The New York Knicks are a rusty port-a-john inside a toxic waste dump on the most expensive real estate in the country. They have a well-respected coach (David Fizdale), a smart general manager (Scott Perry) and an owner who is so willfully, relentlessly, unashamedly foolish that he continues to sabotage his own franchise.
Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving are heading to New York—but to the Nets, not the Knicks. After months of speculation and years of Knicks angling, Durant and Irving made a smart choice.
If you’re an NBA star, putting your career in the hands of Knicks owner Jim Dolan is dumber than tweeting your credit card number. Dolan has run the Knicks for two decades—two decades of lousy basketball, horrible management, petty feuds, asinine vendettas and blaming anybody who blames him.
In the next few days, we will get various versions of What Went Wrong for the Knicks. We will hear how much Durant’s Achilles injury affected his plans, or who soured on a proposed marriage first. But whatever the details, what matters is that the Knicks’ entire pitch came down to three words: “We’re the Knicks.”
ESPN is reporting that Dolan was not prepared to offer Durant a full max contract because of his injury. This is colossally stupid on so many levels. Durant is a risk, but every big contract is a risk, and this is a risk every smart contender would have taken. Also: The Knicks print money, they have infuriated their fan base for most of this century and there is literally nothing else they can do with that money that makes more sense than giving it to Durant.
The Knicks had only one avenue toward contention: sign Durant and Irving and go from there. If Dolan balked, it was just another example of the unearned arrogance of the New York Knicks. First, they thought they could sign Durant because they’re the Knicks, and now they apparently think they don’t need to sign him because they’re the Knicks.
We’re the Knicks. That’s it. Looking back at the last few months of hype, that’s all they had: cap space, the biggest market and the presumption of cachet. The Knicks thought that would be enough to draw two stars who would lead them to a title. And in the history of the NBA, has that ever worked?
It worked in Miami, you say, but no: that’s not what worked in Miami when the Heat put together their Big Three. The Heat had sunshine and a cleared-out roster, sure. But Miami also had an incumbent star, Dwyane Wade, and a franchise pilot, Pat Riley, who had already won a championship together in Miami. LeBron James and Chris Bosh knew they were joining people who had done this.
While the Knicks cleared the decks and expected stars to come to them, the Nets went to work. The Nets have a smart general manager, Sean Marks, who skillfully acquired young talent and built a team that stars would want to join. Maybe this will lead to a championship and maybe it won’t, but you can see why Irving and Durant think it will.
How dysfunctional are the Knicks? Well, there are now three kinds of NBA franchises:
1. The Magnet Franchises. These are the teams that, mostly due to location, history or both, have a built-in advantage over most of the league. The Lakers are of course No. 1 on this list. I’d also put the Heat, the Celtics and a few others in this group; we can argue about the exact teams, but the point is that some teams are seen as destinations even if the roster does not scream “contender.”
2. The Play Your Cards Right Franchises. These teams can all win a title, but they have to do it through smart management, great ownership and some luck. And it can be done. The Spurs are the most successful of this group, but recent champions in Cleveland and Toronto fall into it, too. The Warriors were one of these teams, but have become a magnet franchise. Some franchises can hope to move up like the Warriors did.
3. The Knicks. Yes, these guys get their own tier. The Knicks think they’re a magnet franchise, but there is no justification for this in the last, oh, 20 years. They whiffed on LeBron James repeatedly. They just whiffed on Durant and Irving.
Yes, the Knicks can still play their cards right, but this is what’s so amazing about the Knicks: They don’t even try to play their cards right.
They had a potential franchise player, Kristaps Porzingis, and what did they do? One executive, Phil Jackson, openly dangled him in trade talks for no logical reason. Then the Knicks alienated Porzingis, started a smear campaign and traded him to Dallas. The smear campaign is the exact opposite of how smart NBA teams do business. There is a reason you won’t hear Celtics management publicly blast Irving this summer. In today’s NBA, if you trash one star, the others all take note.
Why did the Knicks do this? Just your usual combination of incompetence and arrogance. They believed they could get away with it because other stars would still run to them, and they believed that because of those same three words: We’re the Knicks.
Clearing cap space and tanking are easy. Winning the lottery and signing free agents are hard. The Knicks had to act like a smart, exciting franchise this week and they couldn’t even make it a couple hours.
Is all hope lost? Well, the Knicks just used the third pick in the draft on Duke star R.J. Barrett, who has been a frequent target of basketball fans for his apparently selfish play. I think the critics are wrong about Barrett. He is a fantastic player—a future All-Star. Barrett is competitive enough to want the ball on every possession, but such a good teammate that when Zion Williamson became a cultural phenomenon and leaped over Barrett on draft boards, Barrett was fine with it. The two became the best of friends.
Another franchise could sell fans on Barrett and some of the Knicks’ other young talent, but no intelligent person buys what the Knicks are selling anymore. The smart money says that at some point, R.J. Barrett will look at the franchise around him and understand why Porzingis, James, Irving and Durant don’t play there: They’re the Knicks.