The New York Knicks seem to go out of their way to be weird. As if being a mediocre, or even bad, basketball team was too easy a task. Anyone can lose games; there are a million ways to do that, many of which — injuries, changes in league policies, the enduring legacy of an incompetent predecessor — are out of the immediate control of those in control. But the Knicks do bad with a high degree of difficulty. They aren’t just going to get blown out; they’re going to try for a defeat triple lutz. On Monday, against the visiting New Orleans Pelicans, the Knicks got crushed 110–96, like a beer can against a frat boy’s skull. Their aging centerpiece scorer, Carmelo Anthony, was tossed (he now leads the league in ejections); their backup center, Kyle O’Quinn, also was ejected, for a flagrant 2 on Anthony Davis, who was on pace for a 60–20 game before leaving with a hip injury; and one of their big-name summer acquisitions, Derrick Rose, ghosted on the club. That is not easily done. I am impressed.
Chaos is the Knicks’ natural state. Players cycle through the roster. The names at the top change. But, over time, the team progresses toward the bottom in a state of perpetual entropy. It’s enough to make you wonder if the Knicks aren’t just bad, but structurally fucked up.
OK, the good news. The Knicks are 17–21 and — leaving aside for later the fact that Phil Jackson assembled this team to be good — not that bad of a basketball team. Their remaining January schedule is a potential bounty of winnable games against teams hovering around .500 (the Bulls, the Wizards twice), and teams that are abject (the Sixers, Suns, and Mavericks). The Knicks have, as I keep reminding myself, one of the brightest young stars in the game in Kristaps Porzingis. And they have their own first-round pick in a draft loaded with talent. New York is in a better place now than it has been at any point in the last 15 years.
And yet the Knicks cannot help but be stupendously strange.
Minutes before Monday night’s tipoff, when it was cryptically announced that Brandon Jennings would start because Rose “wasn’t with the team,” I initially thought there was a family emergency. So did the Knicks, who were so alarmed they reportedly sent someone to the point guard’s apartment to check on him. Gradually, as the Pelicans’ blowout of the Knicks progressed, the situation took a turn for the surreal and then just kind of kept on driving. It became clear early on that the Knicks had no idea where Rose was; he had attended the morning shootaround in Westchester that day and was listed as the starter 90 minutes before the game. They had no idea why he wasn’t at the game. And, as if flying blind, had no idea what to say about the situation. Which, theoretically, is the easiest part.
If Rose were missing because of a family emergency, then you would have someone (preferably Jackson, the Knicks’ president of basketball operations, but GM Steve Mills would also be fine) say Rose was out due to “personal reasons.” If he were absent without the team’s leave then you should say something about Rose being AWOL and mention the possibility of a suspension. The only reason to do what the Knicks did, which was let head coach Jeff Hornacek handle the questions and rely on Joakim Noah to confirm, via cell phone, that Rose was “OK,” is that the team had no idea what was going on and was receiving no direction from the top. Which is the Knicks, historically, in miniature.
The Knicks’ epic strangeness — which predates, but is exacerbated by, the tenure of owner James Dolan — results from their constant contradictions. They are bad when they try to be a playoff team; they are mediocre when they own their draft pick and thus should be proactively bad — but they never have their draft picks, because they are always trading them for players (invariably old, faded former stars), because they are trying to be good. There are always too many voices when the team needs singular leadership, and there is no one speaking up when things go sideways. Jackson’s regime provides plenty of examples of this.
He came to the Knicks with a sterling reputation as a winner. Here, finally, was a person with the résumé to get Dolan to back off his meddling and get Anthony to buy into a team concept. When it came time to leverage that stature, Jackson signed Melo to a deal that was a few million off of the max and included a no-trade clause. No other player in the league has a no-trade clause. From Jackson’s perspective, the only reason to agree to one is to inoculate yourself from criticism should a trade happen, to make it clear that it was Melo who wanted the trade. This was cowardice.
Phil assembled this Knicks team to win now. It is entirely right, then, to criticize him because the team is losing, even more so because those win-now deals essentially wiped out Phil’s best moves (outside of drafting Porzingis). He fleeced the Hawks out of the no. 19 pick in 2015 (Jerian Grant) for the defense-averse, fringe-terrible Tim Hardaway Jr. (currently improved after much offseason work, and reportedly on the block for second-round picks), and he got the workmanlike Robin Lopez for the inexpensive price of $54 million over four years.
Last summer, Phil traded Grant (who’s been whatever, but consider the value of the pick, not the player) and Lopez, along with Jose Calderon, to the Bulls for Rose, who was in the midst of a civil sexual-assault case. Then he signed Noah as a free agent.
Pop quiz, hot shot: Do you want the 28-year-old Lopez for $54 million or the 31-year-old wreck of Noah for $72 million? Anyway, don’t worry; I’m sure Noah will get younger and more healthy soon. He should be fully warmed up by Year 3.
Phil is merely the most recent, most disappointing Knicks executive to trade assets for glittering names. Some historic examples, though nowhere near a complete list:
- 1975: The Knicks attempt to sign then-40-year-old Wilt Chamberlain.
- 1976: New York pairs high-scoring bad defenders Spencer Haywood and Bob McAdoo as the team’s proto–Melo and Amar’e. They would make one playoff appearance in three seasons.
- 2000: Traded franchise legend Patrick Ewing for, essentially, $90 million in salary rather than let his contract expire and come off the books.
- 2002: Traded Marcus Camby, the rights to Nene, and Mark Jackson for Antonio McDyess, whose kneecap flew apart during the following preseason.
- 2005: Traded players and picks for Eddy Curry, who may or may not have had a heart condition.
- 2006: Traded Trevor Ariza (and Penny Hardaway) for Steve Francis when the team already had Stephon Marbury.
- 2013: Acquired Andrea Bargnani for New York’s 2016 first-round pick, two second-round picks (2014, 2017), and three irrelevant players. This was a larceny so grand and brazen, a daylight mugging of such viciousness, that to this day NO ONE HAS TAKEN RESPONSIBILITY FOR PULLING THE TRIGGER ON THE DEAL. (It was allegedly done at Dolan’s behest.)
Tuesday morning, Ian Begley reported that Rose was at the Knicks’ practice facility, in leafy Tarrytown, New York, all geared up and ready to go and “in good spirits.” Which I’m happy about. This is, after all, exactly how I would do it had I ghosted on work with no call, no text, no communication at all. Just show up the next day, à la George Costanza, hang out in the break room, casually make coffee, and act like nothing had happened. We had a game? What? Wow, dude, my bad. Did we win?
Imagine the conversation that went on.
Mills: “We sent someone to your house, Derrick.”
Rose: “Why?” [Sips coffee.]
Mills: “Well, we were concerned something was really wrong, that you might be hurt or something.”
Rose: “Wow … that’s touching, Steve. So let’s get practice started!”
Rose, by some accounts, had been unhappy with his role. Recently, Hornacek has benched Rose late in games in favor of the towheaded third-string point guard Ron Baker. This, according to Rose, was not the reason for his mysterious absence.
The Knicks announced that they had fined Rose. He will play against the Sixers on Wednesday. Jackson has yet to comment.
Questions remain: What does it take to get Rose to pick up his phone? Would he be more comfortable communicating by pigeon? Is he averse to using email since the DNC hack? Could he not have simply texted the Knicks using the plane emoji?
What is clear: All is as it has always been. Carry on.