If you were trying to embody longstanding ineptitude in professional basketball despite clear opportunities to succeed, you would be hard pressed to find a better exemplar than the New York Knicks. The team is currently 15-36 and, in a league where over half the teams make the playoffs, the Knicks haven’t seen postseason action since 2013, approaching statistical anomaly. They’ve missed on pretty much free agent you’ve ever heard of, turning their roster into a grab bag of supporting roles. And they’ve even tanked on the NBA draft lottery, which is basically a weighted game of chance, including this year missing out on can’t-miss NBA rookie Zion Williamson. Whether it be incompetence or dumb luck, the Knicks simply can’t get it right.
So, in the face of all of this, what do the Knicks do? What any team does, they fired their President Steve Mills, who’s been part of the Knicks family for long enough that he definitely had this coming. And they only fired Mills because they’ve already fired their head coach David Fizdale in December for his part in going 21-83 under his watch. Which means the Knicks will have to fill both posts this offseason while also trying convince one or more superstars to come to Manhattan to resuscitate one of the League’s most chaotic organizations. And Knicks fans will clearly remember that all this comes in the long wake of the dysfunctional Isiah Thomas years and the Phil Jackson debacle, two moves that sounded way better on paper than in practice.
Of course, many – okay most would argue this isn’t some wild coincidence, but rather the direct result of one James Dolan, the CEO of the Madison Square Garden Company and, more importantly here, the person who oversees operations of the Knicks – and has for about 20 years, the vast majority of those abysmal at best. There’s a reason Knicks fans reminisce longingly about the 90’s, when they were perhaps the most tortured franchise on the planet. But at least they had hope – and they could always look down at Reggie Miller and the Indiana Pacers. This was why fans at a recent game broke out in the cheer, “sell the team,” which doesn’t look like it’s going to happen. This nation may be divided, but nothing brings New Yorkers together more than James Dolan.
There’s two issues here that probably speak to the Knicks ineptitude, and neither of them have to do specifically with either Steve Mills or David Fizdale – although they certainly didn’t help. First, you shouldn’t underestimate the importance of team ownership in the landscape of professional sports, even in the highly structured salary cap era. Owning a professional sports team is, maybe more than anything in this world, a huge vanity buy. It’s like a Rolex on steroids. But good owners realize there’s a big difference between being filthy rich and knowing how to run a sports team. And Dolan doesn’t even bring the business sense of an owner like Mark Cuban, a self-made billionaire who knows how to hire the right people and create a culture success. Dolan came about his power and wealth the old-fashioned way – from his family. So perhaps he lacks the kind of intuition you’d expect from a team owner. Which would be fine if he didn’t pretend otherwise.
But outside of ownership, the Knicks longstanding malaise is a recognition that the world is truly changing. At one point in the not too distant past, there was an assumed natural advantage to sports teams in places like New York and Los Angeles, cities with massive fan bases, home to national media, entertainment, and ad agencies lining up to make star athletes rich and famous. Which meant that certain teams, like the Knicks, would always be pretty good, even if they didn’t win it all.
The thing is, now in a global marketplace dominated by social media, you don’t have to play in New York or LA to be a superstar. And on top of that, you pay a lot lower taxes in Texas. Which maybe is why teams like the Houston Rockets have become such an appealing destination. Heck Oklahoma City almost won a title. Your money goes a lot longer out in the Plains than on 5th avenue. And less traffic.
Does that mean the Knicks can never be good, or that no one wants to play for New York? Just remember that across the river, superstars Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant both signed with the rival Brooklyn Nets, joining the bridge and tunnel crowd. It seems they wanted to be in New York, just not the Knicks. And to be fair, I can’t blame them.
Keith Strudler is the director of the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler
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