Don Nelson’s reign as Knicks head coach only lasted 59 games, as his up-tempo philosophies clashed with a roster that became renowned for playing tough, physical basketball under predecessor Pat Riley.
Desiring to mold the Knicks to suit his style, Nelson’s biggest obstacle was franchise center Patrick Ewing. Nelson believed that 33-year-old’s best days were behind him and wanted a more athletic, younger center to fit his offense.
“I didn’t think he had very much left in the tank,” Nelson said of Ewing in a June 2019 interview with HBO Sports. “He was one-dimensional. He was interested in rebounds and points – and that was it. I thought that we could do better.”
The Hall of Fame coach suggested a bold idea: trade Ewing to the Orlando Magic for Shaquille O’Neal. Though the Knicks opened the 1995-96 season with a 34-25 record, his thirst to deal away Ewing ultimately led to his dismissal.
“It cost me my job,” Nelson said in the same interview. “I said, ‘You need to trade Patrick Ewing. And you need to trade him right away. There’s a guy by the name of Shaquille O’Neal that’s available, (he) would love to come to New York. And we can jump in there and beat the Lakers out and get this guy. And we should do it.’ And of course, it got back to Ewing, and I was done. I was toast.”
It’s impossible to know whether the Knicks and Magic could have struck a deal to send “The Big Aristotle” to Madison Square Garden. Nelson, and for that matter the entire league, knew that Shaq would test free agency in the summer of 1996. The Magic were known to be frugal spenders and O’Neal’s relationship with Orlando began to deteriorate.
Perhaps, some combination of Ewing and draft picks could have convinced Orlando to make the trade for Ewing to prevent losing Shaq for nothing. In the end, the Magic made a complete mess of the situation. Despite owning O’Neal’s Bird Rights, the Magic lowballed their superstar with an initial four-year, $54 million offer while criticizing his rebounding and defense during negotiations.
A 24-year-old Shaq signed a seven-year, $121 million contract with the Los Angeles Lakers. Orlando’s best offers were the choice of a four-year, $64 million deal or a seven-year, $109 million contract which included a player opt-out clause after season four.
The Magic got nothing, while O’Neal would earn three straight NBA titles alongside Kobe Bryant between 2000 and 2002, and three straight NBA Finals MVP Awards to go with them.
But what if “Diesel” never reached free agency in ‘96? Nelson believed that the Knicks could have beaten the Lakers to the punch. Remember, Nelson coached Shaq and Team USA to an 8-0 record to win the 1994 FIBA World Championship, and O’Neal earned that tournament’s MVP award.
Nelson was convinced that Shaq wanted to play in New York, and a retired O’Neal has spoken of the allure of playing in The Big Apple.
“I never understood why top-name players wouldn't want to come here,” O'Neal told TMZ Sports in January 2019. “If I was a youngster, Madison Avenue would be turning into Shaq Avenue. People always talk about business and business after basketball. The Knicks don't have a star player, so any superstar that comes there, Madison Avenue is going to open up them doors.”
Yet, Ewing was unmovable in the Knicks’ eyes. He was the franchise. Eventually, the Knicks’ all-time games, points, rebounds, and blocks leader was dealt to the Seattle Sonics in a four-team, 12-player trade before the 2000-01 season. Ewing would then ironically play his final season with the Magic in 2001-02 before retiring in September 2002.
The Knicks turned to assistant Jeff Van Gundy to replace Nelson in March 1996. A protégé of Riley’s, Van Gundy would preside over the franchise’s most recent sustained era of success. Van Gundy’s Knicks reached the 1999 NBA Finals, losing out to the Tim Duncan-David Robinson led San Antonio Spurs in five games.
One can only wonder what might have happened if Nelson won the Garden power struggle. Shaq in orange and blue… in his prime… at The Mecca sure would have been something. Maybe if Nelson was given patience in New York, son Donnie Nelson would have joined the Knicks’ front office instead of Dallas and convinced the Knicks to acquire future All-Stars Dirk Nowitzki and Steve Nash.
The what-ifs run deep.
Would Knicks diehards still be waiting for a first championship since 1973? My guess is that the Shaq-powered ‘Bockers would have raised at least one NBA championship banner to the Garden’s pinwheel ceiling. As much as it would have hurt, trading Ewing in 1996 would have been worth it.