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Why Can’t New Yorkers Have Two Nice Things?

Two NYC sports fans wrestle with the divergent fortunes of James Dolan’s New York sports teams

Getty Images/Casey Moore illustration
Getty Images/Casey Moore illustration

In New York City sports, there is one overarching mystery that defies all logic: the relevance of the Rangers and the cellar-dwelling institutional ineptitude of the Knicks. How can two teams, owned by the same person, have such different fates? Katie Baker, Broadway blue-through-and-through Rangers fan, and I, a bedraggled Knicks fan, try to figure it out.

Jason Concepcion: Why are the Rangers good and the Knicks bad? As a New York sports fan, it’s an inescapable conundrum. Both teams play in Madison Square Garden. They share a training facility in the leafy burb of Tarrytown. And, of course, both teams are owned by James Dolan, the scion of the Cablevision Dolans, infamous semi-pro blues musician, concert promoter, and fedora wearer. Yet the states of the Knicks and Rangers are as divergent as a wishbone.

Last season, the Knicks won 32 games, a step up from 17 the season before that. They currently sit at 3–6 after beating their underpowered crosstown rivals, the Nets. The team — which I, for some reason, adore — has reached the postseason just four times in the last 15 seasons. They haven’t won the NBA title in 43 years. Since Phil Jackson took over the front office in March 2014, the Knicks have had four head coaches.

Then there’s the Rangers. Ten playoff appearances since 2000–01, including a finals appearance in 2014. A decade without a losing season. They currently own a record of 12–4–0 and lead the Metropolitan Division.

I know why the Knicks are bad, and we’ll get into that, but much of it has to do with the ownership style of James Dolan. So why are the Rangers good, and why have they been good for the last decade? Katie, WHY IS THIS THE CASE?

Getty Images
Getty Images

Katie Baker: Well, because in the year 2000 they selected Henrik Lundqvist from Sweden in the seventh round of the NHL draft. (I’m exaggerating here, but only a little!) We’ll get back to Hank, and about the regular anxiety dreams I have that involve great hair and windows closing. It should be pointed out, though, that right around the time Lundqvist was drafted, the Knicks and Rangers were about to go through a long, dark spell of being concurrently bad in similar (and expensive) ways. The difference is, at some point in the last 16 years, the Rangers managed to snap out of it.

In the past five seasons, they have advanced to the Cup Finals once and the Eastern Conference finals twice, a consistency reminiscent of everyone’s cherished ’90s Knicks. (Rick Nash’s blocked shot is the Patrick Ewing finger roll.) The Rangers have successfully carried out at least one peaceful transfer of power: They were good, somehow, under the punishing John Tortorella administration, and they remain good under Alain Vigneault now that they’re fast, fun, and “the league’s preeminent NHL TV team,” according to Sportsnet’s Dimitri Filipovic.

Over the years, the team benefitted from a successful commitment to player development, some great trades, and — last season, in particular — a little bit of luck. Oh, and that Hall of Fame goalie. Did I mention him?

Meanwhile, Knicks fans have long been cursed by a gypsy to live in interesting times. (What drug was I on, several decades ago, when I imagined this Stat and Melo remix?) We got Linsanity, sure, but it ended in a blaze of grown men breathing heavily at each other from either side of a Vegas hotel room door. We got Phil Jackson, fine; but it was about 10 years too late. So the eternal New Yorker question: How are you feeling these days? And will the Knicks ever be good?

Jason: Gosh, ever is a long time. Yes, the Knicks will, one day — perhaps even for a season or two — be good. The law of averages is undefeated. The issue is: Will the Knicks’ hypothetical return to relevance be the result of something the team did on purpose?

Will the Good Knicks be process-oriented, and therefore replicable? Or will the Good Knicks be good in the same way a broken timepiece is right twice a day? The Knicks won 54 games in 2012–13; tied for the fourth-best finish in team history, basically by accident. The previous season, the team won 36 games; the season after, 37. Fifty-four games was the meat in a 10-year mediocrity sandwich.

Will the Knicks embrace player development, as the Rangers have? Or will they continue to ship out young pieces in deals for washed veterans? Will the Knicks ever manage to hire the right coach and find the patience to stick with him? The Rangers have had three coaches since 2005–06. The Knicks have had seven, each a sorrowful era unto themselves. To this day, I spit on the ground whenever I hear Larry Brown’s name. *spits*

Katie: *spits*

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Getty Images

Jason: Glen Sather has been the president of the Rangers since 2000. That’s like 2,000 actual years in Dolan time.

Katie: A quick intro to ol’ Slats: This is a man who coached Wayne Gretzky back in the day and who absolutely crushed it on this magazine cover — which, as far as I can tell, was published by a countertop company.

I once sat directly in front of him in a press box and can confirm he gnawed on a cigar throughout the entire game. He finally stepped aside as GM in 2015 so that Jeff Gorton could take over, but he remains team president in part because of a hostage situation involving Dolan and an AA chip. His standing with Dolan is in stark contrast to the way things have gone down on the Knicks side, where Dolan tosses the brass around like so many discarded set lists.

Jason: For the Knicks, there’s been Scott Layden (signed Allan Houston to a contract so crippling that the amnesty clause, introduced in 2005, was immediately known as the “Allan Houston Rule”), Isiah Thomas (I could go on and on), Donnie Walsh (he made a lot of mistakes but actually tried to rebuild the team), Glen Grunwald (secretly very solid under the circumstances), Steve Mills (who knows), and Phil Jackson.

What can we say about Jackson at this point? He’s among the winningest coaches in league history, but he’s not coaching the team. He drafted Kristaps Porzingis — my son, the light of my life — but (befitting Knicks history) kind of by accident. Which is fine — the draft is about luck, and at least the team had its first-round pick. Jackson seems genuinely more interested in rehabilitating the triangle offense’s reputation than he does in building the Knicks into a sustainably successful team.

At least there’s Kristaps. Drafting him altered the trajectory of the franchise. He’ll be a perennial All-Star. But how good would he have to be to be comparable to Lundqvist? Is that cross-sports comparison even possible?

Katie: An old bearded dude and two strapping dudes from either side of the Baltic Sea, here to restore The Garden to its rightful splendor. It’s like the C-plot of a wannabe Game of Thrones, and I’m here for it. (This is where the people who have read the books are all, “Did you know? Porzingis has an older brother named Janis who played pro basketball in Europe and schooled Kristaps in the dark arts of dealing with the NBA media. Lundqvist has an identical twin brother named Joel who was actually picked four rounds ahead of him in the 2000 NHL draft.”)

Henrik Lundqvist is one of the best goalies in NHL history, an Olympic gold medalist, and a surefire Hall of Famer. He’s so good that he sometimes plasters over a few too many of the Rangers’ structural flaws. To be Lundqvist is to help carry a team into the postseason year after year after year, and then be criticized by a mostly insane faction of fans over a few 2–1 losses.

Still, most Rangers fans exist in a perpetual state of fretting about Hank: Is he injured? Is he slipping? Should he be traded — for everyone’s good? Come to think of it, this is exactly how I feel about Kristaps most of the time. He has the potential to transform the Knicks the way Lundqvist has lifted the Rangers. (And he’ll probably also open a restaurant in TriBeCa called Tiny’s.)

And when/if he does, Jackson will forever be praised for drafting him, even if Knicks fans know that the truth is a little more complicated. Besides Porzingis, who or what about the Knicks fills you with the most confidence? What brings you the most dread?

Jason: Phil Jackson is a source of both dread and a weird species of confidence. Phil — after a promising couple of seasons from a team-building perspective — has fallen into the ancient “win now” well that’s been drowning executives since the days of Ned Irish. He traded solid assets for Derrick Rose, a faded, injury-riddled onetime star who had a civil trial for rape hanging over him. He signed the 31-year-old shipwreck of Joakim Noah to a four-year, $72.6 million deal. He’s running through coaches like tissues. Jeff Hornacek had been at the helm for all of six games before Jackson undermined him by elevating triangle doctrinaire Kurt Rambis to the position of defensive specialist. No one would be surprised if Rambis was coaching the team by the All-Star break.

Katie: What the hell does the triangle offense have on this man? The last time I saw an MSG employee so committed to a faulty ideal, John Tortorella was forcing Marian Gaborik to block shots. If Jackson had any self-awareness, and any spare peyote, he’d film a re-creation of this classic Sesame Street scene with a triangle for the letter U and him in the role of Smokey Robinson. (I’d also accept a version involving Jeff Van Gundy and Alonzo Mourning’s leg.)

Jason: In Eleven Rings: The Soul of Success, Jackson describes the triangle as “aligned perfectly with the values of selflessness and mindful awareness I’d been studying in Zen Buddhism.” So you know, there’s that. “With the triangle,” Jackson wrote, “you can’t stand around and wait for the Michael Jordans and Kobe Bryants of the world to work their magic.” It’s an egalitarian offense … in theory.

In practice, MJ led the league in usage rate nearly every season that Jackson coached him. In any case, it’s hard to tell a guy who’s won two-hands-plus-a-finger’s worth of championships as a coach to stop doing the thing that got him there. Imagine if the Knicks would’ve succeeded in their rumored attempt to hire Jackson in 1999. He could’ve squeezed a few more years of relevance out of New York’s then-aging roster. Like everything else the team does, they got the name they wanted several years too late. If memory serves, the Rangers were once run that way. At least they got a title out of it.

Katie: We were one game away from both teams having championship parades in June of 1994. Both teams sustained that momentum through the end of the ’90s and then fell off a cliff.

The Rangers lost in the Eastern Conference Finals in 1997 then missed the playoffs until they were swept in the first round by the Devils in 2006. (Sound familiar?) The team became little more than a grab bag of past glories. By 2002, just by way of example, all of the following players somehow played for New York: Eric Lindros, Pavel Bure, Theo Fleury. The Rangers did not make the playoffs that year. The Knicks’ own Starbury era was just around the corner.

Jason: God, let’s not talk about multi-comma salaries and unidimensional players with cooked odometers. The 21st-century Knicks have that sad-sack category sewn up. The aforementioned Allan Houston. Eddy Curry, owner of a possible heart condition: six years, $60 million (in 2005 salary cap dollars!). Jerome James: five years, $30 million. Zach Randolph, before he figured it out. Steve Francis, Penny Hardaway, Andrea Bargnani. I could go on, but I’m making myself feel bad. Whatever. Those days are (mostly) gone.

Katie: What is dead may never die. The Rangers were once so famous for throwing money around that the standard argumentative shorthand for the team on internet message boards was Rag$. (As a footnote in a December 2005 report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics about the NHL lockout explained: “Team success does not necessarily correlate with high salaries. The New York Rangers typically have the highest team payroll in the league, but have not performed well for several seasons.” I would definitely sign up for more of the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ sports takes.)

You could argue that no organization was saved from itself — via losing an entire season over an ultimately implemented salary cap — more than the Blueshirts. In the mid-aughts, the Rangers turned things around in a way the Knicks haven’t done.

Jason: How are the Rangers doing now? With the exception of the Noah deal, Phil hasn’t done anything too egregious. Hopefully he doesn’t re-sign Derrick Rose. And the current salary cap — more than double what it was in 2005 — gives the team flexibility.

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Getty Images

Phil is the first front-office executive that Dolan has actually left alone. That’s a function of Phil’s 11 diamond-encrusted championship rings and his mystique. I fear that Jackson’s misguided yet ostensibly independent stewardship is still degrees better than the alternative — a president without the stature and reputation to resist Dolan’s meddling. WHY IS THIS NOT A PROBLEM FOR THE RANGERS? I mean, does Dolan just not like hockey???

Katie: I think he likes hockey, but he somehow actually understands that he doesn’t “know” it. (You don’t have to spend too much time in a room full of aging Albertans gushing about “big boys” to reach this conclusion.) As a result, he’s been refreshingly hands-off with the Rangers and is, in many ways, the ideal owner: willing to write checks and back away.

Jason: Yes! I’ve always maintained that Dolan is, counterintuitively, very nearly the perfect NBA owner for just those reasons.

Katie: Totally. The worst nightmare is the stingy owner — and I deal with this sometimes as a New York Mets enthusiast — and/or the intrusive one. Unfortunately, Dolan treats basketball with the misguided confidence of a bored retired guy with an online brokerage account. He sells low, he buys high, he cancels out meager gains with constant transaction fees, he writes erratic emails in his spare time. Have you seen any signs that he’s gotten better?

Jason: Phil’s tenure has coincided with Guitar James’s renewed dedication to spreading the gospel of one-percenter, trust-fund blues rock to the world. He just finished a tour that ran from January to October and culminated with JD & the Straight Shot terrorizing unsuspecting audiences in Germany, Ireland, and England.

Katie: My favorite story involving Dolan’s band and a foreign country is the time he approached New York Rangers forward Mats Zuccarello, who is Norwegian, to tell him that he ought to check out the Straight Shot at a music festival that summer in Norway. Zucc was all, “Sure, Mr. Dolan, just remind me so I don’t forget.” And Dolan was like, “If you remember to come, I will remember to pay you.”

Jason: What a charmer. Looking ahead, Dolan has gigs booked for only January. Theory: That’s because Phil told him the Knicks are going to make the playoffs. Dolan wants to be in his baseline seat for the stretch run.

The Knicks are 3–6, which doesn’t look so bad when you consider they are the worst defensive team in the league at the moment. Their offense meanwhile, has improved from abysmal to middling, mainly because they’ve tried to involve Kristaps more. He’s scoring 1.38 points per 100 possessions out of the pick and roll, which is in the 89.9th percentile, per Synergy. He’s increased his scoring average from 14.3 points per game during his rookie season to 18.8, and with a lower usage rate. Porzingis is 7-foot-3 and is shooting 39.6 percent from 3. He was genetically engineered to play modern basketball.

Katie: The Rangers are off to a … pretty surprising start? I think even the most optimistic observer would not have predicted that they’d be leading the league in goal scoring at this point. (The Rangers have 65 goals this season and the next best teams have 53.) Of course, nothing gold can stay. It is a near certainty that the team’s hottest scorers will not be able to maintain their current rates of production over the course of 82 games. Then hockey people will unfurl the “WHY HAVE THE RANGERS GONE COLD?!” narrative, when the answer is just “Because math.”

Still, this season has been really fun. There are a number of new faces, like Russian rookie Pavel Buchnevich and Harvard’s Jimmy Vesey, who chose between NHL franchises after his graduation this summer the way his classmates interview around Wall Street. (If Phil misses the geometric beauty of Pippen passing to Jordan so much, he should check out the setup of the Buchnevich goal from Saturday night.) Thoughtful offseason additions by Gorton like Michael Grabner, Adam Clendening, and Brandon Pirri have paid off all at once. As an NCAA hockey stan, I love that the Rangers love former college players.

Jason: Who wins a championship first? This seems obvious, really. The Knicks have had one second-round playoff appearance in 16 years. Let’s go Rangers, *clap clap clap-clap-clap*.

Katie: This is tough. On the one hand, whenever I feel the stirrings of optimism about the direction of the New York Knickerbockers, I just remind myself that I once had an online AOL pal whose screen name was “KnicksIn96.” And the basketball gods do not look kindly upon a company that lets go of Tina Cervasio. The closer the Knicks get to becoming contenders, the greater the chance that an overexcited Dolan/Jackson Ouija board steered by the hand of Isiah makes a dumb move in an attempt to put the team over the top.

On the other hand, winning a Stanley Cup is such a long and difficult slog that it’s almost impossible to keep getting chances, and the Rangers may have already blown through their allotment. Lundqvist isn’t getting any younger, and a new generation of young stars on several non-Rangers teams are poised to take over the league. But whatever, dare to dream: I’ll go Rangers, too. May Jim Dolan one day get the chance to pretend to play the Stanley Cup like a guitar.