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The irony is that it was another iconic Milwaukee Buck who started what, to date, has been an unending 45-year quest for the greener grass of someone else’s backyard. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar had logged six long years in Wisconsin and he’d had it. He wanted to go home, and he had two homes in mind:
New York, where he’d been born, where he’d grown up in the Dyckman Street projects, where he’d first gamed fame at Manhattan’s Power Memorial Academy.
And Los Angeles, where he’d blossomed into the greatest college basketball player of all time at UCLA, with three national titles, three Final Four Most Outstanding Player awards and a three-year record of 88-2.
Kareem preferred New York, and the Knicks tried to bowl the Bucks over with bucks. “They tried to bully us with money,” Bucks GM Wayne Embry said, and the Bucks wouldn’t be bullied, and opted to ship their star out west for a gaggle of players and draft picks.
So began the Knicks’ endless quest for the Perfect Piece, the five-star acquisition. Through the years this has sometimes taken the form of ill-fated and unrequited affection (George McGinniss, Kevin McHale, LeBron James, Kevin Durant) and sometimes resulted in consummation that wasn’t quite as appealing after the fact (Spencer Haywood, Bob McAdoo, Marvin Webster, Stephon Marbury, Carmelo Anthony). Once in 45 years a celestial spark arrived organically — and even that was 35 years ago, when Patrick Ewing came via the draft. And thus began a new fruitless task for the Knicks, sifting for a proper wingman.
Searching. Always searching. Forty-five years now. And searching still.
Tuesday they learned that, as for the Bucks’ contemporary answer to Kareem, there won’t even be a window to establish momentum for the chase. Giannis Antetokounmpo opted to stay in the Cream City, agreeing to a five-year super-max contract worth $228.2 million. So much for all the fun speculation that was going to help us through a long winter here.
“The system is set up to help the team that drafted the player to keep him,” Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau said not long after Antetokounmpo announced his deal on Twitter. “That’s a big advantage. It’s hard to get someone to leave.”
Thibodeau was a team president once, in Minneapolis, and he once coached the league’s best player, the in-his-prime Derrick Rose in Chicago. He well knows that it takes stars to win big in the NBA.
“It’s critical,” he said. “That has to be a priority, for an organization to seek out opportunities.”
Where does that leave the Knicks?
Searching for the proper pathway. Free agency suddenly seems like a less appealing one, with Antetokounmpo off the table. Next summer promises some intriguing pieces — Victor Oladipo, Jrue Holiday — but only one true franchise cornerstone — Kawhi Leonard, if he opts out, and he didn’t seem much inclined to look the Knicks’ way last time.
The Knicks could try to identify a trade, and they have plenty of draft assets to throw into a deal, though it’s questionable how much the actual players on the roster might help attract any kind of high-level interest.
That leaves player development, which right now is what the Knicks have to hang their hopes on. There are three players on the roster who, if things break right, if potential becomes production and promise yields results, could possibly emerge: Mitchell Robinson, RJ Barrett and Obi Toppin.
None of that troika are givens. Robinson, for all his obvious upside, still has trouble staying on the floor and is still best described as “raw” as he enters Year 3. Barrett looks like he’s taken some excellent steps forward, he looks stronger, he looks more confident, and he won’t turn 21 until June. And Toppin is in the first few meters of a 10K race; if he progresses as a pro at the pace he did as a collegian … well, it’s a worthy dream for Knicks fans.
“When you look at it, every team takes a lot of different paths to getting stars,” Thibodeau. “Sometimes it’s the development stage. You have to be very aggressive in seeking out those opportunities. They don’t just happen by accident. Sometimes you have to make them happen.”
The example Thibodeau often cites is Jimmy Butler, who barely played as a rookie in Chicago in 2012 and scuffled badly the next year but by Year 4 was an All-Star and has now become a top-10 player in the league, a foundational player for an NBA finalist in Miami. Thibodeau saw that development up close in Chicago, saw the fruits of those labors (however briefly) in Minnesota.
Apply that learning curve to any of those three Knicks and they’ll have something; apply it to two (or three) of them? Then, maybe, you have something organic, something real, and something that can finally end a 45-year quest for the Perfect Piece. It might not be the easiest path. But it could still be the best one.
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