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Knicks to Stick With Quick Fix

Another instant rebuilding project hits Gotham, or kiss this decade goodbye too.

Showing the difference in how people do business in the big league of professional basketball (Western Conference), as opposed to the junior circuit (East), the Phoenix Suns, who had a better team than the New York Knicks, just melted it down to rebuild.

Meanwhile, the threadbare Knicks went for the usual theatrical gesture, bringing in Stephon Marbury, who is an All-Star as opposed to a franchise player, having led his last two franchises to one playoff appearance in five seasons.

The Knicks are now capped out through 2008, with only three No. 1 picks until then and three starters over 30. So rebuilding on the fly had better work better for Isiah Thomas than it did for Dave Checketts and Scott Layden.

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West teams are built to win titles. East teams are built to compete against each other in an attempt to reach the Finals, where, in theory, anything can happen, but hasn’t lately.

It can’t be a coincidence that all the teams that have major salary cap room coming -- the San Antonio Spurs, Denver Nuggets, Utah Jazz, Clippers (for their own reasons, of course) and now the Suns -- are in the West, where pretty good doesn’t cut it.

It isn’t that no one in New York gets it. Spike Lee, a famed filmmaker but merely a fan in basketball, recently told the New York Times that the Knicks should start over, adding, “New York City fans aren’t stupid. They’re not going for okey-doke. They’re not going to be hornswoggled or bamboozled.”

Actually, New York City fans are like chickens in a pot who’ve had the heat turned up under them gently for years. Now they’re beginning to notice it’s kind of warm.

Even with the high-powered Marbury-Allan Houston backcourt, this team isn’t a lock to make the playoffs, much less get past the first round. The front line of creaky Dikembe Mutombo, Kurt Thomas and Keith Van Horn has one 37-year-old player who was just given $20 million to take a hike by the Nets; one who can opt out this summer; and one who had problems with the temperamental Marbury.

The last is, of course, Van Horn, scorned openly by Marbury in their Net days. Van Horn has been the best Knick, but when they got him last summer, Marbury sneered, “You’ve got to be way tougher than Keith is to play in New York.”

Nevertheless, with heads getting lopped off and big names coming and going, the supposedly rough, tough New York press swooned en masse, once more.

The New York Daily News’ Mike Lupica, an old Knick loyalist who recently suggested a fan boycott, rushed back into the fold, assuring readers, “This one will work out. It is one Thomas had to make, the big deal Scott Layden never made.”

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Gee, where have we heard that before? How about 2001, when Lupica celebrated the departure of dour, controlling Coach Jeff Van Gundy, who was still making the playoffs annually, so Don Chaney could turn the players loose to unleash their creative potential?

Thomas, with his stature, with everyone telling him to tear this team apart, and with the fans, at least, reconciled to what had to be done, had the opportunity to finally change their ruinous course.

Of course, Madison Square Garden boss James Dolan didn’t want to see the Garden empty out. The money was inconsequential in the vast Cablevision scheme, especially with his father running the corporation, but it would suggest Dolan didn’t know what he was doing.

Thomas is sharp but also ambitious and impetuous, which explains all the career turns -- within six years, he was Toronto Raptor president, an NBC announcer, Continental Basketball Assn. owner, Indiana Pacer coach and Knick president. In the end, he talked himself into believing Marbury could bring a title.

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As Newsday’s Shaun Powell, one of the few media skeptics, wrote after Isiah’s introductory news conference:

”... Thomas, after being in town for all of one weekend, said, ‘This is a market that I think is insatiable about winning and wanting to win. This isn’t a market about rebuilding.’ ”

It was the old Knick refrain: We can’t rebuild. We’re too profitable to rebuild. Everyone wants to play in New York so we can rebuild overnight.

In fact, until now, they’d rebuilt like everyone else. Draft picks Willis Reed and Walt Frazier preceded their ‘70s heyday after years of being a laughingstock. Their ‘90s teams were built on the second-to-last finish and lottery draw that brought Patrick Ewing.

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They veered onto this detour in 1996 when Checketts, who was running out of moves in his effort to keep milking the cash cow to please his corporate bosses, gambled on Larry Johnson, who was no longer the player he’d been and had an eight-year, $84-million extension about to kick in.

Hopelessly capped out after that, Checketts and Layden kept gambling, one bet more desperate than the next -- a $42-million contract for Shandon Anderson, $41 million for Howard Eisley, $36 million for Glen Rice, $28 million for Charlie Ward, $27.5 million for Clarence Weatherspoon, $22 million for Travis Knight.

By then they were in so deep, no one could figure out what to do or, more to the point, bear to do it. So they invented this faux respectability.

Some markets are, and ought to be, about championships. Knowing Los Angeles couldn’t care less about mere respectability, Jerry West scattered the Showtime remnants within two years of Magic Johnson’s 1991 retirement, kicking the last strut out from under Coach Randy Pfund in 1993 when he traded Sam Perkins. Pfund was gone by 1994, but Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant were here by 1996.

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However, if it’s the smart way to go, it’s also the hard way.

Boston General Manager Danny Ainge is catching heat for breaking up a “respectable” team, one that would never have come close to winning a title, in the hope of building one worthy of the Celtic tradition.

The Suns’ gutsy move was savaged in the local media.

“This wasn’t a blockbuster trade,” wrote the Arizona Republic’s Dan Bickley. “This was a hope-buster trade. This was further proof that players come, players go and the Suns’ only constant is panic.”

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The Suns made lots of mistakes to get into this mess (Penny Hardaway, Tom Gugliotta, Jason Kidd for Marbury) so it may, indeed, be early for congratulations.

On the other hand, they were where they were and there was no other way back.

How this “big deal” will get the Knicks past the Pacers, Detroit Pistons, Nets and New Orleans Hornets, who are all bigger, younger and sounder defensively, remains to be seen.

Meanwhile, Thomas is still rocking and rolling. He got rid of the remaining two-plus seasons of Weatherspoon’s deal -- at the cost of taking on three-plus seasons of Moochie Norris’ contract through 2007. When Marbury was acquired, Norris dropped to No. 3 on the depth chart, at $4 million a year.

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Next: Rasheed Wallace?

No, really. The New York papers are full of reports that Thomas will pursue the Portland embarrassment next.

Not that the turnaround is in sight yet.

Marbury, of course, apologized for calling Van Horn soft, noting at one point he had been “pretty much wrong.”

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Pretty much?

On his most deferential behavior, Marbury took 21 shots in his first two games, but, as the Suns could attest, that doesn’t work. They tried to change him from being a shoot-first point guard and this season is what happened.

Of course, when Marbury goes back to shooting, with Houston needing shots too, Van Horn may die on the vine ... again.

The new Knicks lost Marbury’s debut ... in Cleveland, to the lowly Cavaliers. Then they were bombed by 32 in Marbury’s home debut ... by Van Gundy’s Houston Rockets, as fans chanted “Fire Chaney!”

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Thomas, asked about his coach, said only that he would continue to evaluate the team. In other words, “Start the countdown, boys!”

That should solve everything. Maybe the new coach will let the Knicks unleash their creative potential.

As Chaney’s old boss, Van Gundy, noted, “To think it would go seamlessly for [Marbury], that’s what happens in fantasies.”

Unfortunately, fantasies are all that remain in New York.

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