When Carmelo Anthony joined the New York Knicks at the trade deadline six years ago, the team feted his arrival. Just before Anthony, who was born in Brooklyn, was introduced at Madison Square Garden as a Knick for the first time, the team played Diddy’s “Coming Home,” featuring Skylar Grey. The club, formerly led by Amar’e Stoudemire, was now armed with a second star, one who was supposed to change the trajectory of the long-suffering franchise and make it a contender. And for a time, at least on paper, it was hard to argue with the results: After a decade of mostly awful basketball, the Knicks reached the playoffs in each of their first three seasons with Anthony.
Fast-forward to today, though, and the team seems to be unraveling with every passing minute. The Knicks keep making headlines for the wrong reasons, whether it’s because their big-name point guard has gone AWOL, their president is putting his foot in his mouth or a fan favorite is being hustled out of the Garden in cuffs.1 Like last year, when New York fell off the map after a surprising 22-22 start, this year’s team put up a decent record early in the season only to see the wins have dried up and the club fall out of contention.
To figure out how the Knicks could be so terrible — it looks likely that they’ll miss the playoffs for a fourth straight year despite having a future Hall of Famer on the roster — look to what the franchise lacks: continuity. Even when it makes the most sense to keep things as they are, the status quo is often upended in New York.
The vast majority of that upheaval stems from failures in the front office, but before analyzing that mess, it’s important to note that Anthony isn’t blameless here either. The 32-year-old has shown an unusual degree of loyalty to the city and team he forced a trade to, despite being subjected to the team president’s subtweets and critiques every other month. But he hasn’t exactly been the easiest player to build around. People in the Knicks organization2 will tell you that Anthony’s never been happy about the physical toll that comes with playing power forward, especially on defense, even though power forward is his most productive position. He also didn’t see eye-to-eye with his first Knicks coach, Mike D’Antoni (who’s now nearly a lock for coach of the year in light of what he’s doing in Houston), though D’Antoni’s quick-trigger, pick-and-roll-based offensive principles should, in theory, have fit Anthony’s game well.
But most of the dysfunction is rooted in the Knicks’ front office. Perhaps the most maddening thing about its moves in recent years has been its inability to gauge the direction of the NBA as a whole.
It’s hard to picture it now, but the Knicks were once exemplars of the NBA’s push toward more 3-pointers. The 2012-13 Knicks thrived using a two-point-guard system with Anthony at power forward en route to breaking a league record for 3-pointers made and attempted in a single season. They won 54 games — their most in 15 years — and earned the East’s No. 2 seed as Anthony won his first NBA scoring crown.
Then, strangely, the Knicks dealt away Steve Novak, their best 3-point shooter (along with a first-round pick and two second-rounders3), for Andrea Bargnani, who couldn’t really shoot anymore. Later that offseason, owner Jim Dolan axed Glen Grunwald, the team’s general manager, who’d finished tied for third in Executive of the Year voting just months earlier.
Then, when Phil Jackson took over as president, he was adamant about using his beloved triangle offense. Teams throughout the NBA borrow from the triangle system, but it’s likely too antiquated to work when used in its entirety because it relies heavily on midrange and post-up shots that have fallen out of favor in today’s efficiency-obsessed NBA. At the same time, Jackson and his first coaching hire, Derek Fisher, seemed to downplay the importance of the three ball in today’s league. And by breaking up a team that was at the forefront of a larger leaguewide trend, the Knicks might have missed an opportunity to develop into an annual playoff contender.
The Novak trade and the move away from 3-pointers are just two of the many examples of New York cutting experiments short when patience and cultivation might have eventually yielded a positive outcome, or at least prevented a negative one.
Take Jackson’s 2015 signing of center Robin Lopez, which, outside of drafting Kristaps Porzingis, might stand as his best acquisition to date. After a solid season in New York — Lopez was arguably the most consistent player on the team in 2015-16, and he improved considerably after the all-star break when he got a better grasp on the offense — the Knicks dealt him away for Derrick Rose, who, because he’s in a contract year, may end up being just a one-season rental.
Had the Knicks stood pat with Lopez, it would have spared them the pain of what replaced him: Joakim Noah’s four-year, $72 million contract, which, combined with his age and injury history, makes him seem untradable. (The signing looks borderline disastrous, given that Porzingis should be able to play Noah’s position full time within the next year or so anyway.)
For years, episodes like the Lopez-Rose swap4 — where an element of the team’s continuity is sacrificed in pursuit of a win-now gamble — have clearly been causing problems at the Garden. Since 2000, the Knicks have gone through more coaches than any other team, according to information provided by Elias Sports Bureau. Since the start of the 2008-09 season, they’ve suited up more players than any club. Anthony alone has had five coaches and 79 teammates during his time in New York. Jackson, who’s hired three coaches and cycled through 45 players in less than three years, has done little to slow the game of musical chairs down since becoming team president.
Only now does the team seem to be grasping some of the nuances of the collective bargaining agreement and the importance of youth. New York’s front office, which hasn’t re-signed one of its first-round picks to a multi-year deal since Charlie Ward in 1999, deserves credit for having held onto its future first-round selections these past three seasons. The team’s foreign scouting has been solid for years. And the Knicks seem to have learned from past mistakes, signing unheralded free agents to longer, cheaper deals very different from the risky one-year pacts they agreed to with Jeremy Lin and Chris Copeland, who outplayed expectations, then left for bigger paydays elsewhere.
Still, none of these relatively straightforward improvements absolve Dolan or Jackson of the mistakes they’ve made, since the team still lacks a clear direction years after this power structure was put in place.
Though Dolan finally had the right idea in removing himself from basketball operations and handing those duties over to someone who can guard against Dolan’s urges to meddle with the team, it’s become painfully clear that Dolan should’ve turned to someone who’d done this job before, especially since the job now comes with a $12 million salary.
Hopefully Jackson will view his tenure with the Knicks as an education on how vastly different this job is from coaching, but in the meantime, he has faced almost too many challenges (including setting a clear organizational agenda, giving a new coach room to experiment, and building a rapport with his players) to mention.
The 71-year-old dealt Tyson Chandler, J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert but has little to show for them. He has awkwardly straddled the line between trying to win now and trying to reload for the future, and he has made choosing a path harder by including a no-trade clause in Anthony’s contract.
For too long, he micromanaged the club’s style of offense as if that was the problem, even though the Knicks are likely to field their 11th bottom-10 defense in the 15 seasons since Jeff Van Gundy resigned. And Jackson’s efforts to motivate his star player by criticising him in the media — which might have worked in the past, when Jackson was a coach and winning rings left and right — have fallen flat, and perhaps made players around the NBA less likely to want to play in New York.
A simple dose of normalcy, along with a moment’s pause to take stock of how the rest of the NBA is operating, would go a long way in leading New York back to success, whether Anthony remains a Knick or not.
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