Exactly one year ago rumors linked the Knicks with Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. The hope was that Zion Williamson could be theirs in the draft, or be parlayed into some kid of trade to land Anthony Davis. Playoffs? ECF? The franchise’s first title since 1973? All our dreams were fair game.
Instead, here we are. KD and Kyrie became Julius Randle and Marcus Morris. Instead of drafting Batman, the Knicks landed Robin. They could win 20 games in a row and still be below .500. The playoffs might as well be Mars. David Fizdale was fired six weeks into the season; eight weeks later, president Steve Mills has been sacked. What’s a fan to take away from it all? This, for starters:
James Dolan is not what’s wrong with the Knicks.
Wow. Writing that got me retching like Alex at the end of Clockwork Orange. Please know in no way am I absolving Feudal Jim of his decades of crimes against humanity. As we were recently reminded for the umpteenth time, the Knicks’ owner is pestilence made flesh. But I come to contextualize Nero, not bury him.
Let me tell you a story.
In 1946, the Knicks were one of 11 teams in the Basketball Association of America, alongside the Providence Steamrollers, Pittsburgh Ironmen and a burgeoning evil from Boston. Three years later, the NBA replaced the BAA, and the ’rollers and Ironmen gave way to teams like the Indianapolis Olympians, Rochester Royals and the soon-to-bloom Boston darkness. The Knicks were a stable success: their first 10 years they made the playoffs, including three straight trips to the Finals.
Then, reversal: for nine of 10 seasons, the team missed the playoffs. Near the end of the lean years, the Knicks drafted a kid out of Grambling State named Willis Reed. Soon Walt Frazier and Bill Bradley came aboard, the franchise traded for Dave DeBusschere and Earl Monroe and New York reached nine consecutive postseasons, including three Finals and their only two championships.
After the glory years came a 12-year run that included eight without playoffs. Near the end of the lean years, the Knicks drafted a kid out of Georgetown named Patrick Aloysius Ewing. For 14 years in a row, the first 13 featuring Ewing, they reached the postseason, including two Finals. Then, reversal: this season will be 15 of 19 where the team missed the playoffs.
History shows the Knicks have been an up-and-down franchise since always. So the current drought isn’t necessarily catastrophe; it could be a slightly warped normality. Happens every day. All over the galaxy.
If the Knicks win 60 games, they’re gonna sell-out every home game. If they win 40, they’re gonna. If they win 20, they still might. Between the sheer volume of available ticket-buyers and an immense corporate base treating clients and associates to games, they’re gonna fill the building. Around 8.5 million people live in NYC; factor in the everyday swell of tourists and workers who come from outside the city and Manhattan alone sees an extra couple million daily.
Compare this to Sacramento, a city with a population around a half-mil. The Knicks selling out MSG is like the Kings selling out a 1,176 seat arena. The Knicks are protected against poor ticket sales from up on high by the prince of darkness. That, coupled with a $40M (and rising) annual property tax exemption and one of the league’s highest broadcast rights fees, allows the franchise to operate free of that pesky causality between merit and success.
There are literally infinite entertainment options in New York City besides basketball. Broadway sells more tickets than all metro area teams combined. Don’t think a room full of protected capitalists didn’t realize that decades ago. They know the diehards are hooked on the stuff. It’s the casual user they hope to hook. Since winning their last championship the Knicks have repeatedly brought in big names to headline the marquee, regardless of fit or whether that name was past its prime: Spencer Haywood, Paul Westphal, Kiki Vandeweghe, Rolando Blackman, Antonio McDyess, Derrick Rose, etc. They weren’t all brought in as leading men, but they were brought in to attract people who don’t know John Jenkins from Taylor Jenkins.
Then there are specific challenges inherent to this franchise. They don’t draft or develop big-time talent, they don’t attract elite free agents, they never “win” a meaningful trade and they’re a terminal stop for virtually every coach who works here. Remember, though, that all of these issues predate the current owner. So let’s explore more specific and alterable avenues. Where and why do the Knicks always fall short? And what forms would the change we long to see take?
Imagine the NBA decided to re-configure all 30 teams and made every single player available to draft. Which current Knicks would you 100% hope ended up back on the roster? Any? Has RJ Barrett shown you enough to consider him a primary or secondary building block? How high are you on Mitchell Robinson? Maybe your kink is known quantities, so Marcus Morris and Julius Randle get you hot. Assuming there’s a Knick you def wanna retain, how high would they rank in a league-wide re-draft?
I think you’d get through at least two rounds without any Knick being selected. There are nearly 50 players who are locks to be chosen before any Knicks: Giannis Antetokounmpo; Khris Middleton; Jimmy Butler; Bam Adebayo; Kyle Lowry; Pascal Siakim; Kemba Walker; Jayson Tatum; Jaylen Brown; Gordon Hayward; Kevin Durant; Kyrie Irving; Ben Simmons; Joel Embiid; Tobias Harris; Victor Oladipo; Domantas Sabonis; Malcolm Brogdon; Jonathan Isaac; Bradley Beal; Trae Young; John Collins; LeBron James; Anthony Davis; Kawhi Leonard; Paul George; Rudy Gobert; James Harden; Nikola Jokić; Jamal Murray; Luka Dončić; Kristaps Porzi — gotcha!; Shai Gilgeous-Alexander; Jaren Jackson Jr.; Ja Morant; Devin Booker; Deandre Ayton; Damian Lillard; CJ McCollum; De’Aaron Fox; Buddy Hield; Marcus Bagley; DeMar DeRozan; Karl-Anthony Towns; Steph Curry; Klay Thompson; D’Angelo Russell; Zion Williamson; and Brandon Ingram.
Maybe you’d take Jarrett Allen or Jaxson Hayes over Mitch, or Clint Capela or Steven Adams. Maybe you’re hot for Blake Griffin or Andre Drummond. I didn’t pick Chris Paul or Russell Westbrook, for reasons, but I’m some teams would. It’s not too hard to imagine a couple more, and soon enough two rounds have passed without any Knick getting picked.
But hark! 18 of those initial 48 players (38%) have switched teams over the past four summers; if you don’t factor in players on rookie contracts, half the list changed teams.
2016 (4): Durant, Harris, Oladipo
2017 (7): Butler, Hayward, Kyrie, Oladipo, George, Russell, Hield
2018 (4): Butler, Harris, Kawhi, DeRozan
2019 (14): Butler, Kemba, Durant, Kyrie, Harris, Brogdon, LeBron, Davis, Kawhi, George, Conley, Gilgeous-Alexander, Russell, Ingram
Stars are ALWAYS available, or becoming available. A lot of these moves come as total shocks: KD to the Warriors; Kyrie to the Celtics; George to the Thunder; Kawhi to the Raptors. The Knicks have cap space. They have enough contracts of varying sizes to package together in a deal bringing back a big-money star.
There are risks to overvaluing liquidity. Signing a bunch of veterans to one-year deals does create flexibility, but also risks creating a roster of mercenaries who know there’s little to nothing binding them to the organization. When things go south, what’s their motive to consider the greater good? That vaunted Knick culture? Treat people like cargo and when the ship be sinking don’t expect them to care who else gets themselves on a lifeboat.
Relatedly, the Knicks need to do some hard math and accept that every single player on this roster is worth trading. I keep reading that everyone but RJ and Mitch are available. No. An organization with some, any demonstrable success of developing young talent can decide a 19- or 20-year-old has too much upside to gamble on moving. An organization with no history of developing young talent needs to be honest about itself with itself.
That doesn’t mean the Knicks should go out and trade Barrett for Kyle Lowry, or trade Barrett, period. It means they have to be honest with themselves about themselves, e.g. that they’re far more likely to overestimate their young players’ values than to raise them while they’re Knicks. Overestimation makes the world go round: last summer I wouldn’t include Mitch in a deal for AD.
Speaking of overrating: take the recent rumor re: the Knicks shipping Frank Ntilikina and maybe their Dallas picks as part of a package to acquire Russell from Golden State. Russell is not an MVP-caliber player; at this stage he isn’t quite Third Team All-NBA. He will earn a bit under $30M per year the next three seasons. That’s a lot of green for a guy who’s never played on a team that went better than 42-40.
On the other hand, Russell is 23. He’s put up over 20 points and nearly seven assists a game this year and last, with more than twice as many dimes as turnovers, all while shooting above league average from deep on about nine attempts per game.
He doesn’t sniff Frank’s impact as a defender. How much does that matter to a team with zero guards who can shoot or create for themselves? Do you think of “great defender” when Curry, Harden, Kyrie, Kemba, Dončić or Jokić come to mind? Not every meaningful player does it on both ends. Exhibit A: Ntilikina. Frank has shown growth, and not everything he brings to the table shows up in the numbers. I’m not feening to ship him out. I’m not even sure the Russell trade would be good for the Knicks. Lotsa people aren’t.
I just can’t help thinking that the Knicks don’t seem to value Frank. I don’t know what the odds are of him ever reaching his ceiling; I’m fairly certain the odds of it ever happening are better elsewhere. It’s entirely possible five years from now Ntilikina is a smoking hot defensive specialist while Russell is a 28-year-old multiple All-Star with a couple All-NBA nods under his belt.
Many of you know the Knicks haven’t had a draft pick sign a rookie extension and play for them since Charlie Ward. But their struggles with the draft go back nearly 40 years. A critical but often overlooked missed opportunity came after Red Holzman stopped coaching the team after the 1981-82 season.
In the ‘82 draft the Knicks could have selected do-it-all combo guard Fat Lever or scorer extraordinaire Ricky Pierce, who combined to be named to three All-Star games. Instead they chose Trent Tucker, who never averaged more than 11.4 points or 24.2 minutes a game. One year later Phi Slamma Jamma alum Clyde Drexler was available when the Knicks were up at #12. New York went with Darrell Walker instead. Drexler was an original Dream Teamer and a first-ballot Hall of Famer. Walker is the 4,073rd NBA player whose nickname was “Junkyard Dog.”
In 1986, New York needed to upgrade its outside shooting and the backcourt (the more things change, the more they stay the same). Picking fifth, there were plenty of players available who’d go on to have good to better-than-good careers: Mark Price, Ron Harper, Jeff Hornacek, Dell Curry, Chuck Person and Drazen Petrović. The Knicks took Kenny Walker, whose biggest contribution over five disappointing seasons was getting Scottie Pippen ejected from a playoff game.
You may have noticed I skipped past 1985. Let’s talk about that draft: not only did the Knicks luck into Ewing, they did well to snag Gerald Wilkins at #47; Wilkins had more win shares over his career than most of the top 20 players selected. Of course, had they drafted any of the numerous guards & shooters they missed in the years before and after Ewing, Wilkins could have been quality depth off the bench rather than a can’t-shoot starting two-guard 86% of the time over seven years.
In the next draft, the Knicks took Mark Jackson. From Jackson till today, the Knicks have made 29 first-round picks. Only three rose to be All-Stars as Knicks, each once and only once: Jackson, David Lee and Kristaps Porzingis. What do we take away from this?
If the Knicks are ever in position to pay a high price to move up and get someone they’re sure is gonna be great, do it. If they could have flipped David Lee and the #8 pick in ‘09 to Golden State for the #7 pick, then Steph Curry is a Knick. The Giants thought Eli Manning was worth it, so they sent Philip Rivers and three draft picks, including a first-rounder, to land their man.
If the Knicks don’t win the lottery and they’re convinced Anthony Edwards or James Wiseman or Tyrese Halliburton is the guy they wish they could’ve taken, suck it up and deal with some pain to make it happen. Maybe that means trading RJ or Mitch. I’m not saying they need to get rid of those two. I’m saying absolutely no one on this roster should be viewed as off-limits.
When was the last time the Knicks won a meaningful trade? Not a sign-and-trade; an honest-to-goodness “We’ll gave up X for Y and boy howdy did we come out the better for it.” I honestly can’t think of an answer.
Holzman and Eddie Donovan are the only coaches to ever lead the Knicks to three straight losing seasons. One way to view that is to conclude the Knicks are so maniacally intolerant of failure they don’t let anyone stick around long enough to be that bad that long. Context matters. The Celtics and Lakers have each only had one coach in their entire history suffering three consecutive losing seasons. But Luke Walton and Rick Pitino are exceptions within two franchises that have known as much success as any. The Knicks aren’t strangers to failure. They just fragment theirs more and more until it really does seem like there’s more surface area to their struggles than most.
A dozen teams have won titles since Holzman left. I counted how many different coaches each franchise has had since then, as well as the Knicks, and divided the number of their number of coaches by 37, the number of seasons post-Holzman. So if a team had a different coach every year for 37 years, they’d score 1000; if they only had one coach in all that time, there score would be just under three. The smaller the number, the more stable the team’s leadership has been.
But the Knicks aren’t just unstable; they’re radioactive. Since Holzman, 14 different coaches had led the franchise for a year or more (I’m counting Lenny Wilkins because he coached 81 games over parts of two seasons). You may know the only four to last 3+ years were Hubie Brown, Pat Riley, Jeff Van Gundy and Mike D’Antoni. Did you know half of the ex-Knick coaches never got another shot at another gig? Only Riley and D’Antoni won a playoff series after leaving New York. The only three coaches since Holzman with more winning seasons than losing seasons are Riley, Van Gundy and Mike Woodson, and Woodson only makes the list if you count his 24-game interim sample in 2012.
I wrote in a mailbag a while ago that the Knicks should give Mike Miller a three-year deal and a pledge of non-interference during that time. A few readers have asked if I’d still stick to that. Miller was really a figurehead for the larger premise. I would prefer the Knicks go out and sign the best available coaching candidate, preferably someone with proven success in the NBA. But whoever they decide to go with next, I think that person should get an iron-clad three years. War does not end wars. Instability does not end instability.
The Knicks should stop waiting for summer free agent messiahs who never materialize. Stars will become available, often in trades; while you wait for the right one to come along, build a steady ship. Landing an NBA star is like successfully dating online after 35: no one you’re targeting is looking to fix you up. There are other options out there who have their shit together. So Knicks, spend some time on yourself. Take a dance class. Eat more salads. Aim for 30 wins. Then 35. Then 41. When you have something to offer, you’ll interest somebody. Till then, don’t keep lusting wildly after LeBron or KD or AD or Antetokounmpo.
Don’t be afraid to make a big move in the draft. Maybe Memphis wouldn’t have wanted Barrett and a future 1st or Dennis Smith Jr. instead of Morant. But you won’t know unless you try. Overvaluing your prospects is as problematic as those prospects stunting or regressing under your watch. If you’re not happy with your player development, make a run at the best player development people out there. That doesn’t count against the cap. Use your big money advantage on that kind of personnel.
Hire a coach. Leave them alone. I don’t care if they lose 50 or 60 games. Been there. Done that. Overvaluing your ability to hire the right people is as problematic as firing them so quickly. If you’re not happy with the Derek Fishers and Jeff Hornaceks and David Fizdales of the world, hire someone with a track record of success. And then get the F out of the way for three years. Orpheus couldn’t be patient and was ripped to pieces by the Maenads for it. Don’t be Orpheus.
Maybe you find this article to be a letdown. Maybe you clicked on it hoping for some radical new insights, in which case “build solid and slow with no regard for big free agents,” “overpay to move up in the draft/don’t overvalue your prospects,” “win a trade” and “keep the coach around for a while” seem super “duh.” For the Knicks, “duh” = the new radical.