The Knicks have had a rough season, which shouldn’t be a surprise after last year’s record-tying futility bled into an entirely new roster for 2019-20, but the team’s inability to win games from the get-go was apparently pretty shocking to the people charged with running the show at Madison Square Garden.
That’s according to a new report from SNY’s Ian Begley, which confirms what many of us already knew deep down: the front office thought they had put together a team that might make the playoffs this year.
"They said, in no uncertain terms, that they believed that the Knicks were a playoff team and anything less than that was a disappointment"— SNY (@SNYtv) January 23, 2020
Sources give a behind-the-scenes look at David Fizdale's final weeks as Knicks head coach (via @IanBegley) https://t.co/j7sM1tdhcA pic.twitter.com/yBdDMlhQ2g
While it can certainly be beneficial to begin every new season with a sense of optimism, this particular line of thinking from the powers that be is cause for concern. After failing to even meet with any of the most coveted free agents — depending on who you ask the Knicks either canceled a meeting with Kawhi Leonard because they knew they weren’t going to get him, or there was never a meeting scheduled in the first place — the front office reached out to basically every single remaining free agent and nabbed all of them.
The franchise’s free agency frenzy sparked many a joke about how many power forwards the Knicks had signed. Everyone wondered what Elfrid Payton’s presence might mean for the two young point guards already on the roster (Frank Ntilikina and Dennis Smith Jr.). No one in their right mind should have expected that an extreme turnaround was likely.
Publicly, Steve Mills and Scott Perry correctly pointed out that it would be unwise of them to make specific predictions, but they were hoping to be better than 17-65. They also touted the fact that they hadn’t hampered their ability to sign free agents in the years to come because most of their free agent signings were on short-term deals.
Behind the scenes, however, it was a different story. Here, take it from Begley:
Privately, though, expectations for the 2019-2020 Knicks were set during the team’s first official meeting. Members of the front office addressed the players in the meeting and conveyed two distinct messages, according to SNY sources familiar with the discussions:
1. They said, in no uncertain terms, that they believed that the Knicks were a playoff team and anything less than that was a disappointment.
2. Players who were entering free agency in the summer of 2020 were told that they would be judged much more heavily on the team’s win-loss record than their individual play.
Let’s take those two points one at a time. Anything less than the playoffs was a disappointment? Uh, guys, this is a rebuild of a rebuild of a train wreck.
Sure, you added talent with players like Julius Randle and Marcus Morris, but the former has never made the playoffs and the latter was never close to a top two option when he was playing in the postseason with the Boston Celtics (for the record, Morris did average almost 18 points a game for the Detroit Pistons in the 2015-16 playoffs. The Pistons were swept in the first round by LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers).
Other players the Knicks signed include Wayne Ellington, Bobby Portis, Reggie Bullock and Taj Gibson. These aren’t bad basketball players by any means, but they clearly don’t guarantee a playoff run. A more realistic goal would have been staying close to .500 on the year, but perhaps Mills and Perry were just dreaming big. And maybe they were communicating the desires of one James Dolan.
As for that second point, it’s a nice message, but once again we live in reality, not fantasyland. Of course these players who signed short-term contracts are going to be concerned with their own individual play. They are trying to get that bread, Holmes. This is their life. They are people who presumably do human things such as bleed blood and have feelings.
The edict from management contributed to the disarray with which this season began, according to Begley. He quoted one anonymous source as saying “they were definitely playing tight,” and that some of those eligible to become free agents after this season “were already worried about next summer.”
The article also gets into the handling of David Fizdale’s firing, which, we’ve already covered ad nauseum. Fizdale goes down as a historically bad Knicks coach (his overall record was 21-83), but you can still disagree with the specifics of how everything occurred. That weird press conference in which Mills did most of the talking and Perry looked like he was being held hostage? Bad optics. Reportedly holding meetings with players during the early goings of the year and asking them about Fizdale’s performance ? Uh, okay.
That familiar feeling in the air is a franchise in disarray, with potential changes to the front office and coaching staff on the horizon. The Knicks have been searching for stability ever since Jeff Van Gundy quit 19 games into the season almost 20 years ago. They’ve bricked every shot since.
But don’t worry, everyone. There are reinforcements in the form of a new marketing firm the Knicks just hired. Translation LLC has been tapped to “bolster [the Knicks] brand and strengthen its ties to the fan base,” according to this new story from Bloomberg.
Lest this idea cause you even further despair, take some solace in this doozy of a quote from Steve Stoute, the guy who is leading the charge for Translation as it relates to the Knicks:
“Winning cures a lot of problems. Great marketing and exciting entertainment cure all problems,” he said. “The brand has to be strong regardless of the final score. When people are hopeful that things are going to be better, and it brings excitement, all of a sudden that becomes the brand.”
On second thought, maybe lean into that despair.