The New York Knicks are fresh off the worst 27-game start in team history. The once-mighty triangle offense suddenly looks more like a haphazard pentagon. All the while, seeds of locker room strife risk sprouting into something sinister.
For an organization in the midst of a self-prescribed rebuild, the Knicks—smarting after a 107-87 thrashing at the hands of the Dallas Mavericks on Tuesday night—certainly don't look like a train heading toward tunnel's end.
But is this year's edition really the franchise's worst ever?
The good news for this year's Knicks: They have plenty of competition on that front.
If you're a 'Bocker fan, however, that's also the bad news.
One needs to look back only a decade or so to find the two most obvious comparisons: The Larry Brown-led (if you can call it that) 2005-06 team and the 2007-08 squad helmed by arguably the most infamous figure in recent Knicks history, Isiah Thomas.
Each finished 23-59. Each featured a cast of ill-fitting stars—some established, others unfulfilled vessels for misplaced hope. Each yielded a treasure trove of torturous tidbits that haunt the franchise to this day.
The fall of Stephon Marbury, a slew of outsized contracts, sordid scandals, a fanbase force-fed a festering product at filet mignon prices—the mid-2000s Knicks were such a combustible comedy of errors that not even the Farrelly brothers would have the stomach to script it.
|An Exercise in Futility|
There are other, more archaic candidates: The post-Bernard King-injury Knicks of 1984-85, the similarly awful teams of Patrick Ewing's first two seasons and—going back even further—the squads of the early to mid-1960s, just prior to the arrival of Willis Reed, Walt Frazier, Red Holzman and New York’s unquestioned Golden Age.
Declaring a specific team the worst in history is, of course, a matter of semantics. Were you able to pit, say, Larry Brown's cantankerous cagers against the 21-win Knicks of 1960-61—in a trillion-dollar underground basketball simulator, perhaps—the result would be a straight-up hardwood hiding.
That's the temporal caveat, but there are plenty of others as well. Being the worst, for example, doesn't necessarily mean having the worst record or even a particularly bad one. Expectations versus performance, locker room chemistry and off-court incidents are all factors in designating candidates for worst-ever status.
That brings us back to this year's Knicks. Say what you will about the quality of basketball—statistical, optical or otherwise—there at least seems to be a tangible plan in place: shedding the team's cap-clogging contracts in hopes of attracting enough free-agent talent to put the Knicks back in the conversation as legitimate Eastern Conference contenders.
Easier said than done? Without a doubt. But if anyone can transform these Knicks—the performance as well as the culture—it's the man they call the Zen Master.
That's not to say all's been smooth sailing.
The Knicks are far from where they want to be, both stylistically and philosophically. But Jackson's comments are instructive not merely for the words themselves but also for the fact that anyone—particularly someone with the clout capable of actually changing a culture—is saying them at all.
For his part, first-year head coach Derek Fisher is also taking the long view on New York’s no-doubt daunting rebuilding project.
"Our record is on my record," Fisher recently told the New York Post’s Marc Berman. "But I'm still optimistic about there being better days ahead. And that's what has to drive us right now. Not to accept where we are but just to continue to work through it and knowing we can get better if we keep working."
Canned platitudes? Perhaps. But watching Fisher and Jackson navigate New York's delicate narrative underbelly, one can't help but believe that even they know—despite the losses and lingering fear of doom retread—these Knicks are better than their record.
Nor can we ignore that even the manifold close losses reveal a team for which process and patience remain the prevailing mantras.
Recently, SB Nation's Paul Flannery underscored the sense of purposeful calm that has hung over the Jackson-Fisher Knicks:
What’s different about all this is that they appear to be doing things correctly. Jackson made modest deals during the offseason, adding a modicum of young talent and late-round draft choices in exchange for players they no longer wanted. He resisted pricey free agent band-aids and began the unenviable task of cleaning up the salary cap mess he inherited from his predecessors.
There is arguably more talent now than there was last season and certainly fewer wasted roster spots. The Knicks finally seemed to be in capable hands. The mistake was in assuming that responsible management would also equal immediate results.
To orchestrate a nearly total roster turnover, to implement a brand-new and notoriously complex offensive system, to install a first-time coach—these factors would throw even the sturdiest and most steadfast teams for a loop. It might be more temporary for, say, the San Antonio Spurs, but these are very real challenges.
It's entirely conceivable that the 2014-15 Knicks finish with fewer than 20 wins for the first time in franchise history. They might well buckle the basement in terms of offensive production or defensive stoutness. They may rival the Philadelphia 76ers for the bottommost rung on the Eastern Conference ladder.
But the worst Knicks team ever? For an answer, one needs to look no further than the faces of the fans. There, you'll find flooding the eyes something seldom gleaned—hope—even if the smiles are few and far between.
*Stat which takes a team's production and strength of schedule into account.