It’s simply easier, at this point, to use shorthand rather than tack the 95 Theses to a church door that’s more nail-holes than wood at this point, plus Twitter has a character limit that won’t even let you get started on the lunkheaded excesses of the Isiah Thomas era, so Knicks gonna Knick is the refrain at this point in the calendar, and it just about explains their predicament to anyone who has mentally or actually clicked over to the MSG network sometime in the last two decades and immediately thought oh wow, they’re still like that over there. It’s a joke and a fact, and each time it’s recited, a further reification of the abstract and illusory. We know the Knicks are run by incompetent people—James Dolan, literally everyone James Dolan has ever trusted, et al.—and that is what’s truly at the root of their problems, but as they continue to struggle year over year in familiar ways, the sense grows that they are metaphysically doomed. The reality that it doesn’t need to be this way, and won’t necessarily continue, gets buried deeper beneath skyscraper-high snowdrifts of gloom and grumbling and pathos.
By itself, this offseason hasn’t been terrible for the Knicks. Sure, Carmelo Anthony’s relationship with the franchise has hit a deep trough and he’s waiting to be either bought out or traded, but Carmelo has run his course in New York, so there’s not much difference to Knicks fans whether he’s scowling or tearing up and dispensing his sincerest gratitude on his way out the door. Kristaps Porzingis, who buzzed off to Latvia shortly after the season ended, needs to be brought back into the fold, but that should be easier now that his chief antagonist, Phil Jackson, has left his head of basketball operations post. Jackson’s strange and messy exit is an indication of the broadly hapless job he did over three seasons in charge, but at least he’s gone. These are not victories so much as faint silver linings.
Beneath the fold: Frank Ntlinkina could work out. Lots of scouts seemed to like him, anyway. The Tim Hardaway Jr. signing is a sizable overpay. David Griffin turning down a front office gig because he wasn’t sure he would have any actual power isn’t an indication of anything we didn’t already know.
It’s not as if the Knicks are brimming with promise, here, but all isn’t lost, if you look at the long-term. Two offseasons from now, when they have to pay Kristaps Porzingis, Melo definitely won’t be around anymore, Courtney Lee and Joakim Noah will be playing on a combined $32 million worth of expiring contracts, Ntlinkina will be twenty years old, and Hardaway Jr. will have two years and $37 million left on his deal. Beyond that, nothing is for sure.
It sounds mocking to say that uncertainty and Porzingis’s massive potential are the only things the Knicks have going for them, but that might be all they need to succeed. Used to be, through baroquely inept maneuvering, New York would set themselves up for failure four or five years down the line, but that’s basically unachievable given the terms of the most recent collective bargaining agreement and the league it has created. In this modern, highly fluid NBA, franchises—especially big market ones with big-spending owners—can turn their fortunes around in the space of an offseason or two.
With stars signing short-term deals and blockbuster trades becoming increasingly normal, the only thing a team can do to sink themselves far into the future is deal away bunches of first-round draft picks, which is one of the few mistakes Phil Jackson didn’t make during his tenure at the Knicks’ helm. At present, their situation isn’t unlike where the Pelicans were toward the end of Anthony Davis’s rookie contract: they’ve made one great decision and many terrible ones, yet there’s still plenty of time to set things right. And not for nothing, New York would hypothetically be a place good players would want to play if the franchise wasn’t trapped in a perpetual cycle of erecting waterfalls and speeding over the edge of them.
Of course, nobody with two eyes and a mind that grasps precedent would bet anything of value on the Knicks getting their stuff together. James Dolan’s meddlesome nature, titanic ego, and wretched hiring instincts make the theoretical seem impossible. It says something that there was light scuttlebutt about a possible Isiah Thomas return to the MSG front office a couple weeks ago, and absolutely no one’s response was don’t be ridiculous. Because reinstalling one of the worst executives in league history for old time’s sake is an unlikely but totally plausible thing James Dolan would do. The man puts a hard ceiling on what the Knicks can accomplish, but the franchise’s basement goes all the way to the Earth’s core.
This isn’t just to bury Dolan, but to point out precisely what the Knicks are squandering as they try to divine their way out of the paper bag they’ve been trapped in since Patrick Ewing’s knees started to go. They have an annual torrent of revenue that ensures they can hire whoever will tolerate Dolan. They’re based in one of the best cities in the world. They have a 21-year-old seven-footer who can shoot threes, create buckets for himself, and protect the rim. Despite themselves, they’re going to have some cap room to work with next summer once they get Carmelo Anthony moved on, and even more the following year if they don’t clog it with lousy contracts beforehand. And more All-NBA caliber players are becoming available on a regular basis than ever before. They seem ill-fated more because they’re the Knicks than that their circumstances are objectively poor. That’s as good a reason as any to be pessimistic, but the problem isn’t cosmic. Whether that’s reassuring or only deepens the terror of watching the Knicks Knick their way to decadent mediocrity is a matter of perspective—and perhaps theology.