Out of Options
The Knicks are old and undersized, but rebuilding them could cost
a G.M. his job

No job in basketball is harder than general manager of the
Knicks. While other G.M.'s might be permitted to dismantle their
aging teams and absorb a losing season or two while they rebuild
with young talent, New York has a sellout streak to keep intact
(395 games at week's end) and the most expensive tickets in the
NBA to unload (average price: $91.15). Because of the pressures
of the here and now the team's future is bleak.

After a 99-86 loss to the Clippers on Sunday, the Knicks were
4-7 (including 0-6 on the road), their worst start since
1985-86. Last year they ranked No. 1 in defensive field goal
percentage and No. 2 in defensive rebounds; through Sunday's
games they had dropped to 14th and 24th, respectively, in those
high-effort categories. Over the past decade the Knicks had
gained a reputation for overcoming all obstacles. Not anymore.
"We're worn out mentally," said coach Jeff Van Gundy after a
109-83 loss at New Jersey last Friday, during which he tore up
his play sheets in frustration.

The signal move for the Knicks came in April 1999, when Madison
Square Garden president Dave Checketts fired G.M. Ernie Grunfeld
for daring to rebuild the team. Grunfeld's unforgivable sin:
trading Charles Oakley, who was 34 at the time, for 6'11" Marcus
Camby. Next to the acquisition of Latrell Sprewell seven months
later, the swap turned out to be the Knicks' best move in recent
years. The 27-year-old Camby--who has been sidelined all season
with plantar fasciitis in his left foot but is expected to return
this weekend--helped lead them to the Finals in '99 and has become
their only inside force. Grunfeld moved to Milwaukee and quickly
shaped the Bucks into contenders.

For Grunfeld's successor, Scott Layden, the mandate from the
Madison Square Garden corporate boardroom was clear: If he
wanted to keep his job, he could not do anything to diminish the
Knicks' chances of winning immediately. Layden won't confirm
that; he has become the most tight-lipped G.M. in the league, a
consequence of the pressures he has felt since leaving the Jazz
to come to New York two years ago. He nearly executed a
masterstroke in the summer of 2000, when he arranged to deal
Patrick Ewing for 6'11" Vin Baker, a former All-Star who was 28
at the time. After that four-team trade collapsed--the Pistons
pulled out--Layden broke a cardinal rule: He exchanged big for
small by dealing the 7-foot Ewing for 6'8" Glen Rice. After a
disappointing season in New York, Rice was dealt last summer for
6'6" swingman Shandon Anderson and point guard Howard Eisley.

Even if Layden had kept Ewing so that his $14 million could fall
off the Knicks' salary cap after 2000-2001, they still would have
endured several disastrous years before freeing any cap room, and
by then Layden would have been out of work. With the exception of
Camby, New York's league-high $85 million payroll is bloated with
overcompensated players who have already peaked. At an average
age of 30.02 years the Knicks have the oldest roster in the NBA.

It's also one of the smallest. In the preseason Sprewell
criticized management for failing to acquire a big man. Layden's
only move up front was to replace Larry Johnson with another
undersized power forward, 6'7" Clarence Weatherspoon. Though he
has drawn fire for supposedly providing teammates with a
ready-made excuse for losing, Sprewell says, "I stand by what I

In a league filled with young, explosive talent, the Knicks are
plodding and listless, as the mounting no-shows at Madison Square
Garden attest. "The nature of this sport is that it's cyclical,"
says Van Gundy. "We've been trying to defy that for a long time."

Pacers' Jamaal Tinsley
Older Rookie Pays Dividends

Because last year's rookie class was so unproductive, it became
fashionable to note that the draft had become a futures market
dominated by high school players and college underclassmen who
might take years to establish their value. That thinking is not
so trendy this season. A couple of kids from overseas are
already starting in San Antonio (19-year-old point guard Tony
Parker) and Memphis (21-year-old forward Pau Gasol), and two
other teams have starters who were college seniors a year ago:
Grizzlies forward Shane Battier and the Pacers' surprising point
guard, Jamaal Tinsley.

At week's end the 6'3" Tinsley ranked fourth in the league in
assists (7.4 per game) and 16th in steals (1.83)--phenomenal
numbers for a 27th draft pick. In a 120-113, double-overtime
loss to Minnesota last Friday he scored 12 points, handed out 15
assists, had six steals and blocked five shots. The next night
Tinsley scored a game-high 28 points and pulled down 13 rebounds
in a 104-98 loss at Detroit. Indiana coach Isiah Thomas, who
figured Tinsley would be a lottery pick after watching tape of
him last January, believes he would have been a much higher
choice 10 years ago, when NBA teams were focused on drafting
finished products.

Lackluster performances at the predraft camps also hurt Tinsley's
draft position. By the time he came to Indiana for his interview,
Thomas and team president Donnie Walsh had heard rumors that he
was a bad actor, going all the way back to a run-in with the law
Tinsley had as a teenager in Brooklyn. He spent three days in
jail when police charged him with armed robbery; the charges were
later dropped. Tinsley dropped out of high school, and he needed
two years at Mount San Jacinto Community College in California to
qualify academically for Iowa State, which he led to a pair of
Big 12 titles.

Now Tinsley, 23, finds himself cutting deeply into the playing
time of Travis Best, one of the league's top sixth men last
season. (Although he'll be a free agent after this season, Best
has handled a nine-minute-per-game reduction in playing time
without complaint.) Tinsley also finds himself being coached by
one of his childhood idols. "He lets me go out and play,"
Tinsley says of Thomas. "Because he played the position, he
understands that some of the mistakes I make are things I need
to go through."

COLOR PHOTO: MANNY MILLAN With no reliable inside threat, Sprewell and his fellow Knicks will have to take it to the hoop. COLOR PHOTO: BOB ROSATO While lottery-pick high schoolers are learning the ropes, Tinsley is starting at point for the Pacers.

around the Rim

Further proof that Clippers owner Donald Sterling operates in
another universe: Los Angeles acquired Vinny Del Negro from the
Suns last Friday in a three-way deal so that his $2.3 million
salary would count against its payroll, enabling Sterling to
exceed the league minimum of $31.9 million. No other team has a
payroll of less than $41 million. The Clippers immediately
waived Del Negro.... Alonzo Mourning suffered a setback in his
ongoing battle to come back from a kidney disease. On Nov. 13 he
was sidelined indefinitely after contracting a virus so that
doctors could try to regulate his immune system. They have said
that they have to exercise extreme caution whenever Mourning is
sick. "The cold reality of it all is that I have no control,"
says Mourning.... Clippers forward Darius Miles apparently
hasn't forgiven Jerry Krause for telling Miles before the 2000
draft that he would prohibit Bulls players from wearing
cornrows. "I would never have gone to Chicago," says Miles, who
claims that if Krause had drafted him, he would have demanded a
trade just as Steve Francis did the year before to escape the
Grizzlies.... Karl Malone was upset by an Internet report in
which an anonymous Jazz official blamed the 38-year-old Malone's
faltering production on his failure to work out last summer. "Me
not training is like a Hershey's bar without the chocolate,"
Malone says. "As long as I have a heartbeat, I will never come
into camp out of shape."

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