Posted by: Mike Cornelius | January 15, 2015

Even Overseas, Knicks Can’t Escape A Lost Season

Just like the other major North American sports leagues, the NBA uses a small portion of its schedule to market its brand overseas. In fact the basketball league has been doing it for more than two decades, since the Suns and Jazz kicked off the 1990 season in Japan. More than two months ago, when tickets went on sale in London for the game played Thursday at the O2 Arena, they were gone in little more than an hour. But by the time the Milwaukee Bucks and New York Knicks tipped off it would have been no surprise if lots of English fans had been lined up to demand their money back.

Milwaukee, coming into the London contest at 20-19, is what passes for a middle of the pack playoff team in the anemic Eastern Conference. But the Knicks make the Bucks look like repeat champions. The largely unrecognizable members of this season’s edition of the Knickerbockers took the court on a 15 game losing streak, with an overall record of just 5-35, worst in the entire league.

During their current run of futility, which has now reached a full month, New York has come within ten points of only three opponents; all of those in the first four games of the losing streak. More typical results of late have been those like the team’s last two games at Madison Square Garden before jetting across the Atlantic. One week ago the Knicks were accommodating hosts to the Houston Rockets, losing by 24 points. Two days later they were steamrolled by Charlotte. The Hornets, not exactly a powerhouse themselves at ten games under .500, left the World’s Most Famous Arena after a 28-point win.

In London there were no fans wearing paper bags over their heads, as some have taken to doing in New York, but the result against Milwaukee was predictable. The Bucks scored the first 14 points of the game. By the time Tim Hardaway Jr. made a layup to erase New York’s zero on the scoreboard nearly one-half of the first quarter had elapsed. Milwaukee led 31-13 after one, and built a lead of 26 points through three periods before coasting through the final twelve minutes to a final score of 95-79.

New York’s 16th consecutive defeat, and 26th in 27 games, means that the Knicks have now reached the halfway point of their schedule on a pace to threaten the worst record in NBA history, the 9-73 mark recorded more than four decades ago by the 1972-73 Philadelphia 76ers. The only bright spot for New York, and it was a decidedly dim one, was that the only two Knicks whom a casual fan might recognize both returned from injury absences.

Amar’e Stoudemire, out since Christmas with a knee injury, played 8 forgettable minutes, missing his sole shot while snaring a pair of rebounds. Carmelo Anthony, who seems destined to face season-ending knee surgery soon, played most of the first three quarters in his first appearance since New Year’s Eve. Anthony, who flirted with free agency during the offseason before signing a new five-year, $122 million deal with New York, scored 25 points to lead New York’s scorers, but also committed 8 of his team’s 21 turnovers.

This season was probably not what Anthony had in mind when he signed that contract, and this team is surely not what Knicks’ president Phil Jackson was thinking off when he praised his returning superstar as “the cornerstone of what we envision as ‘a team of excellence.’” The whole sorry mess can’t possibly be what historically meddlesome owner James Dolan imagined when he lured Jackson out of retirement last March with assurances that the man who played on the only two Knicks teams to win NBA titles and then went on to win 11 more as head coach of the Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers would have free rein to build the team as he saw fit.

Dolan has remained true to his word so far, which given his history is no small surprise. But even if the owner stayed away some of us questioned at the time whether Jackson’s legendary success as a coach would necessarily translate into similar achievements in the front office. It would be unfair to pass final judgment based on half a season, even one as execrable as New York’s has been. Let’s just say that as an executive, Jackson has yet to prove himself.

He installed Derek Fisher, who played with the Lakers under Jackson, as the head coach. Fisher is intimately familiar with Jackson’s famed triangle offense, but has been unable to impart that knowledge to his players. The team’s offensive rating, a measure of points scored per 100 possessions, is better than only two teams. Its net rating, a combination of offensive and defensive effectiveness, holds the same rank. In fairness to Fisher, as the Knicks’ season quickly unraveled Jackson started dumping salaries in a series of trades. The squad that Fisher is coaching today is hardly the roster that he expected to have.

Last week Jackson held a press conference and took responsibility for the mess at Madison Square Garden, trying to absolve Fisher, Dolan, and perhaps some commuters racing for trains down at Penn Station, several stories below. In promising more personnel moves, he acknowledged that he had given up on this campaign and was now looking down the road. But the question for Knicks fans has to be how far into the distance does the Zen Master’s stare go?

In front of the New York City media Jackson said he would like to add as many as half a dozen new players to next year’s roster, and said that he believed the team’s address would continue to lure free agents. I love Gotham, but question whether any established star would sign up for a team that looks to be in rebuilding mode for some time to come. When he signed that fat contract less than a year ago, Anthony called Madison Square Garden “the Mecca of basketball” and said that he was surrounded at every home game by “the best fans in the world.” My guess is that he didn’t imagine some of them would soon be wearing bags over their heads.

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