The Imminent Decline and Fall of the New York Knicks, 1975

[One of the NBA’s most-celebrated teams ever is the old New York Knicks of Frazier, Reed, DeBusschere, Barnett, and Bradley. This magical quintet, Red Holzman orchestrating on the sidelines, grabbed New Yorkers by their heartstrings and wouldn’t let go for two NBA titles (1970 ,1973). This article, from the magazine Basketball News 1974-75 Pro Yearbook, broaches the sore subject that the magic was over, a victim of time, a bad knee, and an expansion draft. 

As Bill Bradley later explained the road ahead for the retooled Knicks, “You invest an awful lot in your teammates. You invest in terms of how your abilities mesh, but also how the personalities mesh, and the friendships, and the trust that you give them. So now we get a whole new cast of characters. I’m older at this point. My skills are OK, but they’re not quite what they were. And the question is: Are we going to be able to reconstitute the same thing that we had those five years? It turns out that we’re not able to for a variety reasons.” 

The 1974-75 Knicks eked into the playoffs through the side door and got clobbered by the mediocre Houston Rockets in their best-of three opening rounder. “Today, we controlled nothing, absolutely nothing,” said Walt Frazier after the Knicks’ got blown by 32 points in the decisive game three. “No boards, no scoring, no nothing.”

In this article, the prolific wire service reporter Bert Rosenthal predicts the imminent decline and fall of the Amazing Knicks. The article is also worth reading for its nice description of the then four eras of the Knicks since 1946. Can you name them?]

John Gianelli (40)

“The Knicks is dead!”

Well, not exactly dead, as it once was mistakenly said about baseball’s New York Giants. They are alive but not well . . . not as well as between the 1969-70 and 1973-74 seasons when they won more games than any team in the National Basketball Association and won the only two championships they have gained since joining the league as charter members in 1946. The Knicks were NBA champs in 1970 and 1973 and finished second once (in 1972).

When healthy, they were virtually unbeatable. When they were beaten, it usually was when Willis Reed or Dave DeBusschere was injured. Now, they no longer have DeBusschere. After a glorious NBA career, he has retired and accepted the job of general manager with the Knicks’ New York rival in the other pro basketball league, the Nets of the American Basketball Association.

Reed, the regular-season and playoff Most Valuable Player in 1970 and the playoff MVP winner again in 1973, was questionable because of his continuing knee injuries that have forced him to undergo three operations.

Jerry Lucas, who helped carry the Knicks to the championship final in 1972 when Reed was unavailable, also was doubtful, having unglamorously announced his retirement at the end of last season but not having filed his retirement papers with the league, as required.

And Dean Meminger, like DeBusschere, definitely was gone, having been taking by Atlanta (from New Orleans) in the complicated deal that sent Pete Maravich from the Hawks to the new Jazz.

Backbone is Gone

DeBusschere and Reed were the backbone of the Golden Era that the Knicks enjoyed the past five years, actually the fourth era in the club’s history. They provided the rebounding strength, the defensive muscle, and the offensive variety the Knicks were able to muster against usually taller and faster opponents. It was the exceptional way they did their jobs that made the Knicks an effective five-man unit, a cohesive and precision-like team.

Their departure—along with those of Lucas and Meminger, if neither Reed nor Lucas return—would severely decimate and destroy the Knicks, and leave general manager-coach Red Holzman a massive rebuilding program. It also would endanger the Knicks’ chances of making the playoffs.

In their division—the Atlantic—they figure to finish behind the defending league champions, the Boston Celtics, and the youthful-and-determined Buffalo Braves. For the Knicks to make the playoffs then, they would have to finish with a better record than the second-place team in the Central Division, likely Atlanta.

The Knicks’ demise was signaled last season. With Reed out for most of the year and Earl Monroe out for half the season, they struggled to a 49-33 record and second place in the Atlantic Division behind Boston. They lost several games against the league’s weaker teams and were fortunate to win many others. Then, in the playoffs, they barely outlasted the Capital (now Washington) Bullets in a grueling seven-game, opening-round series before bowing out in five games against the Celtics.

It was not a happy ending.

“There was something missing. We were struggling; we didn’t go out as a unit,” surmised Phil Jackson, one of the few who played well against Boston. “That bothers me as much as losing.”

Dick “Fall Back, Baby” Barnett

‘End of an Era’

“Right now, it feels like the end of an era,” continued Jackson. “Like everything is disintegrating. It’s a shame. We’ve been together five, six years, and we had a good run—two championships, three years in the finals. Part of defeat is failure, but I don’t feel failure.”

“It’s the end of the greatest Knick team,” observed Reed, the team captain, “but we’re a lot better off than when I came here (in 1964).”

The Celtics took only a few years to recover from the loss of the legendary Bill Russell (after the 1969 season). The Knicks will at least be competitive as long as they have all-star guard Walt Frazier. “I appreciate this more than ever,” Frazier said, glancing at his 1973 championship ring. “But we’ll be back.”

Frazier will be back, and so will Monroe, Jackson, Bill Bradley, John Gianelli, Hawthorne Wingo, Henry Bibby, and Mel Davis. But those who are missing will be most prominent.

“The Knicks won’t be as good without DeBusschere,” said Lucas. “I don’t think there was a better all-round player in the NBA. Dave helped young players, he contributed to the philosophy of the team. He was the catalyst, the missing link who made the team go when he first came to New York (on December 19, 1968). He was a guy who could blend in everything. 

“He’s going to be missed. But life goes on, the team goes on, and it will have to do the best it can to cover up his absence.”

“Dave was an important factor in our success,” said Bradley, “great for me and great for the team. We won’t get any one player to replace him. It will have to be one with two or three other abilities.”

“I enjoyed being around him,” said Reed. “He was a tough competitor, a guy who was able to produce under pressure, inspirational, understanding. I’ll miss him.”

The Knicks also will miss Reed, if he doesn’t agree to udergo a fourth knee operation—the third on his right knee—as two doctors said he needed to continue playing. “A Willis Reed at 50 percent is a lot better than a lot of players at 100 percent,” said DeBusschere.

Reed the Rejector

“I hope he comes back,” said Frazier. “He’ll help on defense. I’ll be glad to see a guy drive in and have his shot rejected. He intimidates people.”

Frazier, one of the best ballhawks in the league, admitted that Reed’s presence has helped him make the All-Defensive team for each of the past six years. “With him in there, I can gamble more on defense, knowing Willis will be back there to clog up the middle and block a shot if I miss a steal,” said Frazier. 

Bill Bradley

Without either Reed or Lucas, who could destroy opposing teams with his unorthodox “bombs” from the outside, the center job would fall to Gianelli, a willing, determined youngster, but short on talent. DeBusschere’s starting forward berth will be filled by Jackson, an underrated offensive player but not nearly the tough defender and all-round leader DeBusschere was.

To augment the returnees, the Knicks acquired forward Howard Porter from the Chicago Bulls and signed rookies Rudy Jackson, a promising forward, and Jesse Dark, a rugged guard. Porter, a streak shooter but a defensive liability, cost the Knicks their No. 1 draft choice in 1974.

But neither he nor Phil Jackson will be able to adequately replace DeBusschere, who was the heart and soul of the club from the time they acquired him from the Detroit Pistons some six years ago. It was not until they got DeBusschere (for Walt Bellamy and Howard Komives) that the Knicks became perennial contenders—and twice NBA champions.

His acquisition was one of three major happenings within one year that started the club’s fourth era. The first occurred on December 27, 1967, when Holzman succeeded Dick McGuire as coach. And the second was February 14, 1968, when the Knicks moved into the new Madison Square Garden and acquired a homecourt advantage from rabid fans who loved to chant, “Dee-fense, Dee-fense, Dee-fense.”

Playoffs No Longer Certain

Since those occurrences, the Knicks have been able to take playoff qualification virtually for granted. Now they will have to fight for it all season long.

The team’s first era began with its inception in 1946 and included reaching the brink of championships in 1951 and 1952, another playoff final in 1953 and a first-place finish, but playoff disaster, in 1954.

Then the club deteriorated, and between 1956—when the Knicks first failed to make the playoffs by losing a play-in game for the playoff berth—until 1961, when they plunged into last-place, everything went downhill.

The third era began in 1964 with the drafting of Reed and had Eddie Donovan as its architect. It culminated in the team eventually winning its first championship in 1970, with the help of such Donovan draft choices as Reed, Bradley, Cazzie Russell, Dick Van Arsdale, Dave Stallworth, Frazier, and Phil Jackson.

Basketball may be the No. 1 sport in New York, but the Knicks no longer will be kings of the NBA. The team’s fifth era is about to dawn. What it will be like is unpredictable, but that it will be distantly different is clear enough.

One thought on “The Imminent Decline and Fall of the New York Knicks, 1975

  1. DeBusscherre and Jackson never really got along. I know media said Dave took over for Willis at power forward with the trade of Bellamy and Komvives. But really, he took Phil Jackson’s place and Phil became a bench player for the rest of his career. Phil was actually good on offense but his liability was on defense against guys like Gus Johnson who could bang you to death and handle the ball.

    Phil resented that and criticized Dave for not going hard in practice and liking his beers. Dave responded by saying that Phil wasn’t tough when it came to contact.

    Point is: when Dave retired in ‘74, Phil had his chance to be a starting player.
    However It didn’t workout between him and John Gianelli. Phil spent too many years on the bench and didn’t prepare himself physically to be a starting player. The ABA transition started to take hold in the NBA with half-court traps and fast small guard play of Kevin Porter, Ernie DiGregorio and others. The Knicks tried to get George McGinnis but a court order wouldn’t allow it. Spencer Haywood and Bob McAdoo didn’t work. They couldn’t get Dr. J.

    In sort, Phil and Gianelli couldn’t keep up with the ABA’s speed transition game. Phil will say the retirement of Willis Reed affected his play and the open-man offense was a liability. But going against Elvin Hayes for 48 minutes? Hence, the formation of the triangle that took away ball-handling responsibilities and physical contact from power fowards as well as transition.


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