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Is James Dolan the Only Thing Standing Between the Knicks and a New Era?

The owner seems pretty confident in New York’s chances of landing a superstar or two this summer. But will a superstar or two be able to overlook the owner’s checkered past?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The New York Knicks are the worst team in basketball, and nobody really cares. To some degree, it’s out of habit; “bad” has more or less been the team’s natural resting state for most of the past two decades, irrespective of which players wear the uniform, which coaches stalk the sidelines, and which executives make the moves. But in this case, the Knicks’ current ghastliness is suspected to be more of a placeholder for a no-muss, no-fuss, just-add-water superteam to come in just a few months’ time.

The Kristaps Porzingis trade came as a shock, and it came at a cost, but it also came with a grand promise: two maximum salary slots and two superstars rumored to be interested in filling them. Sure, neither Kevin Durant nor Kyrie Irving has seemed particularly thrilled about being connected to the Knicks over the past couple of months, but whispers about a big free-agent summer in New York have persisted anyway, even if those doing the whispering were keeping it on the low for fear of running afoul of the league.

And then James L. Dolan went on the radio on Tuesday and said the quiet part loud.

Dolan visited ESPN Radio’s The Michael Kay Show to defend himself, which is both the setup and the punch line. The executive chairman of the Madison Square Garden Company and owner of the Knicks doesn’t do this often; his most notable recent appearance in the studio (on non–Straight Shot business, that is) was in February 2017, when he sought to justify having Charles Oakley hauled out of Madison Square Garden in handcuffs, and banning the franchise icon from re-entering the arena in which he’d starred for 10 seasons. (You may remember Dolan suggesting Oakley had problems with alcohol and anger management. It didn’t go over great.)

Dolan visited Kay’s show—because he sure wouldn’t go on WFAN, what with their agenda against him!—on Tuesday for a similar reason: to discuss why he banned from MSG a fan who had called on him to sell the Knicks after yet another loss last Saturday. The 63-year-old cable scion shared news of the fan’s plot to “ambush” him in hopes of generating an irate response that would make for a juicy viral video clip that the conspirators could sell to TMZ. To the extent that this portion of the program matters, it’s really only because it’s simultaneously stunning and perfect that Dolan would reach back three days to reheat a story that makes him look petty and small, ostensibly to make himself look better, only to wind up looking more petty and smaller as a result.

No, what matters here is what Dolan said when he was asked about whether or not he was worried that incidents like the one with the fan would harm the Knicks’ standing with free agents, especially ahead of a summer in which New York has clearly positioned itself to be a big-time player. Dolan, it seems, is not overly concerned:

“New York is the mecca of basketball,” he said. “We hear from people all the time, from players, from representatives, about who wants to come. We can’t respond because of the NBA rules, etc. But that doesn’t stop them from telling us and they do. I can tell you, from what we’ve heard, I think we’re going to have a very successful offseason when it comes to free agents.”

From what we’ve heard. That’s an awfully interesting phrase, and one that you’d imagine team president Steve Mills and general manager Scott Perry would probably have preferred the owner not use in front of a live mic on a radio show in the largest media market in the country.

Dolan refrained from using any specific names, which should keep him out of dutch with commissioner Adam Silver, a “lawyer familiar with the NBA’s tampering policy” told Marc Berman of the New York Post. (Thank heaven for small mercies there, Knicks fans.) Still, that’s an awfully big public proclamation to make more than three months before the start of free agency. A lot can happen in that time, especially with the Knicks’ presumed top targets still in line for playoff runs with their current teams.

“Free agents want to go to a winner and get paid,” Dolan said. “We are definitely going to pay them, and we think that with them and the kids we have today, we can build a winning team.”

Whatever your feelings on the Porzingis trade, on how David Fizdale has fared in his first year as the Knicks’ head coach, or how successfully New York’s young players (some of whom Dolan spoke glowingly of, once he found their names on his cheat sheet) are developing, or the wisdom of putting your eggs in the free-agency basket, the Knicks front office has set the franchise up to potentially take a very big leap forward this summer. But they still need things to go right before they get there, in ways they haven’t before.

Others around the league have some ideas on that.

“[Dolan] is and always will be the reason they don’t get free agents,” a “longtime NBA executive” told Chris Mannix of Sports Illustrated recently.

Maybe that’s an oversimplification. The Knicks have missed out on a bunch of free-agent targets over the years, and while you sometimes hear specific reasons—wanting LaMarcus Aldridge to play exclusively center rather than his customary power forward, for example—the answers (publicly, at least) more often tend to be vague.

It’s been forgotten a bit to the sands of time, but the first player the Knicks pitched back in the summer of 2010 was actually Joe Johnson; they met with him just after free agency opened on July 1, offering him a five-year maximum-salaried contract. He instead chose to re-up with the Hawks, who could offer him an extra season and an additional $28 million. Greg Monroe passed on New York in 2015 because of “what Milwaukee already brought to the table.” Fellow 2015 target DeAndre Jordan thought the Knicks’ plan for how to use him was “cool,” but he “just decided to stay with the Clippers.” (After some hemming, hawing, and emoji.) Durant decided to not even meet with the Knicks in 2016 simply “because I didn’t want to,” preferring instead to link up with the Warriors; two championships and two Finals MVP trophies later, it’s tough to argue with the decision.

Some players who have gone elsewhere, though, have suggested that they soured on the Knicks because the team’s brass didn’t exactly instill confidence in them about its future plan. Dwyane Wade said in a 2017 interview that when he hit the market with LeBron James and Chris Bosh back in 2010, and they were considering potential destinations for a league-shaking team-up, the team “just wasn’t prepared [or] ready to take on what we wanted to do. The city? Yeah, the city was ready. The market? The market was there. It’s New York. But [from] an organization standpoint, we didn’t feel like they could handle it.” That corroborates reporting from the time, which indicated that LeBron “and his inner circle [had] described New York’s presentation as lacking preparedness and organization,” and that it was “redundant to much of the New Jersey Nets’ far sharper, edgier presentation on James’s earning power.”

The Knicks have re-signed some high-profile free agents over the years—Latrell Sprewell in 1999, Allan Houston in 2001, Carmelo Anthony in 2014—but the only marquee name they’ve landed from another team was Amar’e Stoudemire in 2010, and that’s because they were willing to give $100 million to a player who unfortunately had uninsurable knees. They’ve come up empty no matter who’s been running the show … which might be why people have tended to place blame on the person who’s hired all of them.

Asked back in November why the Knicks never landed another top-flight talent on the market while he was there, Anthony chalked it up to “the business. Everything that was going on. The perception of New York Knicks ... not basketball, but the organization.”

”I think it probably scared a lot of people away,” he said. “Scared some people away. Not knowing the nuances and the ins and outs of kind of what was going on, who is in charge, who is not. So it was more than just basketball when it came to people making those decisions.”

The Knicks are banking on that being a past-tense problem, one tethered more recently to Phil Jackson’s myriad failings as a first-time executive—up to and including the beginning of the alienation of Porzingis, a relationship that Dolan and the Knicks claim had become irreparable, prompting the trade with Dallas. They hope that a fresh coat of paint in the form of the Mills-Perry-Fizdale regime can change those negative perceptions, and that the Knicks will find a way to return to competitive relevance that stops short of Dolan selling the team. Which, despite the rumblings reported by our own Bill Simmons—rumblings Dolan claims are part of a broader effort by other NBA teams to “destabilize” the Knicks “because they know we’re favored”—Dolan insists he is not going to do.

The franchise’s competitive hopes for the future depend on Dolan being right—about how excited the very best people are to come play for him, for real this time, and about skeptics being wrong about the central problem that’s been haunting the franchise all these years. And if none of this comes to pass? Well, the Garden will still be packed every night, the Knicks will still be the most valuable franchise in the sport, Dolan will continue to make money hand over fist, and there will always be somewhere else to place the blame.

“I think the Knicks are going to be extremely dramatic between now and the start of next season,” Dolan said Tuesday. That much you can pretty much take to the bank. We just need to find out which kind of tears Knicks fans will be crying when it’s all said and done.