Anyone who believes the old adage “It’s always darkest before the dawn” probably isn’t a fan of the New York Knicks, whose uniquely cynical brand of roster construction once again appears poised for peril.
With the team in crisis and little hope on the horizon, Knicks fans are already talking themselves into the next quick fix: the summer of 2015.
LeBron James, Rajon Rondo, Kyrie Irving, Andre Drummond, Kawhi Leonard; the list of free agents that could hit the open market is scintillatingly deep. Over the next 18 months, the Knicks will be linked to many of them, as the era of Carmelo Anthony, Tyson Chandler and Amar’e Stoudemire finally winds down and hope turns to the next false dawn.
It’s hard to predict what the psychology of the franchise will be at that point, although smart money—and history—would say somewhere between shaky and shattered on the dysfunction scale. Whatever the team's state, James Dolan will be there, belly up to the bargaining table with grin to face and checkbook in hand.
But unless the Knicks can learn to focus on fixing the here and now, 2015 will only lead to more half-measures and mortgaged futures.
Theories abound about what the Knicks should be looking to achieve in the short term, of which one is both the simplest and most likely: keeping 'Melo in Manhattan and building around him again. The problem is, that prospect will be difficult, to say the least—with Anthony poised to cash a five-year, $129 million tender.
To say such a deal would hamstring New York’s rebuilding efforts would be an understatement—they had to use every trick in the book to stitch together last year’s squad, which amounted to little more than an eight-month luxury rental.
What the Knicks need more than anything is flexibility, but even if they’re willing to part with two—and possibly all three—of their frontcourt troika, achieving it will take more than a few miracles: 'Melo’s spotty track record, Tyson’s injury history and Amare’s painful decline mean the Knicks won’t get nearly as much in return as they think or hope.
The team’s lone young assets, Iman Shumpert and Tim Hardaway Jr., could conceivably be dealt for picks or prospects, but even here, the results are unlikely to be much better than zero-sum.
The Knicks have made a habit of handing out picks like Halloween candy, a fact that any general manager worth his salt would seize on in an instant during any negotiation. The only immediate recourse for Dolan would be to buy a second-round pick—a wise gambit given the highly touted 2014 draft.
With all of these scenarios, it’s difficult to envision the Knicks making more than marginal lateral moves, almost any of which would entail new learning curves and chemistry.
Long on expectations and short on options, the Knicks have one, and only one, recourse for righting the ship and finding daylight, one that any New Yorker will immediately identify with: Get up and fight back.
Survive and Advance
If the Knicks are dead set on making a summer splash in 2015—as their cap situation stands now, there's a chance—establishing some semblance of stability is paramount. That might seem impossible now, with Dolan on the warpath and the back pages hanging on every locker-room tiff. But if 'Melo can somehow summon anew the trust and confidence that imbued last year’s 54-win season, the rest of the team—and the city itself—are bound to follow.
Next up: getting Chandler back fully healthy. The Knicks have been a defensive train wreck without him, and desperately miss Tyson's pick-and-roll presence at the other end. The original prognosis of Chandler’s leg injury was four-to-six weeks, which—if you’re wont to trust the Knicks medical staff—should put him into action before Christmas.
From here, it’s all a matter of catching up, be it to the East’s eighth seed or to an outright Atlantic title. Which, given the division’s laughingstock rep and tank-ready teams, is in no way out of the question.
At that point, all bets are off. The notion that New York could topple an Indiana or Miami might seem laughable now, but any NBA fan worth his or her salt knows that “playoffs” and “predictability” are hardly bedfellows. And if the Knicks can somehow snag the No. 4 seed, you can bet that none of the prospective middle-packers—your Brooklyn Nets, Atlanta Hawks or Chicago Bulls—will have 'Melo and company quaking in their Bockers.
You certainly can’t label the Knicks a contender, but they're certainly talented enough to put the past month behind them and get back into the thick of things. Should they win a series or two, the Knicks would be riding high and mended into next season, where they’ll make one last run in their current instantiation before casting out the free-agency lures—five straight postseason trips to their credit and boasting a semblance of stability upon which a second cornerstone could feel confident standing.
Failing that, a full-fledged rebuild isn't a bad Plan B.
Finding Dawn Through Dolan
In the endless night of James Dolan’s tortured tenure, “patience” has become a four-letter word. But even if the Mecca’s mercurial master suddenly had a change of heart—if learning to rebuild sustainably while staying deep in the black became an operative ethos—there's little he can do about it. The Knicks simply don't have the flexibility to pull a philosophical about-face, at least in the short term.
Which is what makes the Knicks' MO so maddening: By operating with financial impunity, they're not only laying the foundation for mediocrity, but they're fostering a culture whereby overrated talent is instinctively drawn to them. Rinse, repeat, regret.
The issue isn’t whether the “Thunder model” is superior to the "Big Three" model, or vice versa. Either can work. Nor is it about “overpaying stars” or “valuing value”; some stars are worth overpaying, while even the cleverest of middling moves has the potential to backfire spectacularly (see: Fields, Landry).
The issue is whether the Knicks can foster the kind of environment that stars worth the hype and the coin—a LeBron or a Kevin Love—would want to be a part of. When Dolan made his ham-fisted way through the LeBron dealings three summers ago, it likely became clear to the latter that no amount of Garden lore would be enough to erase the writing on the wall: that James Dolan can be an unstable, paranoid lunatic.
Wantonly firing your coach after a bad start—particularly when most of the East is well within reach—is no way to reverse that reputation. That's not to say Dolan needs to disappear completely; rather, he needs to learn to better trust the basketball minds around him.
At the same time, no NBA owner has been more willing to pillage his pocket than New York’s guitar-wielding jefe. Back in 2010, Dolan's mantra was as simple as it was clumsily conveyed: Come here, and you will be the savior.
LeBron balked. Amar’e—for good or ill—bought it lock, stock and barrel. 'Melo would follow soon thereafter, only to have his prodigal designs dashed at too many turns.
But if the Knicks can manage to come to the table in the summer of 2015 with a string of playoff bona fides, the pitch won’t have to be so messianic. It’s the difference between take us and join us. The messages are worlds apart, even if the goal is the same golden trophy.
When home is a city that never sleeps, time—and the patience and planning it demands—can become an illusion. It’s a psychology with which the Knicks are all too familiar. To change course, it’s imperative that everyone, from James Dolan to the D-League prospect, find a way to make today the mantra.
Then, and only then, can the Knicks better prepare for tomorrow—be the goal Big Three or Thunder—and finally find their dawn.