The least realistic part of Mike Tyson’s Punch Out!!, the classic NES game, is not the stereotypes. It’s not the fact that Lil’ Mac, the game’s hero, is so short he literally has to jump off the ground to punch people, which would render his punches mostly useless. It’s not that one fighter can teleport around the ring, or that one drinks so much he’s literally turning purple. The least realistic part is the exchange that occurs between Mac and his trainer, Doc, between rounds, later in the game, when Mac has been getting knocked around pretty good:
LIL’ MAC (frowning; one eye swollen shut; his face literally dented): Help, Doc!
DOC: Join the Nintendo Fun Club today, Mac!
As a child, the vagaries of product placement didn’t interest as much as narrative twists. I couldn’t believe Doc, who looked like a friendly sort of fellow and was clearly a good guy, would respond with such subtle, savage IDGAF-ery. There had to be something more there, something deeper to look for. Even if there weren’t, the journey to what I might imagine was way more exciting than the simple, seeming reality.
As I felt then about Doc, I feel now about the state of our beloved New York Knickerbockers. Ownership makes me frown. Management makes me wish I could look away sometimes. The roster is flawed. We need help. Nintendo Fun Club won’t save us. But maybe the third annual Punchies!! will bring a flare of joy to your life and times. None of its real, or meaningful. But that’s the point.
The Glass Joe Masochist Award: Knick fans
Glass Joe is a human punching bag. He exists to get beat. That’s it. That’s all he does. He stands in front of you and waits for you to hit him. Repeatedly. He will never be the champ. Never be a contender. He is a living, breathing, guaranteed L, his existence both essential and meaningless in a sport where every number — wins; losses; rankings; dollars -- is innuendo.
Hey! Same with Knick fans.
The S.S. Knickerbocker is a big-ass boat captained by a big-ass clown who’s steered the club into a Dark Ages. If Jerry West and Gregg Popovich took over tomorrow, their combined powers would fail to outfunk the sinister stank of James Dolan. The public shaming of Carmelo Anthony; the year-two alienation of Kristaps Porzingis (he’s gonna end up a Laker — book it), which you can bet did not go unnoticed by rookie darling Willy Hernangomez. The Knicks Cersei’d Melo.
That sort of thing doesn’t usually end well.
The Knicks will never be champs. They’ll probably never be a contender, just to screw with us. They are more often than not locks for Ls, their existence both essential (NYC is big!) and meaningless (market-size, shmarket-size). Glass Joe takes a shot to the jaw. Down he goes. Canvas. He could stay down. He should. He can’t win. He’ll never win. He knows better than anyone. If he gets up again, he’ll be knocked down again. All his faith ever earns him is another fist to the face. He keeps rising. So do we. Much respect.
The Von Kaiser Worse Than Worst Award: Kristaps Porzingis’s Usage Rate
Von Kaiser isn’t the worst fighter in MTPO!!, but he’s the most forgettable. His look, his fighting style, his smack talk — completely unmemorable. Bad is forgivable. Forgettable is the kiss of death.
You know what else is worse than worst? Kristaps Porzingis’s usage rate. In 2015-16, KP exploded on the scene, establishing himself as the Knicks’ future. New York had lucked into a bona fide star. So what did they do? They de-emphasized his growth potential and gave the ball to Derrick Rose. In a contract year.
Porzingis went from second among regulars in usage rate to third, and that rate actually fell a little (24.6% to 24.3%) in year two. And yeah, that’s only three-tenths of a percent, so no big deal, right? KP’s usage rate drop may be statistically insignificant, but it’s narratively meaningful: the Knicks fell ass-backwards into their best prospect in 30 years, dropped him in the rotation, and ticked him off for reasons beyond even that! No worries, though. The 2045 draft will be here before you know it.
The Piston Honda Jumping The Gun Award: Knick Early Season Success
Beating Piston Honda is not difficult. As long as you’re patient and wait for him to show his tells, easy-peasy-lemon-squeezy. But the hard part of being patient is being patient. You get anxious. Itchy. You’re so ready for action, you jump the gun. And once you jump the gun, however slight the flinch, shit goes haywire.
In 2013-14, the Knicks were submarined by a stretch where they lost 13 of 15. In 2014-15, a 2-1 start was followed by 35 defeats in 38 games. Two years ago, they were 22-22, then lost 16 of 19. A 14-10 start last season was torpedoed by three months of 13-36. Building a culture where epic losing streaks aren’t a yearly thing hopefully begins with the upcoming draft and free agency. If this team is 18-15 next January, I’ma sleep with one eye open.
The Don Flamenco NOOOOO! Award: The 2017 Knick Tank
The second time you fight Don Flamenco, he throws a lotta slow-mo off-kilter punches. It’s crafty, made weirder because he’s a righty. Crafty rightys are rare. John Wall’s a crafty righty. Imagine being a defender, trying to stop John Wall coming full speed on the break. Now imagine experiencing that in the adagio lava lamp spacetime Don Flamenco lives 24/7. A slow-ass awareness of loss. A “Nooooo!” You don’t have to imagine. You saw it unfold this very month.
A late-season flurry of competent suckitude — four wins in their last nine games -- knocked the Knicks from a top-five lottery position to wherever in the seven-to-ten range is one pick after the next transcendent star gets taken. Glass half-full: just like 2015, a gifted European falls into the Knicks’ laps at seven or eight, and in a few years the Knicks are in the Canyon of Heroes celebrating their return to the championship throne on the backs of a Porzingis and a Ntilikina. Nostradamus couldn’t predict that shit, but truth is stranger than fiction.
The King Hippo Soft Underbelly Award: The Triangle Offense
King Hippo has a weak spot: his soft underbelly is literally his soft underbelly; only by throwing a gut punch and forcing him to block do you open him up for blows to the face. Last year the Knicks struggled on both ends of the floor, finishing bottom-five in defensive rating and a sub-par 18th in offensive rating. Compared to the defense, the offense isn’t that bad, except it is, and it wouldn’t be if not for its one weak and huge spot: the Triangle.
Say you fell into a coma the day Jeff Hornacek was hired. Say you woke up today. What would you expect this team to look like a year into his tenure? Figure they’d be sorta up-tempo? A team that shoots threes and gets out and runs, right? How blown would your mind be when you learned the mind powering the team is happy when Porzingis doesn’t shoot threes, and running a system that passes up three-pointers for two-pointers, which they were the third-worst at making? They were also the third-worst team at drawing free throws. When you don’t like threes, can’t hit twos and never draw fouls, your offense is your weak spot.
The Great Tiger Great Disappearance Award: The NBA’s NYC rivalry
Four years ago, the Knicks and the Brooklyn Nets won 103 games between them and finished second and fourth in the Eastern conference. Billboards mattered. People’s wives were tasting like breakfast cereals. People’s wives were tasting like fettuccini alfredo.
It seemed we had a legit rival right in our own backyard. But the Nets took out a subprime loan to be briefly okay, essentially in exchange for Damian Lillard, Derrick Favors, Enes Kanter, and years and years and years and years of likely top-level lottery picks; meanwhile, the Knicks...well, you know. Here we are in 2017, where both teams are stuck in the inglorious role of crabs in a bucket: not going anywhere and clutching and grabbing to keep anyone else from rising up. This is the blueprint for meh.
Of course, even amidst the meh, life persists.
Kristaps Porzingis is a finalist for NBA Block of the Year for this rejection in Brooklyn | @Al_Iannazzone https://t.co/LR1L2rRP1H pic.twitter.com/2g0xnkFqYa— Newsday Sports (@NewsdaySports) April 27, 2017
The Bald Bull First Threat Award: Kristaps Porzingis
We wondered when it would happen. When would the Unicorn, a continuous streak of light and life, finally raise questions instead of hope? What would be the outcome of the inevitable collision between the unstoppable rise of KP and the immovable object that is the Knicks sullen gravity?
Bald Bull is the first fighter on MTPO!! who’s a legit threat to knock you out. This past season we saw the faintest outline of the possible reality where Porzingis and the Knicks don’t stay married. A hot start to the season soon tapered into a long stretch of catatonia. Late in the campaign Porzingis was thrust into the lead option as Anthony and Rose missed games, and the results were mixed. Then Phil Jackson’s end-of-season press conference managed to insult Melo and KP while being full of praise for Rose. KP didn’t like that and is now getting his first taste of power, skipping his final meeting with the team and deciding to play for Latvia in this summer’s European Championships despite the Knicks hoping he wouldn’t. I’m getting too old for this shit. Make the man happy, Knicks. Make us all happy. Even if you’re not sure KP’s ready to be The Franchise, he’s the only contender for the job right now.
The Soda Popinski Lefty Award: Nobody
Soda Popinski is the only southpaw in MTPO!! This award is supposed to go to the best left-handed Knick, so Brandon Jennings was a lock until he was waived late in the season. I thought about giving it to the Knick with the best assist-to-turnover ration, but after Jennings the only guys with a better ratio than 2:1 were Sasha Vujacic (no way) and Courtney Lee (nothing lefty about that dude). Then I considered giving this to the first left-handed Knick I really remember, Greg Anthony. But I don’t really care for Greg Anthony. So instead I propose you go out in the world today, find a left-handed person, challenge them to some one-on-one, and remember to force them to their right. Hug them afterwards. It beats scrounging for heroes where none exist.
The Mr. Sandman “That Escalated Quickly” Award: Willy Hernangomez
Mr. Sandman is my Punch-Out nemesis, a devastating combination of pauses, combinations and uppercuts that are literally too fast to see. I never feel good matched up against him. The last time I played, a couple days ago, I was doing everything right. I stayed calm. I waited for him to strike first. I dodged and countered. Knocked him out. Marveled at my ability to have stayed Zen. Decided I should be that chill all the time. And literally, seconds after he got up from the knockout, I was super jumpy and anticipating instead of reacting and hopping around like a June bug, and quick as can be Mr. Sandman knocked my ass out.
Willy Hernangomez did mostly everything right his rookie year. Despite ranking seventh on the team in minutes, he led the Knicks in total rebounds, offensive rebounds, field goal percentage, and effective field-goal percentage. His per-36 averages? 16 points and nearly 14 rebounds. He hit 40% of his corner threes and was second on the team in dunks. Inside, outside, offensive glass, defensive boards — he did it all, and is a strong candidate for First Team All-Rookie. Make way for Willy.
Yes, his defense needs work, but that’s true of most rookies. Now, just like his buddy KP, Willy faces the next big challenge of his young career -- continuing to improve while the league makes adjustments. You never know how the next step will turn out. Channing Frye was the shit his first few months as a Knick, but he never really evolved after that. David Lee was a less-heralded rookie, but year after year he always added a new twist to his game. Lee grew into an All-Star. Willy’s ceiling is just as high.
The Super Macho Man Spin-O-Rama Award: James Dolan
For years and years and years, the Knick owner has been the Bizarro King Midas, turning everything he touches to shit. The more the fan base feared and reviled him, the more likely he was to swoop down like some demonic incubus/succubus (depending on your naughties) and wreak havoc in our lives. Then, Phil Jackson takes the keys and keeps running the Knicks off the road, and — in an improbable gift from the universe — Dolan is presented with a clear moment of his stewardship where a decent number of fans are rooting for him to take action. To use his judgment. To fire someone. Every moment in your life has led you to this, Jim! CAST IT INTO THE FIRE! DESTROY IT!!!
Instead, the Knicks quietly let it emerge (“announce” would be too strong a word) that the option on Phil Jackson’s last two years was picked up. Dolan insists that he’s not going to “interfere” with Jackson’s reign. But declining the option wouldn’t have been “interference.” Options exist specifically to offer parties choices. That’s why they’re called “options.” The owner had the option to end the run of a man whose response to all his plans going up in flames is to keep feeding the flames as they rise higher. In a rare case of restraint, the owner pulled a 180 and spun toward isolationism. Even when Dolan doesn’t interfere, he comes up short.
The Mike Tyson “You Can’t Stop Reality From Being Real” Award: Everyone the Knicks draft or sign this summer
Welcome to 33rd and 8th. We do things a little different around here. New York is a unique NBA ecosystem, with niches, needs and nuances that can significantly alter organisms that have existed and flourished in more traditional basketball environs.
Mike Tyson’s best moment, in my eyes, was when he said “You can’t stop reality from being real” (a close second: “I want to eat his children!” followed shortly after by “Praise be to Allah!”) We don’t know how far down the Triangle rabbit hole the organization will go. We don’t know who will succeed the current front office, or what their emphases will be. We don’t know if Melo will be there in November, if Porzingis will be here in 2019, if any of us will live to see the next decade. We do know no matter what, Knicks gonna Knicks. We know we’ll be there, watching, laughing, crying, caring. It’s an obsession. But it’s pleasing.