On This Date: Ernie Grunfeld demoted as Knicks GM

April 21st 1999: Ernie Grunfeld demoted as Knicks GM

The longstanding tension between Ernie Grunfeld & Jeff Van Gundy officially came to an end when Team President Dave Checketts notified Grunfeld of his demotion while out eating dinner. Checketts & Grunfeld became close friends after working together since 1991. Unfortunately, the long simmering feud between Grunfeld & JVG proved to be too much for Madison Square Garden to handle.

Grunfeld & Van Gundy were both assistant coaches under Stu Jackson. After the Knicks fired Stu Jackson, there were rumblings that assistant coaches (including Van Gundy) thought that Grunfeld undermined his coaching tenure. Grunfeld quickly moved into the front office as Van Gundy remained an assistant coach for several more coaches until 1996.

The tensions boiled further leading into and through the 1998-99 lockout season. One point of contention was trading both Charles Oakley & John Starks. Van Gundy, who had the utmost support of his teammates, wanted to retain both players. Grunfeld, on the other hand, accurately predicted that the team was getting too old. He saw trading both players as necessary to endure one final run with Patrick Ewing nearing the end of his NBA career.

Due to the lockout, there was enormous pressure on the Knicks and the team struggled from the onset. The Knicks teetered on missing the playoffs for the first time since 1987. Latrell Sprewell & Marcus Camby also played limited minutes for most of the season to the ire of the front office.

Throughout the season, Jeff Van Gundy’s job was on the line. With Phil Jackson sitting out the year, there was rampant speculation that the Knicks would hire Phil to replace Van Gundy. Therefore, the tensions were very high. To make it even worse, there were various stories reported about the front office’s dissatisfaction with Van Gundy and vice versa. There were several public retorts expressing their dissatisfaction towards each other.

Furthermore, it seems that the beat reporters & PR team played a major role in the feud. The NY Post, led by Peter Vecsey, received scoops from Grunfeld. The NY Daily News’ Mike Lupica received scoops from Checketts. Frank Isola & the NY Times’ Mike Wise received scoops from Jeff Van Gundy & the players who sided with their coach. The PR department within the Knicks organization took sides in the feud too.1

Because the internal turmoil leaked to the press, Cablevision, the new Knicks’ ownership group, had enough and wanted to squash the infighting. James Dolan, at the time the vice chairman of MSG, & the late Marc Lustgarten forced both parties to resolve their differences. When it seemed that the differences were irreconcilable, Dolan & Lustgarten forced Checketts to fire one of them. Because Van Gundy had the support of his players, Checketts had to fire Grunfeld.

The firing was done at a strange time, which doesn’t seem to be out of the ordinary in the Knicks landscape. The Knicks were barely scratching the 8 seed at the time of the demotion. Eventually, the Knicks secured the 8 seed, defeated the #1 seed Miami Heat, and made it to the NBA Finals. Van Gundy remained with the Knicks on a contract extension until the beginning of the 2001-02 season.

Grunfeld’s legacy with the Knicks is honestly a mixed bag to me. Obviously it’s easy to say that the Knicks made the playoffs every single season he was a part of the front office, including the two NBA Finals runs in 1994 & 1999. His notable signings included Anthony Mason, Allan Houston, Chris Childs, & Kurt Thomas. His more notable trades included acquiring Doc Rivers, Charles Smith, Larry Johnson, Latrell Sprewell, & Marcus Camby. He did draft both Greg Anthony & Charlie Ward. However, I do wonder whether Grunfeld did enough to surround Ewing with a legitimate #2 option and provide him with younger talent that could have helped the Knicks compete against the more athletic playoff teams. The Knicks mostly neglected draft picks and favored acquiring older, past-the-prime veterans.

The Grunfeld demotion had long-term repercussions on the direction of the Knicks franchise. For one, James Dolan became a more influential and vocal voice in the Knicks front office. His influence led to Dave Checketts’ dismissal in 2001. His influence and the tensions from the 1998-99 season also helped formulate the current iteration of the Knicks media policy that certain beat writers (i.e. Isola) consider draconian and “big brother-lite.” The new media policy led to fewer leaks and the beat writers lost their once valued access to the organization. Isola seemed to have a big problem with the policy. Furthermore, Van Gundy’s resignation and the eventual dismissal of some of his assistant coaches (Tom Thibodeau) furthered Isola’s feud with the organization. Essentially, there’s a reason the New York Daily News is not highly regarded within Madison Square Garden.

On This Date: Knicks beat Kings without King

January 31st 1983: The New York Knicks, sans Bernard King, beat the Kansas City Kings

The New York Knicks routed the Kansas City Kings 114-97 despite the fact that Bernard King was inactive due to a sprained right ankle and Trent Tucker was held scoreless. 4 of the 5 starters scored at least 18 points to propel the team to victory. Power Forward Truck Robinson led the way with 21 points and had 5 assists. Paul Westphal shined on both the offensive and defensive end with 18 points, 6 assists, and 6 steals. Bill Cartwright had a double double with 18 points and 11 rebounds. Louis Orr replaced King in the starting lineup and scored 20 points.

The Knicks’ tenacious defense helped open up the game in the 2nd half. After only leading by 4 at half, the Knicks scored 31 points in each of the 3rd and 4th quarters to seal the victory. Their pressure defense led to an 18-2 run to start the 3rd fueled by 6 steals. Additionally, the team shot nearly 51% from the field in an efficient effort.

The 1982-83 Knicks, led by Bernard King and coached by Hubie Brown, made the playoffs and reached the Eastern Conference Semifinals where the eventual champion Philadelphia 76ers swept them in 4 games. Outside of the notable players (King, Cartwright, Tucker), there were a few interesting names on the roster and coaching staff.

Mike Fratello was an assistant coach on Hubie Brown’s staff for the 1982-83 season. He left to coach the Atlanta Hawks. Isiah Thomas almost considered hiring him as head coach after he fired Don Chaney. Future Knicks GM Ernie Grunfeld finished his NBA career with the Knicks in 1986. He then moved to covering the games on MSG before becoming assistant coach under Stu Jackson. He became GM of the Knicks in 1991.

The Knicks acquired Truck Robinson in a trade with the Suns for Maurice Lucas. Truck spent his final 2+ seasons with the Knicks, but notably helped the Knicks sweep the Nets in the first round of the 1983 playoffs. The Knicks acquired Louis Orr right before the season from the Indiana Pacers for a 2nd round pick in the 1983 NBA Draft. Orr spent 6 seasons with the Knicks and mostly produced off the bench except for Patrick Ewing’s rookie season (1985-86) with Bernard King sidelined due to injury.

Furthermore, future NBA coach Paul Westphal spent around 1.5 seasons with the Knicks. He spent most of his prime splitting time as a reserve with the Boston Celtics (winning a championship in 1974) and as a budding superstar with the Phoenix Suns. Westphal made 5 straight All-Star teams with the Suns and helped the team reach the finals in 1976. A foot injury in 1981 cut short his prime and he later joined the Knicks in 1982. Westphal went into coaching in both the NBA and NCAA. He enjoyed slightly more success in the NBA leading the 1992-93 Phoenix Suns to an NBA Finals in his first season. After Charles Barkley left the Suns in 1995, Westphal never seemed to recover the coaching magic achieved in the early stages of his career.