Just this decade alone, the New York Knicks couldn’t get a meeting with LeBron James (twice), Kevin Durant (twice) and Kyrie Irving. Not a signature on a free agent contract -- a meeting. The courtesy of a simple hello, a how-do-you-do and pull up a chair.
The premier NBA franchise in the biggest city – the one with the sellout crowds nightly, the pretty people in the front row, the nightlife options galore and endorsement options aplenty -- couldn’t sway A-list players on the fringe benefits alone to consider spending the prime of their career with the Knicks.
This is where the Knicks are in their existence, sitting at the intersection of irrelevant and invisible. They are so far away from being an NBA heavyweight and even further from their next championship, a dry spell of 46 seasons and counting.
Maybe they finally reached rock bottom Sunday. If so, the good news is the concrete beneath their feet will likely show some compassion and won’t become a sinkhole.
On the first day of free agency, the Knicks lost out to Durant and Irving, two stars whom they chased for more than a year. That would be OK on the surface because, well, it’s not as if this never happened to the Knicks before.
But they lost out on both to the Nets. That’s the team way over in Brooklyn, by way of East Rutherford and Piscataway and Long Island. The team that, just four short years ago, was in shambles and far worse off than the Knicks ever were (and maybe ever will be).
The “other” New York team.
Durant and Irving essentially said they could enjoy all the extras of being stars in New York without having to play for the Knicks. They therefore chose a Brooklyn team on the upswing, with a dynamic front office, an energetic young coach and a batch of scrappy supporting players who reflect the personality of the city’s largest borough.
It must be said there’s no guarantee the Knicks blew it by failing to sign Irving (who went weird on the Celtics last season) and Durant (who just underwent Achilles surgery and won’t even play until 2020-21 when he’s 32). Durant, in fact, may never be the Goliath he was before the injury. It could be the Nets lost by winning, and this will be reflected in the near future if Irving’s personality and leadership skills go flatter than his Earth-truther beliefs and Durant turns into Rudy Gay.
But it sure feels like the Knicks just took another wallop to their culture and character.
They spent the previous season in the tank and traded Kristaps Porzingis, their only real asset, to clear millions in salary-cap space to sign a pair of game-changers. They instead wound up with reported deals with Julius Randle, Bobby Portis and Taj Gibson. Three mid-tier power forwards weren’t exactly what the Knicks had in mind when this all began.
The immediate feedback was so severe that team president Steve Mills took the unprecedented step of issuing a statement to fans. In it, he sensed they were “disappointed,” but assured them that the Knicks “compete for championships in the future.”
If nothing else, the Knicks constantly lead the league in trying again.
But the Knicks, after so many bad seasons and backfired quick fixes, may soon be seen as a franchise beyond saving. The NBA’s traditional franchises -- the Boston Celtics, Los Angeles Lakers and Philadelphia 76ers – have all suffered through tough stretches. Yet they all eventually rose back up and reclaimed lost glamour and respectability.
The Knicks are always playing on the coveted Christmas Day time slot not because they earned it, but because of where they play. But being in New York doesn’t save them the rest of the year. Nor does it do so in summertime, when the game’s best free agents take the best available fit.
Yet the Knicks don’t even get a meeting. A meeting!
It’s been a painful fall, one that began soon after the Knicks’ last Finals appearance in 1999. Since then, the Knicks have five overall playoff berths, one playoff series win and haven’t been to the playoffs since 2013.
They’ve had five different coaches in the last six seasons and are only starting to dig out from under the dreadful Phil Jackson regime. The last home-grown Draft pick to become an All-Star since Porzingis in 2018 was David Lee in 2010. Before that, it was Patrick Ewing.
The current team brings no guarantee of stardom and the Knicks are left to hope a keeper emerges from Randle, top draft pick RJ Barrett, Dennis Smith Jr. and Kevin Knox, all of whom are under 24 years old or younger.
But the Knicks expected far more than this, given the last few years of losing and pleading for patience. And it’s hard not to see how they failed when comparing them to the Nets.
Brooklyn seemed broken after the Celtics stole their future win the Paul Pierce/Kevin Garnett trade in the summer of 2013. But they had the smarts to put the right people in place and come up with a plan.
There are no mountains in Brooklyn because GM Sean Marks moved them to revamp the club, using out-of-the-box thinking and educated chances on unwanted players. That led to a 42-win season in 2018-19 and an unexpected playoff berth.
Without any draft picks, Marks used the Nets’ ample cap space as a dumping ground for bad contracts from other teams -- if they came packaged with picks. Or he got a future All-Star in a deal, as in D’Angelo Russell (whom the Lakers dealt away in 2017).
How bright are things in Brooklyn right now? The Nets essentially released Russell to reach a deal with Irving, who’s an upgrade, and Durant. They have solid pieces, all secured through smart decision-making, in Caris LeVert, Joe Harris, Jarrett Allen and Spencer Dinwiddie. And they no longer owe the Celtics more future Draft picks.
Had the Knicks done the same over the last three seasons or so, Durant and Irving might be Knicks today.
It had to be gut-wrenching for the Knicks to hear Andre Iguodala say “nobody’s going to the Knicks” days ago. That non-endorsement speaks volumes about the way some great players feel about the Knicks, at least those with options. And the truth is, LeBron came on the market twice, as did Durant and Kyrie … and they went elsewhere. In the case of Kyrie and Durant going to Brooklyn, they added additional insult.
This isn’t entirely the fault of Scott Perry and David Fizdale, the GM and coach, respectively, who’ve only been on the job for a few years. This is more about the culture created by past failures and a stigma that slowly grew from that which now threatens to swallow the franchise.
All the Knicks can do is … do better. Draft better, trade better and take better chances on players who are diamonds in the rough.
Maybe next time the Knicks will not only get a meeting, but a signed contract from someone who believes the team in Manhattan is the best place to be. That might take a few years, but what’s that to a team that has spent the last four decades … waiting to win big?
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