The Knicks have long had problems that start at the top, but let’s begin at the bottom. Rock bottom. That is what the Knicks hit Sunday night when they decided to lie down and surrender against a team that was projected to be one of the worst in the league this season, the Cleveland Cavaliers. No disrespect to the Cavs, who are in a rebuild of their own, but the Knicks turned them into a crew of world-beaters.
In the first half, the Cavs—who came into the game allowing 109.1 points per 100 possessions (18th in the league)—held the Knicks to a measly 36 points. By the end of the night, the Cavs defense had improved by nearly three points per 100 possessions and was up to 17th in the league. At one point in the game, the Cavs led 72-42. If you glance at the box score, you might be confused by some of the numbers: the Knicks outrebounded the Cavs by seven (by eight offensively), somehow shot better than them from 3, and still lost 108-87. Of course the players walked off to a serenade of boos from their home crowd. [Puts on New York Post headline hat.] The Mecca? More like the Meh-ca.
It was a bad loss, but not historic or an outlier by any means. (To wit: The Knicks had already lost by 21 points to the Kings this season.) In any other world, for any other franchise, the defeat would generate some criticism for lack of effort or roster discombobulation, and then the next game would come and provide something else to talk about. Oh, but not the Knicks. No, see, James Dolan thought that merely taking the L wasn’t enough. The Knicks had to deploy a crisis team to wear it on their sleeves and try to explain their futility beyond the very obvious fact everyone else can see with their own two eyes: The Knicks are not a good basketball team or franchise.
So, immediately after the loss to the Cavs on Sunday night, up went team president Steve Mills and general manager Scott Perry, ordained by Dolan himself, to hold an impromptu press conference (what I like to call one of the most ominous phrases in sports).
"We're not happy with where we are" pic.twitter.com/3ETgaRwtsu— Knicks Videos (@sny_knicks) November 11, 2019
Knicks president Steve Mills: “Obviously Scott and I are not happy right now.” Mills said they still believe in the coaching staff but acknowledges that they haven’t played to the level that they expect. He and Scott Perry are addressing reporters after 21-pt loss, which is rare— Ian Begley (@IanBegley) November 11, 2019
This was a rich text. Mills and Perry repeatedly expressed discontent over the results just 10 games in and said that the team hasn’t played to the level that they expected, that the team is built for more success than its current 2-8 record. Watching Mills and Perry, the architects of this disjointed roster, say they weren’t pleased with the results was like watching a restaurant owner complain about a meal after giving the chef only expired ingredients to work with.
I’d argue that the Knicks’ having two wins is a minor miracle. Look at this team. They employ literally only point guards and power forwards, plus Reggie Bullock (who still hasn’t played due to surgery for a herniated disk) and Wayne Ellington. Sure, head coach David Fizdale deserves some of the blame, but I imagine trying to figure out lineups and rotations for this team is like trying to complete a Sudoku puzzle while wearing a blindfold. Still, Fizdale succumbed to some of the shade that Mills and Perry threw out just minutes before he walked up to the podium.
"I own it"— Knicks Videos (@sny_knicks) November 11, 2019
-- Knicks HC David Fizdale pic.twitter.com/kZtxxFnYjN
Those new white hairs on Fizdale’s beard are screaming: “We’re not in Miami anymore.” You gotta give it to Fizdale, though, for going ultimate galaxy brain and citing the fact that, yes, technically, the Knicks are only two games out of the 8-seed. Bless his heart.
Mills and Perry said they felt like they needed to address the media to convey their frustration to the fans. I imagine that this only exacerbated things. For those fans who believe that losing now is winning later, the front office’s expectation that this roster could compete is laughable; their messaging that the team should have more wins is not what you want to hear. This is a team that doesn’t even know how to tank properly. And for those fans who are allergic to losing with a purpose and want to see immediate results, well, buckle up, because they’re not coming and no trade or coaching change will alter that.
Both Mills and Perry backed Fizdale and said they believe in him and in his vision. But there was no other way to look at Sunday’s presser than as a table setting for the eventual scapegoat. While initial reports after the game were that no changes are imminent, on Monday morning ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski and Malika Andrews reported that Mills had been angling to fire Fizdale (who has two-plus years left on his four-year, $22 million deal) even before Sunday’s debacle (maybe it wouldn’t be a bad idea to update that LinkedIn, Fiz). Mills is reportedly “selling owner James Dolan on a roster constructed to be highly competitive in the Eastern Conference,” which sounds like the pitch you’d expect from a telemarketer hawking diet pills. The problem, of course, is that Fizdale is not the problem and his firing will only be a cosmetic change. And that’s where we find the root of all the issues: Dolan.
Remember when the Knicks decided to release a statement apologizing to their fans just hours after it became clear that both Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving had spurned them for the Nets? Sunday’s proceedings reeked of that same lack of self-awareness. But where that July statement was perceived as a desperate scramble to say something that didn’t need to be said, Sunday’s impromptu press conference was a concerted effort that came off as clumsy overcompensation. Yes, the Knicks were terrible in Sunday’s game, but they had just beaten Kristaps Porzingis and the Mavericks on Friday thanks to an impressive game from Frank Ntilikina and more positive flashes from RJ Barrett. For a hot second it seemed like the Knicks’ season might serve its intended purpose: lose a ton of games, trade some of their vets for assets, and develop their future core. How naive of us to forget who is calling the shots.
Dolan making Mills and Perry address the media only served to underline the real problem: This is all about saving face for him. In trotting out the front office, Dolan is hoping to control the agenda and get ahead of the criticism while also deflecting the blame from the actual source: him. How the world, basketball or otherwise, perceives him seems to be what he cares about first and foremost, not actually winning. Too bad he is dead last in both categories.
This piece was updated at 12:45 p.m. ET with more information after publication.