Things could be worse for the New York Knicks.
Watching them, and their broken defensive system and halfhearted efforts, it sure doesn't feel like it. This season, this unfathomably disappointing season, should be rock bottom for the Knicks.
But it's not.
Total dysfunction has spread throughout Madison Square Garden like inextinguishable wildfire. The Knicks are 19 games under .500 with the NBA's second-highest payroll, and they've switched their way to 27th in defensive efficiency.
No player has remained a consistent contributor, save for Carmelo Anthony. The supporting cast partially responsible for last season's 54-win campaign is gone, supplanted by an erratic-shooting, injury-prone gaggle of players who just aren't good enough.
Off the court, the Knicks haven't been any better. When J.R. Smith's antics aren't being treated to inrushes of headlines, Raymond Felton is battling gun-related charges.
In the front office, there sits a tyrant, owner James Dolan, oppressing all things sensible by dabbling in matters he clearly knows nothing about. Seated at his right hand is general manager Steve Mills, an inexperienced "big" name linked to problems of the past, who is failing to change perception of the team forever in its own way.
Everything about the Knicks is wrong, which, while demoralizing, should be the end of it. This should be as bad as it gets, as wrong and painful as it gets. But again, it's not.
"I was laughing with somebody and just saying, ‘Murphy’s Law,’" Anthony said before the Knicks lost to the Miami Heat, per the New York Daily News' Mitch Lawrence. "Anything that can go wrong has gone wrong for us."
If things continue to go wrong, current unrest is (sadly) just the beginning.
Winning the Lottery Amounts to Losing the Lottery
At 19 games under .500, the Knicks are still in the hunt for a playoff spot. Usurping three of the Charlotte Bobcats, Atlanta Hawks, Detroit Pistons and Cleveland Cavaliers is unlikely, but none of those teams are running away with their current position.
That's left the Knicks to chase postseason ambitions they're probably not going to catch. They're 6.5 games back of the No. 8 seed with 21 left to play. Time is running out, if there's even any left.
Missing the playoffs, though, can mean one of two things: Either the Knicks go down swinging, making a dull playoff race interesting, or they crumble under the math and weight of bent expectations, dropping even lower in the standings.
At 21-40, the Knicks have the fifth-worst record in the NBA. That puts them on pace to land a top-tier lottery pick this summer.
Normally, that's a solid consolation prize. This season it means everything because of how deep the incoming draft class is. Finishing with the fifth-worst record (or worse) is ugly, but it gives the Knicks a legitimate shot at netting a top-five selection and an outside chance at landing in the top three.
If only they owned the rights to their draft pick.
As part of the Anthony trade in 2011, New York sent its 2014 first-round pick to the Denver Nuggets—unprotected, I might add. No matter where the Knicks land, be it in the top 10, top five or higher, it goes to Denver.
Theoretically, if the Knicks stay their current course, that means they could be sending the Nuggets a Julius Randle or Marcus Smart, or some other potential star. If that pick somehow lands in the top three, Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker and Joel Embiid come into play.
What are the Knicks to do in that scenario? Pray, and hope that's the extent of damage...because it could get even worse.
Who's to say Anthony sticks around this summer when he hits unrestricted free agency?
For most of the season, he's remained upbeat and confident, always looking forward to better days in New York. Recently, he's become a cask of mixed emotions and battle-worn facial expressions.
"It’s being tested for sure," Anthony previously said of his optimism, via The Record's Steve Popper. "It’s definitely being tested."
Come July, it will be Anthony's loyalty being tested. Playoffs or no playoffs, the Knicks have given him every reason to leave. Selling him on a 2015 free-agency binge no longer holds the same meaning it once did, when it essentially suggests the Knicks are asking him to endure one more season like this.
Worst-case scenario, the Knicks lose Anthony after sending a top-five pick to Denver, which is both ironic and torturous, even when speaking in hypotheticals.
What are the Knicks to do then? They likely don't even know.
Replacing Anthony isn't an immediate option. Even without his salary on the books, the Knicks are still over the 2014-15 cap, leaving them to look toward summer 2015, when they will have money to spend but no superstar to pitch other superstars.
Restrictions prohibited the Knicks from dealing their 2015 first-rounder, so there would be that to look forward to. But the stench of missing out on a top selection in the deepest pool of talent this side of LeBron James' NBA entry would linger as the Knicks enter 2015 free agency star-crossed and desperate, still hemorrhaging regret.
Hypothetical Pain, Real Danger
Breathe, Knicks fans. All of this is purely conceptual, conditional on everything that can go wrong, continuing to go wrong.
Try as one might to ignore forthcoming months unfolding as outlined, all of this is possible. It falls short of likely, but it is possible.
Even those who are convinced Anthony isn't going anywhere—like me—have to put the Knicks' season in a broader perspective. This isn't one failed crusade that will be vanquished and cured by time and continued hope. This is a nightmare, capable of spilling over into this summer and next season, and even the season after that.
What we see now could be it. New York's situation may be as grave as it's going to get, improving from here on. Or the Knicks could continue their downward spiral toward rock bottom, where missing the playoffs may merely be the beginning of further trials and tribulations compounded by Murphy's Law and worsened by collective failure.
"I never experienced before not making the playoffs," Anthony admitted, via Lawrence. "Unfortunately, we’re in the situation we’re in, right now. Fighting for our life. Fighting for a playoff spot."
Fighting to avoid abstract theories far closer to becoming reality than they ever should be.
*Salary information via ShamSports.
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