It’s simple to be pessimistic about the Knicks’ rebuilding efforts—it’s almost clockwork when they overpay for an aging, past-his-prime veteran. Nevertheless, New York can prove slow rebuilds are possible with a little help from “syzygy.”
Syzygy: the nearly straight-line configuration of three celestial bodies (such as the sun, moon, and earth during a solar or lunar eclipse) in a gravitational system.
Under the bright lights of the Mecca of basketball, the 18 years following Patrick Ewing’s final appearance in a Knicks uniform have largely been defined by doomed free agency schemes, reactionary trades, 11 different coaches, and a whole lot of losing.
This isn’t exactly news.
There hasn’t been anything resembling a coherent strategy in recent memory—the closest approximation of a team ethos could be boiled down to a simple six-word phrase, repeated so often that it might as well have become the team’s official slogan: “You can’t rebuild in New York.”
There has been one constant in this painful slog through basketball oblivion. No, not Isiah Thomas, but that’s a good guess. It’s James “Straight Shot” Dolan. The Cablevision scion who has overseen every Stephon Marbury and Andrea Bargnani trade, every Joakim Noah and Eddy Curry signing, and has blanketed the entire organization in a specific blend of egomania, paranoia, and incompetence.
However, the last couple years have seemed to signal a shift in ownership’s dogmatic “win-now” mandate. There are a few possible reasons for this. The most obvious: other than a few blips of success as the exception, the team has just been bad. Loaded with horrendous contracts, a slew of sub-par players (sprinkled with a couple good ones, here and there), and often times, bad blood in the locker room, it’s almost hard not to lose. But beyond reading the writing on the wall, there are financial reasons Dolan might have finally relaxed his “no rebuild” stance.
One of the fascinating aspects of ex–Philadelphia 76er’s president Sam Hinkie orchestrating one of the most daring rebuilds in sports history is the financial effect “the Process” had on the team:
“By the end of the 2014–15 season, things had barely improved. The team closed the season 18–64 in a tie for the franchise’s third-worst finish ever recorded. Yet, off the court, something interesting was happening. Even as losses mounted, ticket sales were climbing. And climbing. And climbing. Over a three-year period during which the Sixers’ win-loss record was a dismal 37–199, the organization tripled new season ticket sales, reaching number one in NBA new season ticket sales from February 2016 to January 2017. During the same period, it achieved more than a 90 percent season ticket member renewal rate and increased group sales business by 30 percent.” (Per Heather Baldwin, sellingpower.com)
Meanwhile, the Lakers, another high-profile team with an equally impatient fanbase seemingly unable to withstand a slow rebuild, have been losing consistently since 2013, and yet, the Knicks and Lakers remain the two most valuable franchises in the league. Is it conceivable that Dolan finally realized you can still make money building a team the right way?
Enter Scott Perry
While Phil Jackson dabbled with the idea of going young, it was a halfhearted idea that crumbled the minute big, flashy names like Joakim Noah and Derrick Rose came onto the market (a market he obviously had no idea how to read). Every time it looked like he was settling in one direction, he would suddenly reverse course.
Now, the inner workings of MSG’s decision-making machine are notoriously secretive (with the exception of Phil’s open line to Charlie Rosen), but it seems that Perry’s long-term vision was a major factor in his hiring. So far, the GM hasn’t disappointed. While he might not have made a big splash other than trading Carmelo Anthony (and this summer will be his second real test), he has done many of the little things that mark a team taking a patient, big picture approach: signing or trading for young guys whose value is at their lowest (Mudiay, Burke) and unearthing young, cheap talent (Troy Williams, Dotson) that may play a part in the team’s future moving forward.
But before the recent hiring of David Fizdale, he didn’t have a coach who could share in his vision. Hornacek was Phil’s hire, and never seemed to get comfortable in the position. He ran the team like he was coaching for his job, which, given the Knicks’ usual carousel of coaches, is fair. But that attitude prevented him from being able to align his goals with management’s.
Steve Mills, at the press conference following Hornacek’s firing, said the following:
“One of the most important characteristics is that in today’s NBA, the coach is not on an island by itself… The coach is part of the team that is part of the front office. We need to find someone that understands that the three of us are in this together and this is a group effort.’’
Gettin’ Syzygy Wit It
This brings us back to our word of the day: syzygy—the near-straight line convergence of three celestial bodies. Since Fizdale was hired, he’s said all the right things about the team, the plan, the players; in fact, the whole thing has proceeded in a rather normal and decidedly un-Knicksy way. But don’t let the lack of drama fool you— this is an exciting and tumultuous time.
The Knicks haven’t had a team where the front office, coach, and star player were on the same page since perhaps the Ewing days, which has been a major factor in why, for instance, the team never seems to be able to develop its young players. How can a coach focus on doing what’s right for his guys when he’s looking over his shoulder the whole time? How can a star player buy into a coach when he sees the fear of failure splashed across his face? How can a front office trust a coach when his star player doesn’t, and vice versa?
Now, contrast these questions with Brett Brown’s time in Philadelphia. Brown was brought in specifically to be the caretaker of the Process, with the assurance that his job wasn’t predicated on how many W’s appeared in the win-loss column at the end of the season. This allowed Brown to develop his own system, working both as a teacher and tactician (also, sometimes babysitter), allowing Hinkie the requisite space to evaluate the seemingly thousands of 10-day contracts he distributed during his tenure. Brown was recently rewarded for his first trip to the playoffs with a three-year extension—a concept that feels rather alien to a Knicks fan like myself used to regular coaching turnover every two or three years (sometimes not even that long).
That’s why this particular moment in Knicks history feels special. Before the summer personnel decisions, we’ll spend months, maybe years, re-litigating, before the tough conversations regarding Porzingis’ extension come to fruition. Or, on a smaller scale, when, or if the big man will come back from injury this season. But at least for once, it feels like there’s a plan in place, with the possibility of actually seeing it through.
Knicks fandom tends to be a cycle of unrealistic expectations leading to crushing disappointments. This is perhaps why, the feeling of genuine, sustainable hope—not of the usual quick fix, pie-in-the-sky “maybe Derrick Rose still has knees” or “maybe Carmelo Anthony and Amar’e Stoudemire can be dominant together,” approach—is so damn refreshing.
For the first time in years, the Knicks offseason strategy can’t just be reduced to the classic: “lol Knicks.”