The New York Knicks teams of Pat Riley and Jeff Van Gundy were contenders throughout the 1990s. Led by Patrick Ewing, they made the Finals twice, advanced to the conference finals two more times and had their championship hopes dashed by injuries and suspensions on other occasions. Charles Oakley, one of the stalwarts of those Knicks teams, said it best: “We were always one player away, one possession away, one win away. We should be called ‘One Away.’” Twenty years later, Knicks fans are still tormented by a litany of what-ifs from the franchise’s last great era.
The Top 10 What-ifs of the 1990s Knicks…
Kept Strickland – In February 1990, the Knicks traded 23-year-old speedster Rod Strickland for a well-past-his-prime 33-year-old Maurice Cheeks. For the rest of the decade, the Knicks lacked a point guard with Strickland’s quickness who could regularly break down defenses.
Reggie Miller instead of Allan Houston – Houston was the Knicks’ first option in free agency during the summer of 1996. Reggie Miller was their second. There wasn’t as much difference between the two as folklore would indicate. The biggest impact of signing Reggie may have been removing him from a Pacers team that beat the Knicks in the playoffs twice over the next four years. Reggie claims he was just using the Knicks for leverage, but if the money was right, who knows?
Ewing didn’t break his wrist – Patrick Ewing’s broken wrist in December 1997, marked the end of his prime. The Knicks squeaked into the playoffs without him and upset the Heat in the first round. Ewing returned during the second-round series against Indiana, but wasn’t himself and the team wasn’t accustomed to playing with him. Indiana won the series in 5 games.
Houston missed – Allan Houston’s runner in the closing seconds of the decisive game of New York’s first-round matchup with the Heat in 1999 hit the rim and backboard before dropping in. The Knicks advanced to the Finals. If Houston’s shot didn’t fall, Jeff Van Gundy almost certainly would have been fired and there may have been other significant changes as well.
10) The 1995 Pacers series started or ended differently – The bookends of the 1995 playoff series between the Knicks and Pacers were devastating for the Knicks. Indiana stole Game 1 on Reggie Miller’s shocking eight points in nine seconds, and Knicks fans were flabbergasted when Ewing missed an easy finger roll at the end of Game 7. Indiana took the Magic to seven games in the conference finals. The Knicks could have done the same, if not better, and another trip to the Finals may have prevented Pat Riley from bolting for Miami weeks later.
9) Didn’t trade Patrick – Ewing, who was angered by suggestions that the Knicks were better without him and frustrated with his role on the team, asked to be traded in the summer of 2000. The Knicks dealt the big man to Seattle as part of a four-team trade and took back the bloated contracts of Luc Longley, Travis Knight and Glen Rice. Then they flipped Rice for two worse contracts in Howard Eisley and Shandon Anderson. The Ewing trade sent the Knicks into a downward spiral from which the franchise has yet to recover 20 years later.
8) Signed MJ – It was a long shot, but in the summer of 1996, Checketts spoke to Michael Jordan’s agent, David Falk, about MJ taking his talents to the Garden. The NBA even signed off on a side agreement between Jordan and ITT, the company that owned the Knicks, which would have allowed the Knicks to circumvent the salary cap to sign him. Jordan had been severely underpaid by the Bulls for his entire career and swore he would have left if Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf lowballed him.
7) Re-signed X-Man – The Knicks shocked the league by taking the Bulls to seven games in the 1992 playoffs. Xavier McDaniel had a huge series and owned space in Scottie Pippen’s head. X-Man was a free agent that summer, and the Knicks intended to bring him back, but when McDaniel still hadn’t received an offer a few weeks prior to training camp he signed with the Celtics. One can only wonder what would have happened if the Knicks rolled it back with the same squad in 1992-93 with Mark Jackson at point guard and X-Man on the floor in the final minutes of playoff games instead of Charles Smith.
6) The Knicks were healthy in the ‘99 Finals – After barely securing the eighth seed in a bizarre, lockout-shortened season, the Knicks advanced to the Finals in 1999. Unfortunately, they faced the San Antonio Spurs with Tim Duncan and David Robinson without Ewing, who tore his Achilles tendon in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Finals. Larry Johnson was also hobbled by a severely sprained knee. San Antonio’s size was too much for a Knicks team that was forced to heavily rely on an injured Chris Dudley and New York fell in five games. It’s unlikely the Knicks would have won the series at full strength, though they may have pushed it to six or seven games.
5) The Knicks stayed on the bench – The Knicks led the Heat 3-1 in the second round of the 1997 playoffs when a brawl broke out at the end of Game 5 after Miami forward P.J. Brown flipped Charlie Ward into the stands. Several of the Knicks’ key players left the bench to break it up. Ward, Johnson, Houston, Starks and Ewing received suspensions, which were split between Games 6 and 7, and Miami won the series. That Knicks team was two deep at each position and had more offensive firepower than in previous years. The Knicks split the season series with the Bulls that year and won a game in Chicago on the last day of the season that the Bulls desperately wanted because it would have given them 70 wins.
4) Charles Smith dunked the ball – The 1992-93 Knicks won 60 games and earned the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference. New York took the first two games from the Bulls in the conference finals before Chicago evened the series. Charles Smith had the ball in his hands a few feet from the basket with the Knicks down one in the closing seconds of Game 5. The 6-10 forward was rejected four times in a matter of seconds, and the Knicks lost the game and the series. If New York won that game they would have had a great opportunity to vanquish Jordan and the Bulls in a Game 7 at Madison Square Garden.
3) Riley pulled Starks in Game 7 – The Knicks came within a game of the championship in the 1994 NBA Finals against the Houston Rockets due in large part to the shooting of John Starks, who scored double digits in the fourth quarters of games 4, 5 and 6. But the man Riley referred to as “Feast or Famine” clanked one shot after another in Game 7. Still, he kept shooting, and Riley stuck with him. The coach had former All-Star Rolando Blackman and Hubert Davis available on the bench, but he stuck with Starks. John shot the Knicks out of the game, finishing 2-of-18, including 1-of-10 in the fourth quarter and 0-of-11 on three-point attempts.
2) Riley stayed – In June 1995, with one year remaining on his contract, Pat Riley faxed in his resignation as Knicks coach. Riley wanted an ownership share and to be team president. Ownership was not a possibility, though the presidency may have been enough to keep him. Negotiations between Riley and Checketts became contentious, and Riley fled to Miami. New York defeated Miami in three of four postseasons from ‘97-’00, but Riley had the last laugh, winning three rings in Miami, while turning the Heat into a model franchise. Meanwhile, the Knicks have the most losses in the NBA this century.
1) Olajuwon didn’t block Starks’ shot – The Knicks trailed the Rockets by two points with 5.5 seconds left in Game 6 of the 1994 Finals. Starks ran a pick and roll with Ewing on the left side of the floor, took two dribbles towards the corner and let it fly from behind the arc. Hakeem Olajuwon left Ewing, nearly lost his balance, then lunged towards Starks and miraculously got his fingertips on the shot, causing it to fall short. Starks had 16 points in the fourth quarter that night and is certain the shot would have fallen if Olajuwon hadn’t tipped it. The Knicks would have been champions.