NEW YORK — On Tuesday morning, Manhattan commuters taking the subway shuttle from Grand Central Station to Times Square were greeted by billboards that would make sports radio producers throughout the country proud.
"Are the Knicks hopeful or hopeless?" read the words plastered on the blue and orange cars.
The question, part of an ad campaign orchestrated by the network FS1, offered fans of the New York Knicks a chance to pick a side. On one side of the train were pictures of Joakim Noah and Tim Hardaway Jr.—two men earning a combined $126.6 million over the next four years. Neither has played for an All-Star team.
On the other side: pictures of Mindaugas Kuzminskas donning a Statue of Liberty crown, Michael Beasley in his "GOAT of New York shirt" and Kristaps Porzingis. Passengers inside the train were given a choice as well. "Sit here if you blame Melo," read one seat. "Sit here if you blame Dolan" read another.
Or if you're the more optimistic type—there are at least a dozen of those in New York—you could sit under the "Kristaps Porzingis is a unicorn sent back in time to show us how basketball will be played in the future" sign.
And you probably thought the tentacles of Embrace Debate couldn't reach any further.
But forget for a moment the incredible temerity that Fox displayed in green-lighting this campaign. And let's skip over the reports, courtesy of ESPN and SNY's Zagsblog, that Knicks owner James Dolan called Fox furious over the ads and the network decided to pull them down.
(When reached for comment, an MSG spokesman referred Bleacher Report to a third-party public relations firm, which did not respond.)
Instead, let's give the FS1 suits what they want and engage by focusing on the campaign's question. And if you're a longtime Knicks fan, the type of person who's had to throw away a Jeremy Lin jersey, or watched Frank Williams run the point, well, the answer just might surprise you.
"The Knick are not hopeless," a Western Conference scout answered Bleacher Report when posed the question. "One or two quality additions can make an impact."
Of course, almost every team in the league is just a move or two away from being competitive. Or as ESPN's Fran Fraschilla would say: two years away from being two years away. But in Porzingis, the Knicks have a potential star, the type of player some teams spend years tanking to obtain. His presence, and potential to morph into a paint-protecting, three-point shooting, rim-running big man, does put the Knicks ahead of the curve.
If he becomes the player many think he can be, and first-round pick Frank Ntilikina winds up morphing into the defensive stopper many scouts projected him to be—a 6'5" point guard with a 7'0" wingspan who could one day guard positions 1-3—then the Knicks might actually have the foundation for a stifling defense, something the team hasn't boasted in years.
Oh, and the Knicks own their draft pick this season, meaning they'll likely be adding another lottery prospect to the mix come next year.
Take that core, sprinkle in a few strong role players and maybe one more young star drawn to the opportunity to play under New York City's bright lights and alongside its unicorn, and you might have something.
Also, as the scout added, "They are in the East."
The same Eastern Conference that's had Carmelo Anthony, Paul George, Jimmy Butler and Paul Millsap migrate to the West this offseason and could very well have LeBron James follow suit this summer. All that movement could create a vacuum, one the Knicks might one day be able to fill.
"I don't think they're hopeless," an Eastern Conference front office staffer said. "They're clearly punting this season. They have no cap room this summer, but they could have max room in 2019 if they stretch Noah and are to get off Lee."
That cap room is the problem. As mentioned, the team has way too many dollars tied up in role players: guys like Noah, Hardaway and Courtney Lee (three years, $44M). Also, let's not forget all the swirling Porzingis drama, his issues with head coach Jeff Hornacek last year and the possibility that he'll elect to bolt following the 2019-20 season.
But that's all a long ways away. For now, things in the Garden are actually looking—dare we say—up. Phil Jackson and the triangle are gone. New blood has been injected into the front office. General manager Scott Perry appears to be a man capable of running a drama-filled operation.
And hey, there's even a belief among some Wall Street analysts that James Dolan could decide to sell the Knicks at some point in the not-so-distant future.
So cheer up, Knicks fans. The 2017-18 Knicks may be lottery-bound. But the future is brighter than it's been in a long time. No matter what your subway seat says.
Yaron Weitzman covers the Knicks and NBA for Bleacher Report. All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Follow Yaron on Twitter, @YaronWeitzman, and listen to his Knicks-themed podcast here.