Around 12 months ago, there was a genuine prospect of LeBron James coming to Australia and playing basketball.
It wasn’t so long ago that hope for a New York Knicks fan was more than just some abstract, vague concept at the end of The Shawshank Redemption. In fact, it was only two months ago. But then something intervened, the same thing that always intervened.
The New York Knicks.
First though, here’s the good news.
Despite hitting the rookie wall with a thud, Kristaps Porzingis is still a 7’3 building block for the future.
In February, rumours were swirling about Carmelo Anthony’s troublesome knees and him being a potential shutdown candidate. He’s responded with his best month of the season, rediscovering his three point stroke in March and looking like prime-Melo.
After a generation of giving away first round draft picks for Antonio McDyess, Stephon Marbury, Eddy Curry, Anthony and Andrea Bargnani, the Knicks finally have all of their own draft picks – after this year, of course. The final injustice.
The salary cap situation is not an atrocity for the first time in recent memory. (Knicks fans have spent the past decade waking up in cold sweats screaming out the cap figures of Jalen Rose, Steve Francis, Marbury, Jerome James, Amar’e Stoudemire, Bargnani and all the other god-awful contracts this team has taken on).
Here’s the bad news.
Do you know how you get a clean cap sheet? By not having players worth giving money to.
Outside of Porzingis, Anthony and Robin Lopez, the Knicks have no concrete foundational pieces on the roster. Jerian Grant is wet cement mixture, someone who could form into a solid, change of pace guard, or could become Mardy Collins 2.0.
Langston Galloway is about to be a free agent (and isn’t that good), Cleanthony Early is recovering from a bullet wound, and the Sixers didn’t want Tony Wroten. Arron Afflalo will probably leave at the end of the season, or worse, he’ll stay. None of the 47 power forwards on the roster are power forwards in 2016, and Sasha Vujacic is Sasha Vujacic.
The Zinger, the Melo and the Ro-Lo aren’t a hopeless core. Hit on your draft picks, sign mid-range free agents of the Afflalo variety, hope that Porzingis becomes 83 per cent of Dirk Nowitzki on offence and better defensively, pray for Carmelo’s knees, and you might have the semblance of a contender in time with the right infrastructure. The problem is that the current infrastructure has the integrity of a $26 waterbed in the middle of a warzone.
Phil Jackson has become the John Goodman character in 10 Cloverfield Lane. He’s holding onto a certain idea of life at the expense of, you know, looking at the world. The triangle in 2016 isn’t just antiquated – it’s irresponsible.
Despite having an offensive superstar in Anthony, a structural dynamo in Porzingis, an elite offensive rebounder in Lopez (third in the league), and a perfectly serviceable point guard (on offence, at least) in Jose Calderon, running the triangle the Knicks have the 21st ranked offence in the league. There is no universe where the talent on the Knicks should have that ranking while Portland and Charlotte’s talent finds them at sixth and ninth.
In the modern NBA there are two things you want to do on offence: attack the rim and shoot threes. The Knicks rank 20th in free throw rate and 23rd in three point-attempt rate. Suffocated by the triangle, basketball’s least breathable shape, New York plays at a snail’s pace (26th in pace) and it’s not easily discernible what exactly they’re good at.
No, they don’t really turn the ball over, that’s something. But what’s the point of holding onto the ball if you can’t put it in the hoop? The Knicks are turning the ball over with mid-range jump-shots clanking off the rim. (The one stat where the Knicks are in the top 10? Long twos attempted. Of course.)
Defensively, the Knicks deserve some credit. They’re not good on defence (20th in defensive efficiency) but they’ve got the right idea, taking away the three point line (26th in three point attempt rate against) and forcing a heap of long twos (which is so brilliantly ironic – the Knicks defensive strategy is to force the opposition into the shots that… they love to take themselves on offence. Of course).
The problem is that they give up a tonne of shots at the rim. Of the nine teams that give up the highest percentage of shots at the rim, eight of them are going to miss the playoffs (the outlier is Oklahoma City, ranking a worryingly high second).
The hope in late January for the Knicks wasn’t misguided. Porzingis, Anthony, Lopez, cap space and all of your own draft picks isn’t an awful set-up. It’s one that the other team in New York would start the Second Cold War for. But the pieces are so loose that they need someone to connect them (and it’s not the Connect-4 master, Rajon Rondo). But as long as they’re being pieced into a triangle, hope is futile.
Some coaches are unambiguously great (Gregg Popovich, Rick Carlise and Stan van Gundy), unambiguously good (Mike Budenholzer, Brad Stevens and Frank Vogel), and some are just ambiguous (Quin Snyder, Fred Hoiberg and Billy Donovan). And then there are coaches who are just indisputably terrible, like Kurt Rambis.
When he was coaching Minnesota, Rambis benched Kevin Love for Anthony Tolliver. He played Corey Brewer and Ryan Gomes more minutes per game than Love in Love’s sophomore season. Oh, and he went 32-132. That’s 100 games under .500.
Those Minnesota teams weren’t exactly loaded with talent (there was a lot of Jonny Flynn going on), but what talent there was Rambis sent to hell. If given the reins long-term, he’ll do the same in New York.
Porzingis’s production hasn’t been dreadful under Rambis so far (although it has been worse, albeit possibly due to other factors such as fatigue) but Rambis’s quotes about the Latvian star are terrifying. He’s spoken of his desire to play Porzingis at the three, which is like saying you want to play Lionel Messi at goalkeeper. It reeks of P.J. Carlesimo playing Kevin Durant at shooting guard, still one of the dumbest things that has ever happened.
The two most unique, valuable skillsets in the NBA right now are a point guard who can launch threes the second you lose them on a pick and roll (see: Curry, Stephen and Lillard, Damian) and a big man who can both protect the rim and shoot from deep (see: Ibaka, Serge and Davis, Anthony). Porzingis is the latter, and the Knicks’ future depends on his development. Rambis is not the man for the job; in fact he’s the last man for the job. Byron Scott might be a better coach than Rambis, in the same vein that Donald Trump might be a better leader for the free world than Ted Cruz.
You know who would be a good man for the job? Tom Thibodeau – a coach with a 255-139 win-loss record, a coach who revolutionised, nay, invented, modern NBA defence, a coach who led the Bulls to the playoffs every season despite his most reliable offensive player at various points being Nate Robinson, Joakim Noah or Luol Deng. Thibodeau’s gritty, hard-nosed defensive style would resonate perfectly with a Knicks fan-base that still glorifies and longs for the Patrick Ewing-Charles Oakley era and the smash-mouth approach of Pat Riley and Jeff Van Gundy.
But Thibodeau will never be hired because of a shape. A shape that is outdated and futile in 2016, a shape that Phil Jackson is hanging onto either out of arrogance, stupidity, Stockholm Syndrome, or likely, all three. As long as Jackson is around, as long as his triangle-obeying zealots and disciples are the only candidates for the job, the Knicks will continue to be doomed.
Doomed by a freaking three-sided shape.