6. The Patrick Ewing Rebuild III (Houston/Sprewell/Larry Johnson/Camby)
- Grunfeld replaced Pat Riley with Don Nelson and THAT didn’t work — Knicks were 34-25 under Nelson but it didn’t feel that way. Nelson liked a guard oriented team. Patrick Ewing was unhappy. Nelson was fired, and assistant coach Jeff Van Gundy was named coach. The post-Riley, Van Gundy era was on.
- In the summer of 1996 the Knicks were at a crossroads — while the media focused that summer on Michael Jordan‘s future, and him only signing a 1-year, $30M deal with Chicago — the under-reported big story was that Shaquille O’Neal was a free agent — and this was before any salary caps. Ernie Grunfeld later admitted that the Knicks were considering going after Shaq — that would have meant trading Ewing — but Grunfeld decided to make one more run with Ewing. Shaq signed with LA, shifting the center of power in the NBA to the West (which soon became the best), and the Knicks retooled around Ewing:
- Signed Allan Houston and Chris Childs to free-agent contracts (shooters to help Ewing),
- Traded Anthony Mason for Larry Johnson.
- One more final retool was accomplished before the 1998-99 season:
- John Starks was traded for Latrell Sprewell — when he became available after choking his coach PJ Carlesimo
- Charles Oakley was traded for young Marcus Camby
- 57 wins in 1996-97 for the Houston-Childs-Larry Johnson retool, with Van Gundy coaching — but then came the bitter, infamous 7-game loss to the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference semis, where Ewing was suspended a game for simply stepping onto the court while a fight broke out.
- Knicks slipped to 43 wins in 1997-98 and were wiped out by Indiana in the semis, 4-1. Another retool was needed..
- The Sprewell-for-Starks-&-Camby-for-Oakley retool got the Knicks to the finals in 1998-99.
- The 1999 Finals Run:
- It was a strike season, and that Knick team started slowly but ended strong.
- Too late for GM Grunfeld as he was fired during the season just before the run.
- News also broke that head of basketball operations Dave Checketts was interviewing Phil Jackson to become Knicks coach. Van Gundy became the hero and Checketts the villain.
- Ewing was injured in the 1999 Conference Finals vs Indiana — and limped noticeably on the court the first two games, still leading the Knicks to a game 1 victory and close game 2 loss. Indiana’s players were quoted as thinking he was faking it. After game 2 it was discovered he was playing with a torn achilles.
- Still, Larry Johnson’s big 4-point play won game 3 to give the Knicks momentum over Indiana.
- Marcus Camby played above the rim, and Sprewell and team led the Knicks to the Finals.
- (Note: Indiana’s guards (Mark Jackson, Reggie Miller) said it seemed the league refs gave the Knicks every call to get them to the finals.)
- Ewing missed the finals; San Antonio collapsed on Camby and won easily 4-1.
- (Note: Tim Duncan was injured just before the next season’s playoffs and missed them completely. A year late for the Knicks.)
- A lot of Knicks fans think Ewing’s Knick title hopes ended with the 1999 finals — and they essentially had. Not to forget in 1999-2000 the Knicks won 50 games and went the Eastern Conference Finals again. This time Indiana won the series 4-2. By that time the Lakers had become dominant (67 wins) with Shaq O’Neal and Kobe Bryant in place, with Phil Jackson as the coach (see above).
- Ewing was 37. His window had closed. It was on to Rebuild #7…
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