What a coup for the Illawarra Hawks!
I blame George Costanza. When I was growing up I was obsessed with New York City.
My favourite films were gritty NYC Martin Scorcese films like Mean Streets, Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, my favourite book was Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City and Jay Z held a special place in my heart, for running Brooklyn with ‘Reasonable Doubt’ as well as sharing my name.
All this, and I watched a lot of Seinfeld.
Inevitably the obsession with New York pop culture extended to the Big Apple’s sports teams. I picked the Mets because I couldn’t support the Yankees, and I picked the Giants because I couldn’t support both the Mets and Jets, two of America’s most tortured franchises.
Basketball was easy. It was only ever going to be the Knicks.
A lot of Knick fans grew up watching the niche iconic 1980s Knick teams with Bernard King, or the perennial contenders in the ’90s with Patrick Ewing, John Starks and Charles Oakley. Some fans would have visited Madison Square Garden for the first time at the tail end of Ewing’s prime, catching an exciting rag-tag group of Knickerbockers charge to the 1999 finals behind Latrell Sprewell (post-choking his coach), Allan Houston, Larry Johnson and Marcus Camby.
Maybe some current fans have been with the team so long that they were around for the Knicks’ two lone championships in the early ’70s, old enough and fortunate enough to see the most beautiful basketball Gotham has ever produced, with Clyde Frazier and Earl the Pearl Monroe making sweet music together in the Garden’s backcourt, Denzel Washington’s speeches to Ray Allen be damned.
All those fans who started with the team before the millennium have something to hold onto. They have Ewing’s prime, Starks dunking on Jordan, Allan Houston’s last-second running one-hander that bounced around the rim for a decade before casually sinking into the net to eliminate the Heat in ’99, Larry Johnson’s four-point play a fortnight later against the Pacers, Bernard King’s 44 to beat Isiah Thomas’s 16 points in 93 seconds, and of course, Willis Reed walking out of that tunnel.
A lot of fans have those memories to minimise the pain of the Knicks’ recent past. Not me though. Not me.
I didn’t have Ewing, Starks, King or Frazier when I started following the Knicks. I had Stephon Marbury. The first Knick team I fell in love with was the ’06-07 Knicks, who started Marbury, Jamal Crawford, Quintin Richardson, Channing Frye and Eddy Curry. The team had just drafted Renaldo Balkman and Mardy Collins in the first round, brought Steve Francis and his $15 million salary off the bench, and gave not insignificant minutes to Jared Jeffries and Malik Rose. Eddy Curry averaged 19.5 points and seven rebounds that season as the focal point of an NBA team, which is a thing that happened.
The Isiah Thomas Knicks were awful but that particular team had something resembling a heart. Marbury actually assimilated to the team that season, Crawford could go off at any moment, David Lee and Balkman brought energy and swagger off the bench, and… well, yes. They went 33-49.
That ’06-07 season was the high point of my Knicks fandom for the next four years. New York sputtered through a deranged plan to recreate the Tim Duncan-David Robinson twin towers with an immature Zach Randolph and a bad-at-basketball Eddy Curry, a plan so misguided that it finally cost Thomas his job (there was also a lawsuit).
Mike D’Antoni gave New York two years of eminently watchable, totally inoffensive ineptitude, going 61-103 as the Knicks prepared their salary cap for a shot at LeBron James, Dwyane Wade or Chris Bosh and ended up with… Five years and 100 million uninsured dollars for Amar’e Stoudemire and his failing knees.
Stoudemire, which people forget now, brought New York to life in his first three months as a Knick, playing at an MVP level. Then came the fateful Carmelo Anthony trade and all the expectations that came with it.
The Carmelo Knicks made the playoffs three seasons in a row, but each time we knew that it was smoke and mirrors. The 2011 team was beset by injuries to Stoudemire and Chauncey Billups, the 2012 team was beset by not being that good, suffering from a ‘Linsanity’ hangover and Stoudemire’s epic decision to punch through the glass casing of a fire extinguisher in the playoffs and lacerate his hand.
The 2013 team is the great ‘what if’ Knicks team of the past 15 years, managing to win 54 games, grab the two seed, and find themselves two games from the conference finals. But deep down we knew that they weren’t the real deal, we knew that any team relying heavily on Kenyon Martin, Steve Novak, Pablo Prigioni and Chris Copeland and starting Raymond Felton and a 39-year-old Jason Kidd looking ten years older than he was, would only be LeBron fodder in the East.
The beauty of the Knicks today is that we don’t know anymore.
The 2015-16 New York Knicks are a mediocre NBA team. They’re 22-22 with the league’s 18th best net rating. They probably won’t make the playoffs in the suddenly competitive eastern conference. But none of this matters.
For the first time since the ’90s, the Knicks have hope. This time it’s real hope, not the hope that you get when you trade for Stephon Marbury and Steve Francis, sign Amar’e Stoudemire to a max deal, or sell your entire team for Carmelo Anthony and give him nothing to work with.
In the modern NBA, conceptually, if you could choose one building block that isn’t the game’s most dynamic offensive threat in history (his name rhymes with ‘flurry’) it would be a big man who can both space the floor to the three-point line and protect the rim. That versatility is the Rosetta Stone for NBA line-ups, giving teams the ability to go small with shooting while maintaining their defensive integrity. It’s the Draymond Green archetype and the fundamental reason the Warriors have emerged as one of the most dominant teams in history (well, aside from ‘flurry’).
Anthony Davis, LaMarcus Aldridge, Chris Bosh, Karl-Anthony Towns and potentially DeMarcus Cousins all fit this archetype. So does Kristaps Porzingis.
Along with Towns, Porzingis is one of the most unique rookies we’ve seen, someone already putting up a 14-8 with two blocks and a three-point shot that has to be respected. He’s still raw on both ends, but he has the length on defence and the skill on offence to develop into one of the league’s top 20 players over the next half-decade. He hit the rookie wall in December but he’s since burst through it to have his best month in January, raining a 28-11 on the Spurs and dropping 26 to beat the Celtics, two of the league’s three best defences. Kristaps is the real deal.
The great thing for the Knicks is that they don’t have a tonne of bad deals to crush his future. This feels different. Anthony’s deal runs for three more seasons at max money, and while this time last year that contract looked like a potentially cataclysmic disaster, right now it only looks like a minor disaster. Carmelo seems physically rejuvenated after two years of chronic knee issues. He’s defensively engaged, rebounding consistently and assisting at the highest rate of his career.
He’s still an offensive dynamo, and when he’s on the court the Knicks have the fourth-best offence in the league. Anthony is already 31 but his shooting prowess, savvy and ability to dominate in the post should mean that he doesn’t fall off a cliff as he ages like other offence first stars like Allen Iverson, Gilbert Arenas and Tracy McGrady did. If Porzingis rises to the superstar level he’s capable of, Anthony should still be the second or third-best player on a contender for the next few years.
The problem for the Knicks is that they might have a top two, but spots three through nine are a bare cupboard, with a couple of jars of peanut butter and not much else. Robin Lopez is one of those jars, a legitimate starting centre (although Porzingis’ natural position should eventually become centre, pushing Lopez to the first big off the bench) on a fair salary.
After a woeful showing last season, likely due to injury, Arron Afflalo has reminded us why Kendrick Lamar wrote a song about him. He’ll likely be gone this off-season after taking a ‘prove it’ one-plus-one deal, but Afflalo’s success might act as an incentive to similarly minded free agents who want to rejuvenate their value in the New York spotlight.
Jose Calderon has also returned to form after a terrible season and his $7 million salary for next year no longer looks that catastrophic for someone who should ideally be an above-average back-up. Jerian Grant shows electric flashes and will hopefully usurp Calderon as the starting point guard over the next 12 months, but his game is still raw and he needs to learn how to shoot. Derrick Williams and Kyle O’Quinn are fun, and Langston Galloway has a great name.
The future for New York isn’t filled with roses and a Garden guaranteed to be raucous. They lack the depth of young talent that teams like Minnesota, Utah and Milwaukee have, and they don’t have the established transformative young star that New Orleans, Portland and Sacramento possess. When you factor in the relatively young franchise players Golden State, OKC, Houston, the Clippers, Washington and Indiana have – plus the fact that the Spurs are just going to be great forever – at best it seems like the brightness of New York’s future in the hierarchy of the league falls somewhere in the mid to late teens.
You know what that says to me?