Each week throughout the 2022-23 NBA season, we’ll delve deeper into some of the league’s biggest storylines to determine if the trends are based more on fact or fiction.
[Last week in Fact or Fiction: Should Kyrie Irving represent the NBA in the 2023 All-Star Game?]
The New York Knicks bullied the defending Eastern Conference champions and first-seeded Boston Celtics in TD Garden on Thursday in a win that would have made Charles Oakley proud had the franchise not alienated the embodiment of their 1990s oeuvre. With the win, they may have reaffirmed an identity that previously worked when the talent gap was too great to seriously contend for championships: giving as ***.
The Knicks are working on 25 years with a single playoff series win to show their efforts since James Dolan took control of the team in 1999. They’ve tried pretty much every possible team-building approach between disaster and mediocrity, achieving both by accident and on purpose, but this one constant has thwarted them at every turn. Now they’re attempting a bold new strategy – basic competency – hoping their luck will turn against the narrative that with Dolan at the helm, they simply will never win.
It’s been a decade since New York’s last superstar bid peaked in the conference semifinals. That era began seven general managers ago when their impatience to take on Carmelo Anthony cost them assets that would have put them in a better position had they waited a few more months. It might still have worked if Amar’e had held Stoudemire’s knees, but the Knicks took that risk when an insurance company didn’t.
It’s always something with the Knicks.
They turned over front office keys to Phil Jackson, a retired coach with no experience in that role, who in turn turned the head coaching job over to Derek Fisher, a retired player with no experience in that role. With the end of an era already in sight, they gave Anthony a maximum contract with a no-trade clause because they couldn’t let another asset go to waste only to see its value diminish over the next three years.
The story goes on
The reward for their incompetence was Kristaps Porzingis, New York’s next great hope. Among the best attempts at building around a rising star have been a four-year, $71 million contract for Tim Hardaway Jr. and several other fringe swings that made the Knicks just good enough that the lottery odds didn’t favor them.
Porzingis blew out his knee in February 2018 and shared with Knicks fans the situation surrounding him during his rehab. The Knicks hit rock bottom in his absence, eventually bringing him and Hardaway to the Dallas Mavericks in exchange for two future first-round picks and their second 17-win season in five years.
Armed with the league’s worst record and nearly $75 million in cap space during the 2019 offseason, the Knicks fell to third place in a draft that reserved their top two lottery spots for Zion Williamson and Ja Morant. They sniffed freely as Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving prioritized existing Brooklyn culture rather than create one amidst the chaos. Even the simplest task—presenting Madison Square Garden’s two basketball artists as a blank canvas—can be tedious when Dolan is the one constant behind every sliding door.
Julius Randle and Jalen Brunson embrace the old-school essence of the New York Knicks. (Vincent Carchietta/USA Today Sports)
When no free agency power player was even going to meet with the Knicks in 2019, general manager Steve Mills instead paid four power forwards a combined $112 million and apologized when he did. The only explanation beyond outright incompetence was a willingness to tank another season and push the Cap space forward to 2020 when they were fortunate enough to have Gordon Hayward turn down their hefty four-year offer.
The odd collection of veterans the Knicks signed made them just good enough not to finish with one of the five worst records in the league. The Knicks flipped again, attempting to straddle two trending strategies at once. They hired Leon Rose, the powerful agent, to run their basketball operations just as the Lakers sent Rob Pelinka to Los Angeles on a star hunt, and Rose hired hard-nosed coach Tom Thibodeau to replicate what Kenny Atkinson had done for the Nets an identity that could attract the next available superstar.
Under Thibodeau’s tutelage, Julius Randle emerged to earn a spot on the All-NBA second-team in 2021 — just New York’s luck. Randle was good enough to lead the Knicks to their first playoff appearance since 2013 and warrant a $117 million overtime. A taste of the good life led Rose to invest fully in Randle as the face of his franchise, acquiring Evan Fournier and doubling down on deals for Kemba Walker, Alec Burks, Nerlens Noel and Derrick Rose. In a quest for relevance, the Knicks gave up what made them valuable: a defensive mindset that closed the gap between them and more talented teams at the top of the East.
Leon Rose’s executive record is a wild ride. He hired Thibodeau to oversee his recovery, only the manager has never been known to make development his priority. Rose hoarded picks only to attach some of them to drop in pay from his overzealous signings. And he traded his last two first-round picks for Cam Reddish and the possibility that one of his future conditional picks could be better than the one he discarded.
Randle has spent about a year on All-Star campaigns in which he has openly feuded with fans, symbolic of the difficulty of building around an imperfect star. The Knicks might be building a house of cards right now.
Rose’s biggest win is signing Jalen Brunson, the son of his first client and his son’s first client. However he got there, Brunson is the Knicks’ best point guard since Mark Jackson and a throwback to that ’90s era. He’s revived Randle’s best basketball brand – a brutal force that covers up his inconsistencies.
Meanwhile, Quentin Grimes, Immanuel Quickley and Miles McBride have earned playing time on the defensive end. With Mitchell Robinson in the middle, Thibodeau can put together lineups capable of defending with a tenacity Knicks fans might know when he was last their assistant coach 20 years ago.
The result is a 27-23 record, a half-game absence of a guaranteed playoff spot and top-10 odds on both sides of the ball since early December. The Knicks are inconsistent, as evidenced by four straight losses to under-.500 teams before back-to-back wins against the East’s elite this week, but the total is encouraging.
Randle, Brunson and RJ Barrett battle it out, but they can’t hold their own, not without Barrett rising to stardom. They might have dealt him and a handful of future first-round picks for Donovan Mitchell last summer, but they felt the price was too high, and Mitchell turned the Cleveland Cavaliers into a contender instead. It’s so curtsy – showing cleverness when boldness is required, or all too often the opposite.
The Knicks are competent again on the court, even if their ceiling is below championship levels. The bar was so low that basic team building is progress, but it’s also up to Rose to up his game. His alleged interest in Toronto-based OG Anunoby is a testament to his understanding of the type of player that fits his team’s identity.
It can’t escape New York’s faithful that on the day of their beloved team’s biggest win of the season, Dolan came out of his media boycott, defended his use of facial recognition to settle strange bills in his buildings, and threatened to suspend sales of alcohol at Madison Square Garden in retaliation.
There’s always something or someone working against every Knicks plan, so the franchise is still waiting for its fortunes to take a turn, but at least now everyone on the basketball side is trying to make it their own.
At least the Knicks don’t give a fuck now.
Determination: Fact. The Knicks are building something, even if that something isn’t – or ever will be – the best. Fans had many reasons for pessimism, but competitiveness shouldn’t be one of them.
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Ben Rohrbach is a senior NBA writer for Yahoo Sports. Do you have a tip? Email him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter! Follow @brohrbach