Among the human condition’s greatest mysteries — Is the universe kind and conscious, or distant and uncaring? Is a hot dog a sandwich? — one has dogged millions of minds for decades unabated: How does anyone root for the Knicks?
The Timberwolves, the league’s longest-running playoff absentees, are offseason darlings and prohibitive favorites to make the 2018 postseason. The Kings spent the past 10 years putting the funk in dysfunction, yet now enjoy admiring glances for their draft decisions and summer signings. The league’s superpower, the Warriors, missed the playoffs 17 of 18 seasons before achieving competence in 2013 and excellence ever since. There is a reason for everything. Blessed are the bottom-feeders, for theirs is probability, ping pong balls and cheap rookie-salary contracts. What goes down must go up — the mantra of our fail-friendly age of reason, analytics and processes.
But New York’s bottomless bad logic and bad luck, multiplied over more than a dozen general managers and head coaches, seems to mark them the exception to reason’s rule. Twice in under a decade they hitched their wagon to big men with knee problems nearing 30 in Antonio McDyess and Amar’e Stoudemire. Twice in under a decade they built around New York natives who fell far short of glory in Stephon Marbury and Carmelo Anthony. They picked up Chauncey Billups’ option in the summer of 2011, then two weeks before the start of the next season used the one-time amnesty to waive him (instead of Stoudemire) to clear space for Tyson Chandler.
After more than three years of losing and two roster overhauls, now ex-president Phil Jackson slandered the team’s current (Anthony) and future (Kristaps Porzingis) star, attempted to trade Porzingis, then drafted Frank Ntilikina for his Triangle-readiness over Dennis Smith Jr. and Malik Monk. Jackson was dismissed literally days after making a decision that will impact the organization for at least the next four years.
Yet fandom is thicker than water, maybe thicker than blood, too; certainly thicker than reason. The teams we root for are family, or akin to kin in the sense that we don’t choose the ones we love. The Knicks are an old relative who look magical in the faded photos of the 20th century and who’ve fallen from grace ever since. You keep waiting for them to bounce back, but they keep bottoming out. You thought they hit rock bottom a few different times, but they keep falling. There’s nothing harder than watching someone you love being their own worst enemy. Actually, one thing is: seeing others laugh while they suffer.
After days of Twitter smoke suggested fire, the Knicks are putting the Anthony trade offer to Houston on pause. The catcalls began immediately: here were the Knicks, either too dysfunctional to close the deal or too nefarious to grant Anthony sweet release to a contender. Knicks fans understand the franchise has done almost nothing to inspire confidence in anyone looking in from the outside. Knicks fans also understand when they’re doing right, if only because of how rare that is to witness.
The Knicks gutted their roster in 2011 to acquire Anthony. He (and they) could have waited until that summer to sign via free agency, and strengthen a team on the rise, but Anthony wanted the sign-and-trade to maximize his pay under the CBA set to expire. He got three years and $60 million, but the team lost its depth and most of its roster flexibility. Two years ago, the Knicks gave the then-30-year-old $125 million (the max was $130 million), a no-trade clause and a trade kicker. Last month, Jackson asked owner James Dolan to buy out Anthony. Instead, Dolan bought out Jackson.
Putting the brakes on the trade talk to see if new management changes Anthony’s position on where he’d be willing to go, or even if he’d consider staying a year and then opting out, is — wait for it — smart. Or at least it’s not dumb. The Knicks don’t need to take on other team’s bad contracts for the pleasure of sending Anthony on his way. Protected- or low-level first round picks are, at best, argle bargle or fooforaw. If all they are going to gain is cap relief, why not do it on their own terms rather than doing other teams the favor of shipping Anthony out? Why not see if a year of better relations with him sends a positive impression to Porzingis and other potential future free agents?
It goes badly when the Knicks hire big names who have no front office success (Jackson; Isiah Thomas) and they’re dumb for forever swinging for the fences, for not having the patience and foresight to build from the ground up. When ex-Cavaliers general manager David Griffin removes himself from consideration because the team won’t let him bring in his own people and don’t trust him to have final authority, the Knicks are dumb because see? Again with the dysfunction? Promote from within — say, Allan Houston — and they’re dumb because they’re sycophants.
Then they actually do something seemingly intelligent, and make a move that isn’t about chasing big names or rewarding lackeys. They hire Scott Perry, a seemingly respected and respectable human being who paid his dues working several positions for several organizations, someone unknown to the casual fan. Reaction? “This? This is supposed to excite? This vanilla? This nobody? He was only in Sacramento for 53 days! What did he even do in that time?” The Knicks could hire Golden State’s entire management and scouting departments and the response would be snarkily dismissing it because Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant don’t work in the front office.
Rookie lottery choice Ntilikina has yet to play a single second as a Knick, having suffered knee soreness in his first practice. Dennis Smith Jr., taken one spot later by Dallas, is the darling of the Summer League, and so some have already tweeted about the Knicks having blown their pick by likening Ntilikina to Frederic Weis, because a French center drafted so long ago the Knicks were actually still good is a natural comparison to a Belgian-nee-Rwandan guard who was less than a year old when Weis went one spot ahead of New York native and St. John’s star Ron Artest. Ntilikina hasn’t even played yet and he’s already being labeled a failure. Not because of anything he’s done or hasn’t done. Because Knicks.
But many of the team’s fans see what the team seems to be thinking — and for once, they really do seem to be thinking. Ntilikina, 6-foot-5 and just 18-years-old, is a project, but a project who projects to impact both ends of the floor like Porzingis. His passing, shooting from distance and 7-foot-1 wingspan suggest a multifaceted talent. They suggest upside. They suggest defense. Diversity, upside and defense are not typically words one associates with this franchise.
Smith may be a wonderful player. His impact so far projects as singular, as offense. He projects to be at his best with the ball in his hands, taking lots of shots. He reminds Knicks fans of Derrick Rose. Two years ago Porzingis was second on the team in shots per game; last year he fell to third, behind Anthony and Rose. Going forward, that doesn’t add up. Ntilikina, conceptually, does. It may not work out. But it does make sense.
Family stumbles and you stumble right along with them. Every time they fall, you feel the hurt of the crash, the weariness of having to pull yourself up again. You know what they can be. What nobody who isn’t living with them day in and day out could ever know. They may be their own worst enemy, but you don’t love them any less for it. You love them more. Not because they deserve it. But because “because” has nothing to do with it. Time erodes heartache. Facepalms sting, but fade. Memories fade. Glory, too. Faith endures.
How does anyone root for the New York Knicks? Because life’s greatest mystery is its own solution. Love. That’s why.