As a Knicks fan, I am used to the misery of sportsfandom. But there is something unique in the cruelty of the current era of Knicks basketball, different from the so-close-but-not-quite torment of Utah Jazz fans in the 1990s or the so-bad-it’s-almost-comedic 2011-2012 Charlotte Bobcats (apologies, MJ, although after the way you treated the Knicks over the years, I cannot say I am too empathetic).
This team is divided, rendered stuck in mediocrity by a spoiled and incorrigible owner whose burning desire to “win now” with high profile stars has left the Knicks with a potpourri of ill-suited pieces. Worse, the fan-base, so desperate to win after forty years in the desert, can only sit back and watch (though, Pokhorov, don’t bet on us jumping ship. I’ll root for you against twenty-eight NBA teams, but the four-times-a-season you play the Knicks—don’t even think about it). Jason Kidd’s recent signing was an attempt to make things better, but band-aids will not cut it. Barring a change in owner (please God, please God), there needs to be a change in culture.
Management’s acquisition of Kidd was a tacit nod to the Knicks need for a uniter in the locker room. Of course, the Knicks are expecting Kidd to contribute on the floor, but as Ben Chodos wrote for Bleacher Report, Kidd’s “long and successful career will allow him to be a leader immediately upon entering the locker room. In order for the Knicks to improve team chemistry, they need a veteran like Kidd.” That these were the first lines of Ben Chodos’s analysis is telling. It reflects the fact that the Knicks are an atomized team—full of strong independent pieces with incoherent styles of play.
As sports commentators have been writing since March, the Knicks’ two stars—Carmelo Anthony and Amare Stoudemire—don’t fit. ‘Melo, the most talented offensive player in the league except that lanky guy in Oklahoma City, needs twenty-five shots a game in a half-court set. And while I don’t buy into the ‘Melo-haters rhetoric, it is clear that the star forward has not yet figured out that only when he lifts his whole team up will his star shine as bright as Lebron and Dwyane Wade. Stoudemire, a freakishly athletic forward who is no longer quite so freakishly athletic, thrives in transition. But Stoudemire’s burning desire to win and devotion to the Knicks is exactly what the Knicks have been missing for the past decade. It’s this—even more than his bloated contract—that makes swapping Stoudemire a hard pill to swallow.
Really, James Dolan is the one to blame here. After a disastrous run with Isiah Thomas (Dolan’s man-crush) ended in 2008, the Knicks were left with a bloated payroll and the prospect of a promising free-agency in 2010 to look forward to. Dolan hired Donnie Walsh, regarded as a class-act and excellent manager by all, who himself hired Mike D’antoni and began crafting an up-tempo team that could run and score. Adding Amar’e in the summer of 2010 made the team better, albeit not quite first-rate. But then ‘Melo decided he wanted to come to the Knicks, and Dolan, unwilling to stick with his strategy, shipped of some key run-and-gun players for the plodding ‘Melo.
Now, would the Knicks win the championship if they had kept Danilo Gallinari, Raymond Felton (who we’ll get back to), and Wilson Chandler? Probably not. But if they had been patient, they could have landed another star later on (Chris Paul perhaps?) and put together a theoretically coherent team. Instead, they are divided into two irreconcilable camps: the half-courters (‘Melo, Tyson Chandler, Steve Novak) and the fast-breakers (Amar’e, Jeremy Lin, J.R. Smith).
It’s for that reason that Jason Kidd was brought in. Though he’s aged considerably, he can still run a disciplined half-court offense and, if there are still a few fumes left in the tank, he runs a mean fast break. He also brings with him the experience, leadership, and personality that the Knicks need to try to make these pieces fit.
But J-Kidd is not enough. No thirty-nine year old, no matter how solid, can turn an incoherent-but talented team like the Knicks into a championship contender. The Knicks need to start thinking about the whole chemistry of a team, the intangibility of the great teams that Dolan has ignored for far too long. As a first step, Dolan should decline to match Jeremy Lin’s offer sheet from the Rockets. Lin is a great player, and naturally, he opens up an international market to the Knicks’ brand. But he is a player who needs the ball in his hands to excel, and that just does not work with our current roster.
Instead, the Knicks should sign Raymond Felton as their point guard. Felton played excellently for the Knicks before the ‘Melo trade, and he has the skills and wherewithal to run the half-court set effectively without monopolizing the ball. Just as important is the fact that this would leave the Knicks more flexible to sign players for its supporting cast over the next few years. Jason Kidd could play a crucial back-up role to Felton, and could also help convince ‘Melo that the championship Champaign tastes sweeter than any individual accomplishments. Not to mention that ‘Melo would become the king of New York if he brought home a title.
This would be the best move. But instead, I know that the Knicks will most likely resign Lin (reports suggest as much), maintain their talented but conflicted roster, and continue to make the playoffs as the 4th-7th seed and exit in the first or second round. And this is what I mean when I say that Knicks-misery today is a unique breed. It is the misery of mediocrity, and the of the powerlessness to do anything about it as long as Mr. Dolan sits in the President’s office.
I’ll always love the Knicks. Experiences like the 1999 finals run taught me that you always have to hold out hope. And I do think that the Kidd move will help things marginally. But without a change in professional culture, the forty years in the desert will inevitably turn into fifty.