the Knicks would've never had the organizational courage necessary to do the gut-job on their roster that they undertook. Team president Donnie Walsh never would've come in from Indiana and changed the way the Knicks do business as drastically as he did -- which means the Knicks may have never gotten out of the salary-cap hell they'd been paralyzed in forever. Which means they wouldn't have even been in play for two max-contract superstars like James, Wade or forward Amare Stoudemire, the five-time All-Star the Knicks did sign and introduce at a noon news conference at the Garden on Thursday.

"Yes, it was worth it," Walsh said.

Even if you hated all that flirting and dropping of hints James did along the way, at least his availability kept the Knicks committed to their plan. Under Walsh, there's been no more throwing huge money at quick fixes, bad contracts or washed-up big names just because Knicks owner James Dolan figures, hey, it's only money.

Without James to chase, the Knicks would have never swallowed all the losing that had to be accepted to rebuild the franchise the right way, either. They wouldn't have been confident they could sell it to their fans. But a Knicks pitch that said the future reward was going to be worth the short-term pain was a lot more palatable because a once-in-a-generation player like James was the prize at the end.

And it would've been terrific if it had worked out.

Was the Summer of LeBron annoying at times? Sure. The Knicks desperately wanted James for myriad reasons -- titles, ticket sales, his ability to push their brand globally, not just his own. But Knicks officials did their best at Stoudemire's news conference to act, anyway, like they were over it. No, really. They insisted they wouldn't be sitting around wringing their hands or breathlessly awaiting what James might say during his 9 p.m. television special. No need to shout "Get a life" at them.

(The only crack in the brave front was when Dolan volunteered that when Stoudemire said yes he was coming, Dolan blurted, "Really? … Really?")

Acting ambivalent about James was an interesting party line to put out given the Knicks genuinely weren't 100 percent sure that James was about to jilt them. But they could see the likelihood as well as anyone, and they were already spinning the news and perhaps even throwing some wood on a new Heat-Knicks rivalry by saying over and over how "some people" -- presumably LeBron and Bosh -- just aren't "cut out" for the bright lights and big stage and "challenges" of New York like their new guy Stoudemire is.

Maybe the Knicks' brass thought goading James to take up their dare at the 11th hour was their last best shot. Who knows?

"Some people may say they want the biggest stage, but when it comes down to it it's different," said Knicks coach Mike D'Antoni, who breezily added that he planned to be on a plane Thursday night from New York to Las Vegas for summer league play rather than wait around for James' decision.

Walsh said he had no intention of watching James' TV special, either.

No curiosity to see it at all, Walsh said when pressed.

"None," he replied.

A third Knicks official said the James camp's ability to maintain the suspense of where James was going until the last minute "is about the only thing that impressed me during this whole thing."

The Knicks aren't the only franchise that James left feeling a little chapped. But the Knicks are still better off than they were when the chase began.

If the Knicks do find a way to someday get Carmelo Anthony or Tony Parker here with the money they have left to spend, they'll happily throw those two stars plus Stoudemire on the floor against Miami's big three and see what happens. It sure beats the Howard Eisley-to-Shandon Anderson years, doesn't it?

Having James come here was the best option. But the idea that the Knicks franchise could make some sort of comeback without James and his ego riding along in a sidecar next to him will have to do.

It could be worse for the Knicks.

It has been.

At least they have a heartbeat now. And a plan.

Johnette Howard is a columnist for ESPNNewYork.com. You can follow her on Twitter.

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