Roll the McDyess
By Charley Rosen
Special to Page 2

NBA coaches have aphorisms for all occasions:"Young players make mistakes." "The ball took a lucky/unlucky bounce." "I'm proud of my guys." But the one adage that coaches hate to use is this: "Injuries are part of the game."

Indeed, sometimes injuries can transcend the game, creating turmoil for a team and changing the league's balance of power for an entire season. Injuries can create heroes -- as in 1970, when Willis Reed played the seventh game of the championship series on one healthy leg and intimidated Wilt Chamberlain. Sometimes injuries have dire consequences -- Michael Jordan eventually survived a broken foot in 1985, but the Bulls' season and the coaching career of Stan Albeck were both over. So it is that a major injury to a major player tests the mettle of an entire ballclub from the front office to the lowliest scrub.

The latest franchise to be put to the test is the New York Knicks, who lost Antonio McDyess to a season-ending injury. A once proud and successful franchise, the Knicks are now faced with a most basic existential question -- "What now?"

A hypothetical big man, playing an entire NBA game from the tipoff to the final buzzer and from baseline to baseline will cover approximately four miles. (Guards, moving mostly between the foul lines, average slightly less.) Over this time and distance, how often will a big man leave his feet -- in pursuit of rebounds and loose balls, to block shots and distract shooters, to catch some passes and deflect others? One-hundred times? Two-hundred?

With all of these steppings, leapings and sudden changes of direction, it's a wonder that NBA bigs aren't injured more often. Credit their phenomenal physical conditioning for the fact that the odds of any given player suffering a serious injury on any given play are astronomical. In some dangerous circumstances, however, these odds can be significantly reduced.

Consider, for example, the devastating injury suffered by the Knicks' Antonio McDyess in an Oct. 12 preseason game. Here's a guy who just about a year ago partially tore the patella tendon in his left knee while in the Denver Nuggets' training camp and required season-ending surgery after limping through only 10 games. Since then McDyess was traded to New York, worked his way though a painful rehab, appeared to be fully recovered and was declared by all the Knicks' faithful to be the team's latest savior. Then came that fateful preseason game against Phoenix. McDyess had already logged 38 minutes, and the game clock registered 1:55, when he jumped and reached for the moon, intending to dunk the ball before he landed.

As McDyess was a certified All-Star at 6-foot-9, 245 pounds, with a history of effective pivot play (career averages of 17.7 ppg and 8.8 rebounds), it was not totally insane for Knicks execs, players and fans to see McDyess as their antidote to their recent fall from the playoffs. But, presto chango! A tangle of legs, an awkward fall, and when McDyess tumbled to the floorboards, he fractured his left kneecap. The Knicks' season now seems over before it had even begun.

Antonio McDyess
Why was McDyess still in the game anyway?
Which raises an obvious question or two:

Most importantly, what, if anything can the Knicks do to salvage the upcoming season? In fact, what can any club in similar circumstances do to justify the absurd price of season tickets?

And two, for the morbidly curious: Why was McDyess still in the game?

Let's take the second question first. In what has become all too typical of the Knicks' "brainless trust," their official response was a cobbling together of vague and lame excuses: McDyess is a fierce competitor, needing as much playing time as possible to get back into an All-Star groove. ... McDyess was out to establish himself as an on-court leader, so he wanted to make a statement, to set an inspiring example of grit and hustle well beyond the call of duty. ... To coach Don Chaney, it all seemed like a swell idea at the time.

The answer to the first question is simpler but equally unsatisfying: "Not much."

We got your options right here

In the past, there were several acceptable options available for clubs that were decimated by a training-camp or early-season injury to a key player:

  • Trade for a reasonable facsimile of the injured player. (For example, in 1969, when Chamberlain ripped a ligament in his knee and missed the Lakers' first 70 games, his team held the fort by engineering an early-season trade -- Bill Hewitt and draft choices to Detroit -- for Harold Hairston, a jovial forward who contributed 18.5 ppg. With Chamberlain recovered in time for postseason play, the Lakers repeated as NBA finalists.)
  • Use the available playing time to accelerate the development of a young player who has All-Star potential. (For example, only six games into the 1988-89 campaign, Larry Bird went down and out with a torn Achilles tendon that required surgery. The Celtics' fortunes took a nosedive, but second-year player Reggie Lewis inherited Bird's playing time, and his scoring increased from 4.5 ppg to 18.5.)
  • Sign a skilled free agent who has been cut by another team that had a glut of guaranteed contracts. (In 1977, Boston replaced the injured Charlie Scott with Dave Bing; in 1993, New Jersey's Kenny Anderson was hurt and his replacement was Mo Cheeks; two years later the Nets signed Sleepy Floyd when Kevin Edwards went down.)
  • Back up the truck, clean house, and rebuild through the draft. (Although an injury was the not the driving force for Charlotte, six of the team's top eight scorers -- Glen Rice, Anthony Mason, Matt Geiger, Vlade Divac, Dell Curry, and Vernon Maxwell -- were sent packing after a fairly successful 1997-98 season. And the most dramatic overhaul in NBA history was Jerry Krause's dismantling of the championship Chicago Bulls in 1998.)
  • Too bad few, if any, of these options are still viable, and the villain is that newfangled menace, the salary cap.

    Trading players in the NBA's brave new world is an exercise in mathematics -- the total of the combined salaries of the players on both sides of any trading equation must be near-perfect matches. Since the Knicks' most desirable players are burdened with contractual obligations of $11.1M (that would be Allan Houston, who is not even a top- or a second-banana) and $40.5M due over the next three seasons for Latrell Sprewell (whose baggage also includes being a disciplinary problem of the highest order, not to mention a con man and a locker room cancer), the chances of moving either of these guys for someone who will actually improve the team is slight.

    But there are suckers born every minute, and some of them have even grown up to be executives of NBA franchises (consider the fact that renowned knuckleheads like Derrick Coleman, Shawn Kemp and J.R. Rider have all been signed to several contracts). So let's add up and even up the salaries and look at some of the Knicks' possibilities:

    Allan Houston
    Houston to Houston? It might help, but only a little.

  • "Tweedle-dee" Sprewell to Chicago for Jalen "Tweedle-dumb" Rose; or to Indiana for the ghost of Reggie Miller. Of course, even in the unlikely event such deals could be consummated, the result for the Knicks would be as beneficial as redecorating the attic of a house whose foundation is already crumbling.
  • Houston or Sprewell to Miami for Brian Grant, plus the collected works of Bob Marley; or to Minnesota for Terrell Brandon plus a pair of solid gold crutches; or to Dallas for Nick Van Exel plus a license to shoot first and never ask questions.
  • Sprewell to Orlando for Grant Hill, plus a Mayo Clinic surgery to be named later.
  • Sprewell to Phoenix for Stephon Marbury, plus one "Get Out of Jail Free" coupon.
  • Kurt Thomas, a gritty if mistake-prone power-forward-cum-center, is also a tradeable commodity -- even though his recent arrest on charges of manhandling his wife render his acquisition a risky PR gambit for any self-respecting team. Since Thomas earns close to $8 million, it's unlikely the Knicks could ever get equitable value.

    So, yes, it's almost hopeless.

    This wheel's on fire

    It says here the only trade that would make sense for both parties would be Allan Houston to Golden State for Danny Fortson and Bob Sura; or Houston to the Rockets for Kelvin Cato and Cuttino Mobley. Otherwise, the Knicks are foiled by the cap.

    The salary cap has also configured NBA rosters so that a team's top five (or six, or seven) players usually pocket about 80 pocket of the available monies. In most cases, the guys at the far end of the bench make close to the minimum and have minimal skills to match. So to replace McDyess, the Knicks have Othella Harrington, a 6-7 center trapped in a small forward's body; and Travis Knight, a legit 7-footer who can't play dead. Unfortunately for the Knicks, the deal for McDyess sent Maybyner Hilario to Denver. The seventh pick in the draft, Hilario is a lively 6-7 forward from Brazil who has the chance to someday blossom into a bona fide franchise player.

    Having a long bench nowadays requires exceptional planning and foresight, as well as the deft manipulation of the salary cap. Only two teams fill the bill:

    Who's better? The Sacramento Kings' second-stringers -- Keon Clark, Scot Pollard, Hidayet Turkoglu, Jon Barry, and Bobby Jackson -- or the starting five the Knicks will field -- Charlie Ward, Houston, Thomas, Clarence Weatherspoon and Shandon Anderson -- to open the season next Wednesday in Detroit?

    And look at the Nets' from six to 10 -- Jason Collins, Aaron Williams, Lucious Harris, Rodney Rogers, and (once he's healthy and not suspended) Chris Childs. It's because the Nets go 10-deep that they'll be able to run, gun, stun and have fun from October to June not to mention survive a major injury to one of their key players.

    What about the Knicks' signing a free agent? Too bad the only carcasses left on the hook are the likes of Greg Anthony and Chris Gatling -- i.e., the living dead.

    Because of McDyess's disabling injury, the Knicks were granted a $4.5-million exception that allows them some salary cap leeway in fashioning a trade or inking an otherwise unemployed player. The Knicks can utilize this exemption for only 45 days, or they can trade it to another team which can then apply it to their payroll at any time over the course of the succeeding year. In the recent past, however, this "injury bonus" has been widely ignored.

    LeBron James
    The Knicks should raise the white flag and pray for LeBron.
    Because there's no other real choice, it also says here that the Knicks would best be served by tossing the coming season into the trash can and entering the LeBron James sweepstakes. (After all, didn't Lady Luck smile on the Spurs when the team went down the tube in 1997 after David Robinson was injured and missed 76 games? At season's end, however, San Antonio hit the lottery jackpot and drafted Tim Duncan.)

    Why won't the Knicks fly the white flag? Because the supposedly sophisticated Knicks fans, paying top dollar for their look-at-me seats, will not countenance a rebuilding year.

    Too bad the Knicks are handcuffed by the salary cap. Count on them to trade for another putative savior, lose anyway, and pray that McDyess has a miraculous resurrection next season.

    Get ready for another spinning of the New York Nix' wheel of misfortune.

    Charley Rosen, a former coach in the Continental Basketball Association, has been intimately involved with basketball for the better part of five decades -- as a writer, a player, a coach and a passionate fan. Rosen's books include "More Than a Game," "The Cockroach Basketball League," "The Wizard of Odds: How Jack Molinas Almost Destroyed the Game of Basketball," "Scandals of '51: How the Gamblers Almost Killed College Basketball" and "The House of Moses All-Stars: A Novel."



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