They got something better -- this season's Most Valuable Player -- in Amar'e Stoudemire.
In the last three weeks, Stoudemire has done what the Knicks had targeted James to do -- make them exciting and relevant and good again -- creating an atmosphere at Madison Square Garden that has been missing for too long.
Stoudemire was the consolation prize when James and all his drama went to Miami instead, but he has been the best player in the NBA lately, igniting the MVP chant and a whole lot of attention around the league.
The Knicks won their eighth consecutive game Sunday, the same time Stoudemire set a franchise record with his eighth consecutive 30-point game, a first in the NBA since Kobe Bryant finished the 2005-06 season with nine consecutive games of 30 points.
"Amare's the best out there, maybe the best in the league right now,'' said Knicks coach Mike D'Antoni. "I'm excited about this team, and excited about where we can go. I'm excited about what we have.''
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The Knicks (16-9) have won 13 of their last 14 games, the first time since the 1994-95 season, the year after they played in the NBA Finals.
Even with a 3-8 beginning, the Knicks are off to their best start since the 1996-97 season. They haven't won more than 50 games since, but that could be changing now.
"The sky is the limit,'' Stoudemire said after a 129-125 shootout over the Denver Nuggets. "If we get better defensively, we could become a really good team.''
The Knicks have become the second-highest scoring team in the league (averaging 108 points per game), climbing seven games above .500 for the first time since 2000-01, officially ending a decade-long slide.
"There are not a lot of big-name guys here -- except for Amar'e -- but there are guys that want to play together, and want to play the right way,'' said reserve Ronny Turiaf, who was part of the Lakers NBA Finals team in 2008. "That's why we've won eight in a row. We're walking the walk.''
Turiaf, the 6-10 power forward, is one of the many role players surrounding Stoudemire, whose presence around the basket has made everyone else a little better.
Raymond Felton, who was often maligned as a problem in Charlotte, has played recently like one of the league's elite point guards. He had 19 points and a season-high 17 assists Sunday, thriving and unshackled by the uptempo offense used by D'Antoni.
Felton has averaged 20 points and 10 assists in the last 20 games, looking more comfortable than he ever did during his five years in Charlotte.
Danilo Gallinari, in his third NBA season, looks more versatile than ever, showing more and more of the vast potential that D'Antoni always envisioned when he insisted on drafting him.
Wilson Chandler, often criticized the last two years for things he didn't do, looks more aggressive now, getting 27 points and seven rebounds Sunday against Denver. And Landry Fields, the second-round rookie from Stanford, has surprised everyone with his consistency and ability to defend at shooting guard. He had 18 points and nine rebounds Sunday.
"This team has a chance to be real good,'' Felton said. "This isn't some fluke.''
The sudden rise of the Knicks has come despite the continued trade discussions involving Denver star Carmelo Anthony, who is pushing to be traded to the Knicks before he becomes a free agent this summer.
To get him now, the Knicks would have to dramatically alter their roster, trading several players to land him in a deal that would require at least one other team to provide the high draft picks coveted by the Nuggets.
The success also may have altered the thinking of team president Donnie Walsh, who spent three years clearing salary cap space for James/Stoudemire.
"If you think the team is good enough, you might not (make a blockbuster deal),'' Walsh told reporters Saturday in New York. "If you don't think the team is good enough, you might (do it.) I haven't made up my mind yet.''
The Knicks picture -- and how good they really are -- should become more clear in the next several days. They play Boston and Miami later this week. They play Orlando, Chicago and Miami again before the month ends.
"Teams like Denver and Miami and Boston are very well respected in terms of the playoffs and their championships push,'' Stoudemire said. "We have an opportunity to create some havoc and put our foot down on this playoff race.''
When asked Sunday what he thought about the wisdom of making a big move for Anthony in the midst of such sudden improvement, Stoudemire shook his head.
"That's not my concern,'' he said. "We're playing well, and I just want to keep this going.''