Once a dazzling crown jewel of the sports mecca that is New York, the Knicks are now no more than a symbol of organizational incompetence. Not that it matters to the ordinary New York sports fan, nor the countless celebrities who roll into Madison Square Garden. It’s the peak in one’s social status that comes with being seen at a Knicks game or posting a selfie on Instagram at MSG that keeps the team alive.
The buzz around the Knicks covers up the level of mediocrity found on-court twice a week at MSG from October till April (the playoff months should be of no concern here). It even helps many overlook the fact that the Knicks’ front office is challenging for the title of New York’s biggest mess.
How can the Knickerbockers find their way out of the Manhattan-sized hole they’ve dug themselves when there are fools occupying every level of the food chain?
The James Dolan problem
Ownership in sports is a real chicken-and-egg conundrum. Can a team win in spite of bad ownership, and in the process make said owner look good? Can a good owner be the caretaker of a disastrous franchise?
James Dolan seems to have the capacity to run a successful sports franchise; the New York Rangers has been moderately successful in recent times. Before Phil Jackson was installed as team president, Knicks fans had been crying out for more experienced basketball personalities to be involved with the franchise. For the most part, Dolan refuses to shirk the cost of building a franchise, and spends whatever it takes to get people on board that can make basketball decisions. He rarely gets in the way of the people making those decisions, preferring to stick to the business side of the organization.
But it’s the nuance in these decisions that let him down. If the Knicks needed a ‘big name’ to take care of basketball operations, why did it have to be Jackson (who didn’t want the job from the start)? Why, after three years of madness, did he pick up the mutual option on Jackson’s contract, only to buy him out a month later?
Dolan appears to show extreme loyalty to those in his franchise, which is why at the forefront of his mind was the three years of bullets that Jackson had taken, rather than the three years' worth of bad decisions. Jackson at least took the negative press off Dolan for several years, saving a portion of Dolan’s reputation. It’s why Dolan hired the already-integrated Steve Mills as new basketball operations manager instead of hiring the experienced David Griffin as president and allowing Griffin to clear out old staff. At the very least, Dolan is loyal - and that’s getting in the way of winning.
The point guard problem
On the topic of questionable decisions, the Knicks’ 2017 offseason has countless examples. Jackson is gone, but his legacy lives on, and not in the right way. The time between the end of the season and Jackson's departure was long enough for serious mistakes that have affected the on-court product. It’s tough to write Frank Ntilikina off already, but one comparison will follow him for his career - Dennis Smith Jr.
As the ninth overall pick in the draft, one after Ntilikina, Smith Jr. seemed to have been the steal of the draft, but was never considered by the Knicks due to Ntilikina's apparent potential to fit into the triangle. A team such as the Knicks, with a relatively low ceiling for the upcoming season, should be focused on taking the best available talent, not which prospect fits their system. That means that the Knicks' depth chart at the point guard position comprises Ntilikina and Ron Baker, who averaged 4.1/1.9/2.1 in 16 minutes per game last year.
So why didn’t they bring back Derrick Rose? Rose has been reported as a disruptive personality, and he's hardly the ideal player for modern-day NBA: he can’t shoot with any consistency, nor does he pass the ball willingly, and his game is heavily reliant on his ever-declining athleticism. But is Rose any worse than choosing between a rookie from Europe and a bench warmer? Is he any worse than scouring the waiver wire all season for a plausible option at point guard as the Knicks will have to do now they’ve missed the boat on Kyrie Irving? Unless they really are tanking, New York will struggle to achieve much this year given their point guard woes.
The Carmelo Anthony problem
While the Irving domino has now fallen, it leaves the Carmelo Anthony domino as the major NBA piece set to move. Kyrie’s recent trade to Boston undoubtedly leaves the Knicks somewhat hamstrung. While Carmelo’s preferred destination (in somewhat a binding fashion due to his no-trade clause) is Houston, there was a chance he may have been enticed by Cleveland to join LeBron James. Kyrie naming New York as one of his preferred landing spots made a path to completing a trade seem possible, even if the Cavs were demanding Kristaps Porzingis.
With Kyrie off the table, it leaves no real path for the Knicks to trade Carmelo there, and means that without buying him out at the full price of his contract (be assured that Anthony won’t hand out many discounts) they’ll have to trade him to Houston, likely for little in return.
Jackson’s constant media tirades have reduced Anthony’s trade value by an enormous amount, though the front office personnel has done little to attempt to restore it since he left. Whether the Knicks like it or not, Carmelo can veto any trade that he doesn’t like due to the no-trade clause they offered him, and Houston has them over a barrel in trade negotiations as they’ve reduced his value so much. They have little choice than to either buy out Carmelo or accept Ryan Anderson and whatever else Houston is willing to give up.
It's time to think long term
While Porzingis is a rising star, he’s far from a sure thing right now. That said, they made the right choice in not trading him for Irving, who might be an All-Star right now but is also a deeply flawed player. Time and time again, New York have searched for short-term glory over long-term success; this represents at least somewhat of a realignment of priorities.
However, this will be a long build up to success - that is, if there is any light at the end of the tunnel. The enormous contracts of Joakim Noah and Tim Hardaway Jr. will restrict moves made in the next few years, though this might be a blessing in disguise. With no way of signing more big free agents to big contracts, they are essentially forced into tanking. The way forward can only be a long-term build and asset collection. If Porzingis becomes the transcendent player he has potential to be, Ntilikina develops as a top-10 draft prospect should, and they collect other high draft picks, there’s no reason the Knicks can't have a formidable squad in five years time. A collection of picks and contracts might get them a star as we’ve seen in Boston.
All that seems unlikely from a franchise that has shown no patience in recent years though. The constant mantra we hear is that New York can’t handle a rebuild; the media would eat them alive if the product on the court isn’t up to scratch. But, really, what’s the difference between a rebuild and the effort that they’ve been rolling out for the last few seasons? No matter what they’ve called the period, it's been just as poor as any ‘rebuild’; they’ve been to the playoffs once in the last five years, and three times in the last thirteen years.
To think that fans won't turn up as soon as they call it a rebuild is ridiculous. New York's loyal fans have continued to show up through this mess, giving no reason to think they won't come in the future. Maybe it’s the fans’ fault anyway? While most fans hold their teams accountable for poor performances, Madison Square Garden is almost full for every game, win or loss. For anything to improve, maybe that has to change.
How can the Knicks fix this mess? Comment below!