It is not the culmination of LeBron James’ free agency 13 summers ago that is lost to history, but the leadup.
Not just the year of hoping LeBron would be a Knick but the years, plural. As early as 2008, then-Knicks president Donnie Walsh was making moves designed to clear salary-cap space and lure James. Here was LeBron when asked in July 2008 — two full years before becoming a free agent — about the Knicks:
“For some reason when I get to the Garden, I always play well,” he said. “So they want me to do it for 41 games instead of two games a year.”
Here was what a league source told The Post’s Mike Vaccaro in late November 2008, after the Knicks made a series of moves, including trading Zach Randolph to the Clippers and Jamal Crawford to the Warriors: “There has never been any doubt in anyone’s mind that the Knicks wanted No. 23. I think we were all looking to see if they really have the fortitude to get in place to make it happen. And now we know.”
Two weeks after that, before a Knicks-Cavs game in Cleveland, James said all the talk was becoming a distraction for the Knicks.
Again: This was two full seasons before James became a free agent.
And when he did finally and infamously choose Miami in a televised special? The stock price of Madison Square Garden dropped 4.6 percent, having risen to a two-week high on July 1, 2010, at the onset of NBA free agency.
That is the sort of hope Knicks fans had all those years ago, and the franchise has never quite gotten over it since. LeBron was supposed to get the Knicks out of what was considered a long morass at the time — one playoff appearance since 2001. Now, it’s five playoff appearances in over two decades. In the four playoff trips since 2010, the Knicks have advanced past the first round once (beating the Celtics in 2013).
James, who visits the Garden for the only time this season with the Lakers on Tuesday night, could have reversed Knicks history. Had he chosen New York, he would not have come alone — the Knicks could have gotten the full Heatles: James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.
That trio won two championships in Miami and got to the NBA Finals all four years in which they played together. And on balance, it’s not unjustifiable to consider that output a slight disappointment — with the 2011 Finals loss against the Mavericks still held up by some as a blemish on James’ resume.
Surely, New Yorkers would have criticized James for such a loss, too. But if he’d doubled the number of Knicks championship banners in the MSG rafters? He would have been a forever hero in this town. There would be a statue.
The Knicks mean more in this town because they are the only team the city isn’t split over. (All respect to the Nets, but there is a reason they have struggled to build a fan base in Brooklyn.) It is different when the Knicks are good.
LeBron might have been the catalyst for a renaissance. Instead, all we get is a yearly reminder of what could have been.
After sitting out the Lakers’ visit to the Barclays Center to play the Nets on Monday night, LeBron James enters Tuesday’s tip against the Knicks needing 117 points to surpass Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as the NBA’s all-time leading scorer.
Who are the seven NBA players who played against both Kareem and LeBron?
Hint: Three were New York City high school stars.
Scroll down for the answer.
(h/t Brian Windhorst & The Hoop Collective podcast, featuring former Post writer Tim Bontemps)
Today’s back page
🏀 Kyrie Irving, Nets bench deliver messy win over star-less Lakers … O’CONNOR: Irving’s confounding decision to leave LeBron James
⚾ HEYMAN: Steve Cohen expected to have Mets in thick of Ohtani bidding
🏒 BROOKS: Bobby Hull’s off-ice life makes for a conflicted hockey legacy
🏈 SERBY: Mahomes-Hurts matchup a ‘dream come true’ for first black QB to win Super Bowl
NHL at the break
The first shoe to drop in the NHL’s trade season came Monday night, and it was a big one. The Islanders acquired Bo Horvat from the Canucks for a package of Anthony Beauvillier, Aatu Raty and a top-12 protected first-round pick.
Horvat has already broken the 30-goal mark this season and instantly becomes the best scorer on the Islanders, who have sorely lacked offense this season.
Signing him to an extension becomes priority No. 1 for Lou Lamoriello before the offseason, when Horvat becomes an unrestricted free agent, but for the here and now, the deal makes a playoff run much more likely on Long Island. It also puts the Islanders under a rare national spotlight as they try to fight their way into a wild-card spot.
With the All-Star break coming this week and all three local teams off, now seems like a good time to survey the landscape leaguewide:
What happens next in Vancouver
The Canucks spent the first half of this season creating a case study that will be used in college courses for years to come. Problem for them, those courses will be in crisis PR.
After acting all offseason as if they could contend for the playoffs, it became clear pretty quickly they would not. It also became clear that Jim Rutherford, the president of hockey operations who was hired last season after coach Bruce Boudreau already had been hired, wanted Boudreau out. Instead of just firing him, though, Rutherford bizarrely made Boudreau continue to coach despite the entire league knowing he was on borrowed time. Rutherford even acknowledged at a press conference that he had called other coaches, and by the time Boudreau was actually fired following a home game against the Oilers just over a week ago, the situation veered into total embarrassment for the organization.
Canucks fans at Rogers Arena chanted, “Bruce there it is,” in tribute to Boudreau, who already had packed up his apartment before the game and joked with media members in the leadup that he hadn’t been fired yet. Everyone knew it was coming, and everyone knew Rick Tocchet would be the replacement. It was also an open secret that Horvat would be traded, though the Islanders certainly were an off-the-radar choice to acquire him.
The question now is who’s next?
The obvious name is defenseman Luke Schenn, whose contract expires after this season and is on the books for just $850,000. It seems as if defenseman Quinn Hughes and center Elias Pettersson are off the table as the Canucks look to build around them for the future, and J.T. Miller just signed an extension over the summer. But is there another big name who could still be traded out of Vancouver? We’ll have to wait and see.
Bruins on a historic pace
The Bruins’ 4-1 loss against Carolina on Sunday night was just their fifth regulation loss of the season (they close the first half in Toronto on Wednesday night). At 38-7-5, they are the fastest team in history to reach 80 points in the standings and are on pace to challenge the all-time records for most points (132) and wins (62) in a season.
Everyone assumed a core whose key components mostly came into the season either aging (Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand, David Krejci) or injured (Charlie McAvoy) was just about over the hill. Instead, everyone has produced at a high level, and David Pastrnak is second in the league with 38 goals and fourth with 71 points. Goaltender Linus Ullmark has also come from nowhere to become a Vezina Trophy contender with a .936 save percentage. And TD Garden has become a fortress: The Bruins have just one regulation loss at home. Right now, they are the team to beat.
The Connor Bedard sweepstakes
One of the biggest stories in the league is a player who isn’t yet in the league. Regina Pats center Connor Bedard is a near guarantee to be the top pick in the 2023 NHL Draft, and the race to the bottom is on.
Columbus, Chicago, Anaheim, Arizona and San Jose are scrapping it out in the league’s cellar while Montreal’s tank job has fallen a little bit short.
Bedard, meanwhile, scored his fifth hat trick of the season Sunday night in the Western Hockey League, extending a point streak to 33 games. In 34 games with the Pats this season, Bedard has a jaw-dropping 85 points (42 goals and 43 assists). He also led Team Canada to gold at the World Junior Championships with a laughable 23 points in seven games.
Also laughable: NHL commissioner Gary Bettman’s assertion last week that nobody in the league tanks.
Jalen Hurts is a victory for the transfer portal
Jalen Hurts will not be the first transfer portal QB to play in the Super Bowl — Joe Burrow did so just last year. But with college coaches perpetually complaining about the effect the portal has had on the sport, it’s worth asking where Hurts would be if he didn’t get to go to Oklahoma, with immediate eligibility, after losing his job to Tua Tagovailoa to Alabama?
Playing the 2019 season under Lincoln Riley and leading the Sooners to the College Football Playoff let Hurts remind NFL teams of his abilities, get picked in the second round and eventually become an MVP candidate for the Eagles. Now he’s about to start a Super Bowl.
Does that happen if he’s spending his senior season sitting behind Tagovailoa? What if he leaves for the NFL after getting benched his junior year in the championship game?
No. Of course it does not.
Horace Grant, Mark Jackson, Avery Johnson, Reggie Miller, Olden Polynice, Rod Strickland, Kevin Willis
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