It’s a question, given the population density of the New York metropolitan area and the byzantinely baffling mental journey it sends you on, that could ensure, if we had the technology necessary to harness the mental aggravation it inspires, that we wouldn’t need to burn a drop of oil for the next decade. So it’s a powerful thing, like an instrument of war or a Carly Rae Jepsen single, and it feels frivolous to just throw it out here, without duct-taping all the windows in my apartment first, but uh: what are the Knicks doing, exactly? The answer is [mind starts endlessly degaussing], but let’s examine the big factors that make us curious enough to ask.
1. The Knicks drafted Frank Ntilikina eighth overall last summer. They also signed Jarrett Jack, who is 34 years old and has started all but five games this season. In January, when Ramon Sessions got waived, they promoted Trey Burke from their G League team in Westchester. He has played 16 minutes per night in 16 games and been surprisingly good. At the trade deadline, the Knicks brought in Emmanuel Mudiay, who is a lot like Ntilikina except he has two-and-a-half years of mediocre professional basketball under his belt. He plays twenty-five minutes per night. Here are Ntilikina’s minute counts over the last ten games: 22, 17, 7, 10, 21, 31, 21, 11, 30, 24. When your roster isn’t overflowing with talent, it’s a fine idea to sample the league’s scrap heap. You could get lucky and find the next Spencer Dinwiddie or Hassan Whiteside. But maybe don’t do so at the position you just sought to fill with a 19-year-old lottery pick less than a year ago.
2. Oof, Kristaps Porzingis. An ACL tear is a worrying injury for a seven-foot-three guy to suffer, especially one who moves with the grace the big Latvian does. He might not ever fully recover from that setback, might be a tad creakier when he gets back. But, well, at least it gives the team an opportunity to pack it and—oh, okay, apparently the Knicks are still going for it. And by it, I mean a playoff seed they’re not going to get. They’re eight games behind the Heat for the eight seed in the East and one of the only teams in the league that is not on one clear side of the competing/tanking divide. The Knicks are 24-and-38 and there are eight teams below them in the standings. Literally the only silver lining to having a star go down in February when you’re a middling squad is that you can, without much shame—what do you want us to do? god is dead—give up on the season and nab a top-five pick. The only way that’s going to happen for the Knicks now is if they get pretty damn lucky and leapfrog a bunch of only slightly less worse teams in the lottery.
3. Jeff Hornacek is fired. He’s a fired man walking around not knowing it. Midseason hires aren’t really a thing in the NBA, and this is not an argument for giving Kurt Rambis the wheel, but there must be an acute feeling of helplessness within an organization when it’s very clear to everybody from the executive suite to the sideline that your head coach is done at the end of the season. If you’re in the front office, you’re thinking about candidates you can’t interview just yet. If you’re a player, you’re trying to please a guy who is a few months away from no longer being in charge of what kind of offense you run or how many minutes you get per night. Malaise, to a certain degree, is unavoidable. There’s nothing to be done about it, but it certainly doesn’t make for a great work environment. If the Knicks are focused, as they seem to be, on achieving some kind of vaguely defined sense of improvement by the end of April, they won’t find it under a lame duck.
There are these things, and then there are smaller developments, like the Knicks failing to sell off Courtney Lee in February, Hornacek burying Willy Hernangomez so far down the bench that Hernangomez asked for and received a trade to Charlotte, the ongoing Joakim Noah saga that appears to be more Noah’s fault than the team’s but isn’t a great look for anybody involved. No franchise gets everything right, but it’s a struggle to find one solid decision the Knicks have made in the past eight months. I suppose the Michael Beasley signing is turning out okay, in terms of both his scoring numbers and a broader, less easily calculable entertainment factor. A Mic’d Up segment that follows The Beas for a game might reveal that his trash-talk is mostly misquoted Sartre.
But again, with blood streaking out of my left nostril: what are the Knicks doing, exactly? When Phil Jackson was let go over the summer, there was a feeling that the franchise had dodged a bullet. Jackson hadn’t quite screwed everything up. At least he drafted Porzingis; at least he only handed out one disastrous, cap-clogging contract (Noah for $73 million). Now it was time to get some people who knew what they were doing in charge, and they... immediately gave Tim Hardaway $71 million. They got Melo out of town, which needed to be done, getting zilch in return. They handed Ron Baker a two-year deal that has a player option in it for some reason. Steve Mills and Scott Perry have not demonstrated that they’re better at this than the Zen Master, though, to be fair, they have not openly undermined half their roster’s confidence in the press.
This Knicks season has been a long, thoughtless hangover. The franchise simply doesn’t seem to have a plan. And so maybe the frightful question is unanswerable, but it shouldn’t be. Teams fail to live up to expectations all the time. They set goals and try to accomplish them a certain way and it doesn’t work out. That’s frustrating, but excusable. What’s truly maddening is rudderlessness, which is what the James Dolan era Knicks are beset by year after year. They flail ineffectually with no broader vision in place to give even the flailing some meaning. You can’t course-correct if you don’t have a course in mind. The question is worth asking because it appears that Knicks don’t ask it themselves: what are we doing, exactly? They should write that on a whiteboard and go from there. It could bring into sharper focus the horror of their predicament and perhaps motivate somebody in that blessed building to come up with a way out.