Fifty Years After Their Last NBA Title, The Knicks Are Still Adrift
When it comes to putting together a championship-caliber team, there are a few tried-and-true methods. Teams can build their nucleus through the draft like the Golden State Warriors did with Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green. They can make a franchise-altering trade like the blockbuster deal the Toronto Raptors pulled off to acquire Kawhi Leonard. They can mimic the San Antonio Spurs’ dynasty under head coach Gregg Popovich and front office executive R.C. Buford and become a beacon of stability and continuity. Or a team can catapult itself into contention through free agency, similar to how the Miami Heat orchestrated a championship roster when they persuaded LeBron James and Chris Bosh to join Dwyane Wade.
Or maybe they should just look at whatever the New York Knicks are doing, and do the exact opposite. As they stand currently at 11-13, tied for the ninth seed in the Eastern Conference, the Knicks enter the 50th season since their last NBA title as a model of how not to run an NBA franchise. This is despite a number of structural advantages that would seem to stack the deck in New York’s favor — including a massive media market, an immensely valuable franchise and plenty of star power passing through the locker room at Madison Square Garden:
The Knicks should have done something in the past 50 years
NBA teams by market size, franchise value, All-Stars and championships won, from 1973-74 to present
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New York last won a championship in 1972-73, having won another three seasons earlier. Those iconic teams were led by the likes of Willis Reed, Bill Bradley and Walt Frazier — drafted by the Knicks in 1964, 1965 and 1967, respectively — plus Dave DeBusschere and Earl Monroe — brought to New York in trades with the Detroit Pistons and Baltimore Bullets, respectively — and were coached by Red Holzman, who took over during 1967-68 season and remained on the sideline for another nine years until he departed (for the first time)1 in 1977. Had free agency existed back then, the Knicks were positioned well to attract the league’s best players.
As the core of their roster aged past its prime, the next decade saw the Knicks mostly rebuild. But once again, they restocked the cupboard in a multitude of ways. They selected Hall of Famer Patrick Ewing No. 1 overall in the 1985 NBA draft, traded for stalwarts Charles Oakley and Latrell Sprewell and signed John Starks and Allan Houston through free agency. Hall of Fame coach Pat Riley called the X’s and O’s for four seasons and, after a brief (and surprisingly unsuccessful) 59-game tenure under Don Nelson, Jeff Van Gundy assumed the helm for parts of seven seasons. While the ‘90s Knicks weren’t able to lift the Larry O’Brien Trophy for a third time, they did make it to the NBA Finals in 1994 and 1999, and were revered and feared by their peers throughout the association.
But the following season, the Knicks entered a new chapter under owner James Dolan, one that completely changed the franchise’s trajectory — and not for the better. Dolan has been heavily mocked and criticized during his tenure as Knicks owner, both for his on- and off-the-court decisions and antics. Whether that’s been fair or at times over the top, his management and leadership can certainly be viewed as a turning point for the team.
In the 26 seasons between 1973 and 1999, the team had a .522 winning percentage (a 1,096-1,004 record). In the 24 seasons since Dolan took charge, New York has a .419 winning percentage (782-1,086), and is a total of 304 games under .500, which is the worst in the NBA.
During that time, the Knicks have just six winning seasons and only seven playoff appearances. They did make the Eastern Conference finals in Dolan’s first season, but that was largely a carryover from the core built by the franchise’s previous stewards. As a sign of just how irrelevant the Knicks have become, only the Charlotte Hornets have fewer playoff appearances since the 1999-00 season.
And the ugly win-loss totals only scratch the surface of the team’s failures. Some of the front office’s decisions over the past 24 years have been dreadful, even worse with a little 20/20 hindsight. Ultimately, they highlight just how hopeless the team has been at trying to revive its successes of the ‘70s (or even the ‘90s).
The list of names the Knicks have brought in via trade or free agency have hardly been anything to write home about (shh, don’t tell Derrick Rose, Amar’e Stoudamire or Eddy Curry). That’s of course until you get to the trade that, depending on whom you ask, either resulted in the team’s greatest success in the Dolan era, or set the team back from its championship ambitions another decade-plus.
In February 2011, after months of speculation, New York finally pulled the trigger and acquired Carmelo Anthony from the Denver Nuggets. The addition came as part of a three-team deal that saw nearly two dozen players and picks change hands; with it, the MSG faithful finally landed a legit superstar. Anthony had led the Nuggets to the Western Conference finals two seasons prior and was entering his prime at 26 years old — and plus was a New York native who dreamed of playing for the Knicks: Anthony was born in Brooklyn and led the Syracuse Orange to the 2003 men’s NCAA national championship.
The problem was the man on the other end of the phone: Nuggets General Manager Masai Ujiri. Ujiri was on the rise as one of the NBA’s savviest executives — Ujiri would later mastermind the Raptors’ championship run in 2019 — and, sensing the pressure the Knicks’ front office was under to deliver its fan base a hometown hero, the deal was described as an significant overpay considering New York could have acquired Anthony for nothing just months later in free agency. Instead, New York’s war chest of assets was left relatively empty, and the resulting roster was not enough to overcome Paul George and the Indana Pacers in the 2013 Eastern Conference semifinals (let alone Miami’s LeBron-Wade-Bosh juggernaut).
The Carmelo romance ended acrimoniously when team president Phil Jackson, one of Dolan’s worst and most bizarre appointments, signed Anthony in 2014 to a five-year, $124 million extension (including a no-trade clause), then repeatedly bashed the star in public before he got himself fired in June 2017, and paved the way for Anthony’s exit in a trade to the Oklahoma City Thunder later that year. Years on, the pair are still at each other’s throats, and the whole ordeal will perhaps be remembered as the Knicks’ most defining moment of the past two decades.
The Knicks’ draft record has been just as suspect under Dolan. One part they can’t control: New York has some of the worst luck of any team in the lottery since it was instituted in 1985, in terms of the bouncing balls costing the team chances to pick higher. (Ironic, given that one of the earliest tanking conspiracies involved Ewing, the Knicks and a bent and/or frozen envelope at the draft lottery.) But as part of their fixation with star veterans, the Knicks have also consistently traded away picks and gotten less favorable draft positioning than we’d expect from their record. For example, since 2000, we’d expect New York to have the second-most valuable set of picks out of any team based on their total expected production; instead, through a combination of trades and lottery bounces, New York’s actual picks have only been 22nd-most valuable.
Not that the Knicks would have used their original picks well even if they’d had them. Since the 2000 draft, New York has selected 41 total players, only nine of which made either an All-Rookie first or second team.2 Perhaps it’s unfair to pick on the team too much, because after all drafting future stars at such a young age is incredibly difficult and every team has whiffed at some point.
But developing that young talent has again been a problem, with only David Lee and Kristaps Porziņģis going on to represent the organization at the All-Star Game among homegrown talent.
And some of the names taken immediately after past selections will make New York fans wince. During the Dolan era, the Knicks passed on Amar'e Stoudemire, Rajon Rondo, DeMar DeRozan, Tobias Harris and Mikal Bridges (or Shai Gilgeous-Alexander) in the first round to take Nenê Hilario, Renaldo Balkman, Jordan Hill, Iman Shumpert and Kevin Knox, respectively, either one or two picks earlier.
Is there any indication that the Knicks’ next 50 years might be any better? In the short term, the organization appears to finally be finding a measure of stability under president Leon Rose, GM Scott Perry and head coach Tom Thibodeau. While the team still hovers around the middle of the NBA pack, its perfectly .500 record over the past three seasons is a major improvement over the ghastly half-decade that came before. With one of the league’s youngest rosters, New York is getting its production out of a promising core of players mostly in their mid-20s (including headline offseason pickup Jalen Brunson). Unlike many of the Dolan-era editions of this team, there is hope that things can find an upswing as the season goes on.
And maybe the most promising prospect of all for Knicks fans were this summer’s reports that Dolan was potentially courting offers to sell the team. While Dolan later denied the rumor, new ownership might be the only path for New York to avoid another half-century of futility. Considering everything they have going for them, the Knicks should have been better over the past 50 years — and while Dolan hasn’t been steering the ship the entire time, his reign atop the franchise has left it adrift, far from its last encounters with championship glory.
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