Up isn't quite down in the Empire State, but the New York Knicks are figuring out how little space exists between their ceiling and their basement.
There is a rock bottom, and the Knicks are close to living that nightmare. However, it exists not at the bottom of the standings but rather in that barren wasteland known as NBA mediocrity.
New York is too good to be hopeless, too bad for optimism and too prominent to live out this struggle away from the watchful eye of the basketball world.
Instead, the Knicks are playing out this season like a can't-miss installment of When Keeping Hope Alive Goes Wrong. Resume-building wins are followed by deflating defeats. A scorching streak is chilled and eventually frozen by an inept stretch.
The NBA is a league of extremes—if you're not chasing a championship, you're best served heading in the opposite direction. The Knicks came upon that fork in the road and decided to go straight, blazing their own path down the tragic trail of mediocrity.
A lot can happen in five days.
On Jan. 30, the Knicks seemed ready to put these fits of inconsistency behind them. They thrashed the visiting Cleveland Cavaliers 117-86, stretching their winning streak to four games and wrapping up the month at 10-6.
New York saw quantity and quality production across the board. Carmelo Anthony and J.R. Smith combined for 48 points on 16-of-33 shooting. Rookie Tim Hardaway, Jr. pumped in a career-high 29 points, hitting 64.7 percent of his field-goal attempts (11-of-17) and half of his triples (6-of-12).
The Knicks, whom Anthony had dubbed the league's "laughingstock" earlier this season via Newsday's Al Iannazzone, were suddenly the ones doling out the embarrassment. They didn't just give their success-starved fans a victory, they treated them to a highlight-heavy show as good as anything running on Broadway.
"These are the bright spots you want to have, especially playing at home," Smith said after the win, per the Associated Press (via NBA.com). "You've got your teammates on the bench going crazy, guys on the court are excited and love to play the game and there's nothing better than that."
New York, it appeared, had possibly turned a corner. This was its second winning streak of at least four games in the month and set the stage for a monumental showdown with the two-time defending champion Miami Heat—a giant the Knicks had slain in their first winning streak of 2014.
History would not repeat itself.
New York whimpered when it needed to roar, LeBron James did LeBron James-type things (30 points, eight rebounds, seven assists and six steals) and the Knicks could find neither the offensive rhythm nor the defensive tenacity needed to secure another statement win.
There's no shame in dropping a game to the back-to-back world champions. Where shame starts to surface, though, is at the wrong end of a road clash with the hapless 9-39 Milwaukee Bucks—a team that dropped 15 of its first 16 games since the calendar switch.
There was no reason to fear these deer, but this wasn't even a full Bucks squad. O.J. Mayo watched the game in street clothes, and Caron Butler made an early exit after suffering a sprained left ankle. Milwaukee didn't have much but did have Brandon Knight (25 points, seven assists), and the lethargic Knicks defense allowed that to be the difference in Monday's 101-98 loss.
"You gotta give them guys credit, man," Anthony said, via Peter Botte of the New York Daily News. "That guy [Knight] hit a tough shot at the end."
Remember for a second who these Knicks are. This was a 54-win team last season. They brought a championship-or-bust edict and an $88 million payroll into the 2013-14 campaign.
Now they can't even keep pace with "them guys," nor stop "that guy" from shooting them into the loss column.
What's worse is they could rebound and steal a home win against the world-beating Portland Trail Blazers on Wednesday and no one would be surprised.
There are no high highs and low lows with this team. Just slight deviations from that otherwise mundane mediocrity mile.
If the problem is really this bad, why don't the Knicks just do something about it?
Well, they would if they could. The only problem is they don't have the resources needed to change their fortune.
New York, undoubtedly spurred by owner James Dolan's insistence on winning now, will likely attempt to play a buyer's role at the trade deadline. According to ESPN New York's Ian Begley, potential targets could include Kyle Lowry, Kyrie Irving and Rajon Rondo.
Just let that soak in for a moment.
The Knicks, woefully short on coveted assets, would like to make a run at perhaps the Eastern Conference's biggest All-Star snub (Lowry), an All-Star starter (Irving) or a former All-NBA selection (Rondo).
With nothing to offer in return. Right.
Something tells me New York might also be interested in King James or that Kevin Durant guy.
Before salivating over yet another superstar acquisition, you have to look at how that player would be brought on board.
The Knicks can't trade a first-round pick before 2018 and may not have a single second-round pick before then, per realgm.com. They won't see any financial relief before 2015 and may have a hard time parting with any of it since they've already earmarked that cash for a separate superstar pursuit of someone like Kevin Love, according to Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports.
Anthony's probably the biggest trade chip New York holds, but his value is murky. Not only is the reigning scoring champ fighting a one-trick-pony reputation, he also comes with only a few months of certainty. He's made it known he plans to test the free-agent market, so teams will adjust their offers accordingly for what may only be a partial-season rental.
The Knicks have already gauged the trade values of Smith and Iman Shumpert but apparently haven't liked what they've found. New York reportedly has no interest in moving center Tyson Chandler but there may not be a massive market anyway for an expensive 31-year-old ($14.5 million salary for next season) with a checkered injury history.
If Raymond Felton (.402/.299/.706 shooting slash, 12.1 player efficiency rating) isn't impossible to trade, then oft-injured Amar'e Stoudemire ($21.6 million salary, 18.9 minutes per game) certainly is.
When Metta World Peace's $1.6 million player option and Beno Udrih's expiring $0.8 million contract are two of your best trade cards, you don't have a hand worth playing.
Any Light at the End of the Tunnel?
If there is, it's nothing more than a pile of burning Knicks' memorabilia.
This team is headed nowhere fast. Forward progress isn't possible with this lineup, and a downward slide isn't either with this ownership.
New York is going to continue seeing middle-of-the-pack results from a high-end payroll. Quick-fix options don't exist, and handing Anthony a major extension this summer doesn't change that.
When the Knicks are selling Melo on the players they might be able to put around him in 2015, that tells you everything you need to know about how this season and next will play out.
No rise to relevance. No crash landing to kick-start a rebuild.
Just another step down the path to nothingness, with a sinking ceiling and rising floor threatening to trap this franchise for the foreseeable future.
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