I don’t know that the Knicks deserve their reputation for buffoonery. Sure, the last 20 years have been mostly dispiriting. But some of what’s gone wrong happens to everybody. Some of you are not just down on Julius Randle, you’re done with him. And I suspect most NBA fans would rate Damontas Sabonis and maybe Jerami Grant above Randle. But neither of those guys ever hit the heights JR did in 2021. Sabonis has never led a team past the first round; since leaving Denver for a bigger role, Grant’s never sniffed the postseason.
The haters got off laughing at the Knicks for trading an obviously disgruntled Kristaps Porziņģis before losing him for nothing as his rookie deal neared completion. Phoenix’s relationship with the soon-departed Deandre Ayton doesn’t seem like a model of intelligent management. Ben Simmons was so turned off by his experience with Philadelphia he sat out an entire season, forcing them to trade him to Brooklyn for Garfield. It happens.
The Knicks got a lotta heat for entering last night’s draft with the 11th pick and walking away with 1$10M in cap space, a conditional future 1st-round pick, two fewer 2nds and Trevor Keels. The explanation floating around is that none of their guys were available at 11, so rather than take a youngster they weren’t really into, they capitalized on some trades to bulk up the proverbial asset haul while giving Jalen Brunson 10 million more reasons to consider paying New York’s tax rate versus Texas’ lack of an income tax.
Maybe it works out. Maybe Brunson signs and is worth it. Maybe that’s only the opening act, and by training camp Leon Rose is again in our good graces for landing Superstar X and Brunson. Maybe they miss out on Brunson but luck into something better with their newfound cash. The two things the Knicks do best are print money and sell maybes.
Or maybe this is something else. Something darker.
Larry Brown, Glenn Grunwald and Frank Ntilikina are not often linked. For all Play The Right Way’s drama, Brown only coached a year in New York. Grunwald was the official general manager for less than a year and a half. Ntilikina? You already know his story. What do these three have in common? For me, one thing.
When Brown was hired, Isiah Thomas had already worn out his welcome in my eyes. I was certain the Knicks would struggle under Brown his first year; all his teams had. But they also all improved. Brown was already a Hall of Fame coach; Thomas had nothing to show for his time running the Knicks, the CBA or anything else. When push came to show, obviously the more-qualified person who’d been around less time than the failure would survive the next firing. When James Dolan fired Brown and promoted Thomas, I felt like I’d just learned a loved one I’d worried about was diagnosed with a terminal case of dementia.
Grunwald and Mike Woodson led the Knicks to their only 50-win season since Patrick Ewing was still around. Grunwald was fired before the following season even began. I couldn’t really tell you he was a genius; I didn’t know or hear that much about him, before or after. The fact that no one’s hired him since may mean the rest of the league isn’t blown away either. Still, Grunwald was replaced by Steve Mills, who is hardly Dave Checketts, much less Jerry West or Masai Ujiri. It was strange that he was fired; stranger still that his replacement was less qualified.
Of course, Mills would be replaced by Phil Jackson, who’d never held the job of team president before. Jackson’s instincts were mixed: he was ahead of his time in looking to trade KP (not that we appreciated that at the time); he was distressingly plebeian in giving Carmelo Anthony a five-year deal and almost immediately insulting Melo to the press, hoping to force him to want to leave since Jackson, foolishly, had given Anthony one of the league’s only no-trade clauses. Phil’s coup de grâce — Dolan’s, too — was being allowed to draft Ntilikina a week before being fired. If Jackson was on the hot seat come draft night, he never should have been allowed to make the pick; if he wasn’t, then the franchise looks ridiculous for deciding within a week that he had to go.
Those three firings were the three times that I as a Knick fan have felt alone, helpless, like I was falling down a bottomless pit while dealing with vertigo. The Knicks didn’t just make bad moves then; they behaved erratically enough that I had to question, in a dying world I have a child in, committing the time I do to this mindfuck of a team.
Then last night happened.
For now, I choose to believe the Knicks have bigger moves planned. To be honest, the last two drafts I didn’t initially like or understand what Rose and Co. did, and each time the results have spoken well for them. I don’t think it’s fair or sane to suddenly decide they’re stupid and have no plan just because they didn’t make a trade no one with any objectivity knew they couldn’t, nor draft a 20-year-old just because our sense of entitlement drives our lust for instant gratification.
To say it clearly: this regime did a great job with the last two drafts. Maybe last night the law of averages caught up to them and they bombed the third. But just as maybe, maybe they’re onto something we can’t see or know about yet. If Brunson and Superstar X are being introduced at a July press conference where no one calls on Frank Isola, we’ll all look back and laugh. Or the Knicks miss out on big free agents, sign a Julius Randle- or Marcus Morris-type to stupidly appease no one, and we slip back into our warm cozy straightjackets, comforted by the knowledge that the promised land we’ll never find is safest anyway tucked away in our dreams.