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The Knicks May Not Be Good … but Don’t Tell That to Knicks Fans

For at least a few games, a young New York team has given wayward supporters a reason to come along for the ride. But the road to sustained respectability is a bumpy one—no matter which borough it winds through.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Late last week my husband asked me what on Earth was so funny, and I was so busy grinning like a clown and pecking at my phone like Schroeder at the piano that he had to ask me twice. Busted! A longtime Knicks fan friend of mine and I were in the middle of some truly dopey banter about Austin Rivers, the beautifully grumpy point guard whose hot long-range shooting was leading to some pretty joyful Knicks comeback victories of late.

My answer only yielded further questions. My husband doesn’t really follow basketball, but using context clues he had certainly sensed that something big was afoot. Just the other day our sons (OK, and I) had been parroting the way Walt “Clyde” Frazier drawled “the Knicks have the knack!” on TV. Across Twitter, there had been noticeable upticks in vague, jovial Knicks-related content, and there was a trusted podcast with the words “the resurgent Knicks” right there in the title. “What’s the Knicks’ record?” he asked me, and I mumbled the meager truth—“OK, so, five and three”—as he, understandably, sputtered. Five and three was what all this fuss was about?!

And even that was three games and three consecutive losses ago. Entering Wednesday night’s matchup against the cross-river division-rival (and bellwether) Brooklyn Nets, that briefly glorious Knicks team now has a record of 5-6. Which is literally middling, yet also still arguably in excess of most preseason expectations for the NBA’s most famously lowly franchise. Might Knicks fans like me have overreacted to a small sample size of games in which their opponents’ offensive stats were unsustainably dismal? No question! Has it still been genuinely exciting to watch this roster of promising Knickerbocker players, more than half of whom are aged 23 or younger, begin to discover and occasionally even coalesce around New York’s potential? Heck yeah!

“I’ve been on bad teams before,” Rivers told reporters last Wednesday night. “This is not one, I can promise you that.” Perhaps he’ll change his mind if the losses keep mounting, but for now, that remains an accurate summation of the 2020-21 Knicks experience. Since December, New York fans have seen former first-round draft picks, including guard RJ Barrett, forward Kevin Knox II, and point guard Immanuel Quickley all display separate, and sometimes coordinated, flashes of power and dexterity. Julius Randle, at 26 a relative veteran on this team, has turned in a dominant, reputation-polishing few weeks in which he is averaging 22 points, 11 rebounds, and nearly seven assists.

Mitchell Robinson, 22, has used every inch of his 7-foot frame to grab rebounds on both ends of the floor or to turn a steal into a dunk. Tom Thibodeau, who is in his first season as the Knicks head coach, has appeared to mesh well with a young squad that hasn’t yet bristled at his rotation tactics. In many ways, this team’s plucky, workaday spirit reminds me of one of my favorite New York Knicks rosters, a squad that came and almost immediately went—wanna feel old?—a full decade ago.

The 2010-11 team of which I speak got off to a rough 3-8 start. But by mid-November, things had started to click. For two months back then, the silky Danilo Gallinari and the goofy Wilson Chandler drained 3s; Ray freakin’ Felton put up point totals in the 20s and 30s; Timofey Mozgov blocked and blogged; and Amar’e Stoudemire, the team’s free agent consolation prize following the failed LeBron James take-my-talents-to sweepstakes, stood tall and talented indeed. Mike D’Antoni strolled the sidelines, while then-GM Donnie Walsh observed the payoff of his patient work from the stands. By that January 11, the Knicks’ record had improved to 22-15.

It isn’t just the string of wins by lovable, largely homegrown talent that links this past iteration of the Knicks with the present one. It’s also the fact that the very composition of various New York rosters, then and now, were determined at least in part by the actions made or not made by the Brooklyn (née New Jersey) Nets. It was the Nets whose aggressive trade offers for the Denver Nuggets’ pending free agent Carmelo Anthony in early 2011 motivated the Knicks to ante up so many players and draft picks for Anthony—with the exception of Stoudemire, all of the guys named above were shipped out of New York—that the trade ultimately left the franchise’s roster dismantled and little bit doomed. (Perhaps this was extra karmic payback for the time the Knicks priced out the Nets from retaining Julius Erving, although I suppose New York had already suffered on a cosmic level for that situation.) In 2012, when the Knicks bid their beloved Jeremy Lin adieu—following an absurd standoff in the hotel halls of Las Vegas—jumping ship became a legitimate conversation among even longtime fans. Paddling forth with the seemingly-more-competent Nets, who were at the time about to move into their nice new digs in downtown Brooklyn and who had the suave, Knicks-shit-talking Russian oligarch Mikhail Prokhorov for an owner, sounded kinda nice.

By 2019, when Nets ownership had fully transitioned from Prokhorov to mega-billionaire Joe Tsai, Brooklyn was handily beating the Knicks at their own supposed game. Not only did the Knicks not add a big fish like Kyrie Irving or Kevin Durant, let alone both, but after years and years’ worth of ostensibly planning for what was supposed to be one of the most lucrative free-agent markets in quite some time, the outcome was even worse. Across the East River, it was the Brooklyn Nets who acquired not one, but both players. Not only had the Knicks planned to wheel and deal in free agency, the organization had also appeared to be angling itself into the NBA draft lottery in hopes of lucking into the generational prize of Zion Williamson. This didn’t happen, either, and a 2019 offseason that fans daydreamed might be an oasis in the basketball desert wound up being just one more mirage.

The then–New Jersey Nets saw a lot of success in the early aughts, making it to the NBA Finals twice and sweeping the Knicks in the first round in 2004. And yet for all the Nets’ splashy moves in this past decade, from luring free agents (Deron Williams?!) to securing a new building to hiring Steve Nash as head coach, they have yet to actually get much further, at the end of the day, than the hapless Knicks. Sure, New York has cycled through eight coaches since elbowing out New Jersey for Anthony in early 2011, but the Nets have, too. Yes, the Knicks have won only one playoff round in the past decade, but somehow, the same goes for the Nets. The Knicks may not have landed Durant and Irving, but in the year and a half since Brooklyn did, the two All-Stars have appeared on court together only six times between injuries and absences. That’s not to say that the two teams aren’t facing potentially wildly divergent futures, but it does underline just how difficult it is to forge a championship path in this league, no matter how scenic the journey.

Last Friday night, the Knicks squandered a lead and lost to the Oklahoma City Thunder. “We tried to get out of it individually,’’ Thibodeau told the press after the game. “We got into it together, we got to get out of it together.” He was referring to the second-half deficit New York found itself in, but in a way, he might as well have been talking about frustrated, wayward Knicks fans who have, over the years, been moved to contemplate what it might be like to root for someone else. Sometimes when I think about the Knicks and the Nets, that old rule of thumb from another sport comes to mind: The backup quarterback is the most popular person in town. But that analogy isn’t quite right, considering it implies that the Knicks are somehow at the top of a league depth chart, which hasn’t been the case since the Clinton administration.

The better description is that being a Knicks fan with one eye on the Nets is like being in the back seat of a car that is dealing with stop-and-start traffic and the nausea it brings. Switching lanes might seem tempting, but it usually isn’t the answer: It’s a whole lot of effort that tends to yield little progress. The tried-and-true solution is boring and simple and hasn’t really changed through the years, no matter where on the map the Knicks organization is currently located or trying to go: Just keep your eyes fixed on the horizon, and try not to puke.