The Knicks collapse under Scott Layden

NBA general managers come in all shapes and sizes and have all manners of careers. From the great masterminds such as Pat Riley and Daryl Morey to….lesser talents such as Billy King or David Kahn, a team’s collective success or failure can be tied as much to the person at the helm as it can to the players wearing the uniform. 

Some GM’s are able to take a sinking ship and guide it back to shore. Others will take that same ship and add additional weight to hasten its descent. For Scott Layden and the New York Knicks, the latter outcome was the ultimate fate.

Layden’s basketball background was extensive by the time he took over for the Knicks in 1999. His father was famed Utah Jazz coach and executive Frank Layden, and Scott worked with him for nearly two decades, even being one of the key influencers in drafting John Stockton and Karl Malone in successive drafts. Layden stayed with the Jazz in various capacities all the way through 1999, when he left to greener pastures, taking over for Knicks interim GM Ed Tapscott.

In a lockout-shortened season, the 1999 Jeff Van Gundy- coached Knicks scratched and clawed to the 8 seed, winning six of their last games. From there, New York caught lightning in a bottle, withstanding the injury loss of franchise legend Patrick Ewing to get past the Heat, the Hawks, and the Pacers to make the NBA Finals, the first and only eighth seed to accomplish this feat. 

They lost in 5  to the Spurs. The next season, the Knicks lost in the conference finals against a Pacers team out for revenge. However, with younger promising players like Marcus Camby and Kurt Thomas around those in their primes such as Latrell Sprewell and Allan Houston, the future was bright in the big apple.

2000: After what was seen as a successful year despite not getting back to the Finals, Layden didn’t make any major changes. However, there was one issue that existed as Layden started the second year of his Knicks career. 

Patrick Ewing had been a Knicks fixture for the better part of 15 years, leading them into multiple deep playoff rounds and two finals appearances. However, at 37 Ewing was clearly over the hill, and with scoring and rebounding numbers that had dropped in each of the last four seasons, it was time to come to a resolution. Ewing badly wanted an extension. The Knicks (and Layden) did not want to give it to him. Something had to give.

On September 20th, 2000, something finally did.

September 20th, 2000: As part of a four-team trade, the NY Knicks traded Patrick Ewing to the Seattle SuperSonics along with  Chris Dudley and a 2001 1st round pick to the Phoenix Suns, receiving Glen Rice, Luc Longley, Travis Knight, Lazaro Borrell, Vernon Maxwell, Vladimir Stepania, one 2001 1st round pick, two 2001 second picks, and a 2002 1st round pick in return. 

This massive trade of the New York icon had devastating effects on the Knicks. Did Ewing come back to bite them with a bounce-back season? Absolutely not. His play further declined and he retired within two years. It was the return netted that did the Knicks in. Borrell, Maxwell, and Stepina never suited up for New York. Rice, Longley, and Knight did, and the Knicks immediately regretted that unfortunate event as all three were injury-riddled, burdened with heavy contracts, and just not good anymore (or in Knight’s case never were).

2001: The 2001 Knicks were still a solid team, finishing the season 50-32, with both positive strides in their offensive and defensive ratings and healthy seasons by nearly all of their key players. The Knicks weren’t exactly championship favorites, but they were good enough to finish third in the Eastern Conference standings.

August 10th, 2001:As part of a three-team trade, the NY Knicks traded Glen Rice to the Houston Rockets and Muggsy Bogues to the Dallas Mavericks, receiving Howard Eisley from Houston and Shandon Anderson from Dallas.

The Knicks were able to part ways with the ineffective Rice but didn’t do much better in acquiring Eisley and Anderson. Layden surely remembered both from his time with the Jazz, with both being heady players who made their names on defense. 

The only problem with that thinking was that by this time Eisley and Anderson’s strong play with the Jazz was a distant memory. Those helpful rotation pieces were gone, replaced by aged vets with expensive contracts. 

Speaking of expensive contracts, Layden handed out a HUGE one to Allan Houston during the season, giving the two-time all-star a six-year, $100.4 contract extension, essentially paying Houston $20M a year. Houston was a very good scorer and an excellent three-point shooter who had hit key shots for the Knicks over the years.

Unfortunately, the extension was an overpay almost the moment the ink was dry, and the error was compounded when Houston developed knee issues that would end his career just four years later and ultimately foster a clause in the CBA just for him. To say this was a monumental bomb of a signing by Layden would be a massive understatement. Houston would go on to play just 229 out of 410 possible games over the remainder of his career.

When combining Houston’s rapid decline with middling play from the rest of the roster, (NY didn’t have a 20 point scorer on their roster and just five who averaged double digits) it came to no one’s surprise that the Knicks season would end very prematurely. They lost a tightly contested first round series to the Toronto Raptors.

2002: Coming off a disappointing 2001 season, the bottom fell out for both the Knicks and Layden. Jeff Van Gundy resigned after 19 games, (going 10-9) and interim coach Don Chaney only furthered the slide. The Knicks fell towards the bottom half of the league in both offensive and defensive rating and missed the playoffs entirely, going 30-52. In the offseason, Layden picked up right where he left off in making short-sighted and ill-fated moves.

June 26th, 2002: The NY Knicks drafted Nenê 7th overall in the 2002 NBA Draft.

June 26th, 2002: The NY Knicks traded Nenê, (7th overall pick) Marcus Camby, and Mark Jackson to the Denver Nuggets for Antonio McDyess, Frank Williams, and a 2002 2nd round pick. 

Draft night 2002 was a doozy for the Layden-led Knicks. In the same night, they made their selection, the Knicks packaged their 7th overall big man alongside another serviceable center in Camby (and an elderly Mark Jackson) for a flashier but also injury-prone player whose best days were mostly behind him. In short, another classic Layden move. 

McDyess would almost immediately become sidelined (he sustained a season-ending knee injury in an exhibition game against Phoenix) and he would only play 18 games with the Knicks over two years. That was not a typo. Between 2002-2004 McDyess played 18 games with New York before being sent to the Suns.

That was pretty much the death knell on Scott Layden’s Knicks tenure. Sure, he did trade Latrell Sprewell to the Timberwolves in a four-team trade (Layden loved those four-teamers) and yes, he also signed 37-year-old Dikembe Mutumbo to be the Knicks starting center (yes, that is as ridiculous as it sounds). But finally the losing and repeated “fire Layden” chants took their toll, and Layden was shown the door on December 22nd, 2003 as the Knicks stumbled to an 8-14 start.

Layden’s Knicks tenure is best remembered as the desperate moves by an executive to keep a contending team in the contention mix. Unfortunately, those moves were made without the benefit of foresight, and the results crippled the franchise. Layden has redeemed himself (somewhat) in recent years, while the Knicks have mostly not. Regardless, the lessons that can be learned from the early 2000’s Knicks are still relevant today, and a warning to not add additional weight to a team without first building a steady foundation.

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