Posted by: Mike Cornelius | March 3, 2016

New Hope Turns To Old Despair For Knicks Fans

It was a single moment in a season of 82 games, a bit of harmless horseplay after a whistle had stopped play with just over three minutes remaining in the first quarter Tuesday night at Madison Square Garden. Carmelo Anthony was under the Knicks’ basket with the ball in his hand. New York was leading the Portland Trailblazers by two points, a game status increasingly rare as another NBA season goes astray at the World’s Most Famous Arena. Perhaps to release some frustration or perhaps just to put on a show, Anthony leapt up for a one-handed dunk as players from both teams milled about. But the 31-year old’s legs aren’t quite what they used to be and his hand with the ball never cleared the rim of the basket. Instead the ball jammed against the steel hoop and Anthony went tumbling backwards, landing on his back at the foul line.

The Knicks star did the only thing he could under such embarrassing circumstances, which was laugh at himself. Yet surely for the crowd of just under 20,000 in attendance and the many thousands more watching on cable, the showboating turned pratfall was a perfect symbol of New York’s season. Like Tuesday night’s game in which the early lead devolved into a lopsided 104-85 defeat, the Knicks began this campaign looking much improved over last year’s 65-loss abomination, only to see a .500 record and a spot on the fringes of playoff contention in January collapse with fifteen losses in the last eighteen games.

Playing losing basketball for six straight weeks has dropped New York to thirteenth place in the Eastern Conference, ahead of only the reclamation projects in Brooklyn and Philadelphia. The Knicks are six and a half games behind the eighth place Pistons, and would essentially have to reverse their recent record over the regular season’s final twenty games to have any hope of making the postseason. During the last eighteen games the team’s Offensive Rating has been 100.6 while opponents have averaged a rating of 108.4. The minus 7.8 differential is the fourth worst in the league during that time span. The tailspin cost head coach Derek Fisher his job and turned the Garden into a place where the loudest cheers are for the visiting teams and boos rain down on the home squad. Yet Fisher before he was fired and interim head coach Kurt Rambis have both continued to talk about a goal of making the playoffs as if such a dream were still attainable.

This was not the future that Knicks fans were promised when after a brief period of free agency Anthony re-upped with the team for five years in the summer of 2014. That was just a few months after legendary head coach Phil Jackson had been introduced as the Knicks’ new president and weeks after Jackson had hired Fisher, who had played on five of the Zen Master’s championship teams in Los Angeles, as the coach who would install Jackson’s favored triangle offense in New York.

Back then there was excitement bordering on euphoria among the New York faithful. The biggest concern was whether meddling owner James Dolan would keep his promise to “willingly and gratefully” cede authority to Jackson. Given his history there were understandable doubts, including in this space that Dolan would in fact stay out of the way. But fans and pundits alike thought that if he kept his promise then a team that had made the playoffs only five times and advanced past the first round just once in fourteen years might soon return to relevance.

Surprisingly enough, from all appearances Dolan has been true to his word. While still a fixture in the seats behind the Knicks bench, he almost never speaks to the press and there have been no reports of him attempting to pull rank. Yet since that halcyon spring and summer of 2014 the Knicks have lost more than seventy percent of their games with a record of 42-102 over all of last season and most of this one. What was lost in all the excitement was both the reality of just how far the Knicks had to go to achieve relevance and the age-old truth that past success is no guarantee of future accomplishment, especially when roles are changed.

As a player Jackson was on the court for the only two Knicks championships. As a coach he guided the Bulls to six titles and the Lakers to five more from the sidelines. But he had never played the role of basketball executive until he chose to accept the $60 million that Dolan was offering. So far at least, his only decision that seems praiseworthy is selecting Kristaps Porzingis with the fourth overall pick in last year’s NBA draft. Fans howled at the time, but the seven-foot three-inch Porzingis has been a bright spot through most of his rookie season; even if as of late he has struggled.

The hiring of Fisher was manifestly a mistake, one tacitly acknowledged by his firing one week into February with the Knicks halfway through their current downturn. The then 39-year old Fisher had just ended his playing career when Jackson named him coach. With no prior coaching experience he was forced to learn on the job. Perhaps that can be done in some cities, but it’s a process that seldom works out well under the bright lights of Gotham.

Negotiating a new contract for Anthony was also a curious decision at best. The prolific shooter has always needed to be the center of attention; a me-first attitude fundamentally at odds with the team before self approach of Jackson’s triangle offense. Implementing that scheme has in turn been problematic, with ample evidence that several players on New York’s roster are less than committed to the offensive approach.

As another Knicks season falls apart, the atmosphere at Madison Square Garden is predictably turning ugly. Long after his inept attempt at a dunk on Tuesday, Anthony got into a shouting match with a heckler. On Wednesday the team released a statement purportedly from their star, apologizing for the incident. Less than 24 hours later Anthony disowned the release, saying the apology was Dolan’s decision. Perhaps the owner isn’t quite as hands off as has been presumed. For fans of the New York Knicks, a new era that began with so much hope is starting to look depressingly like the old one.

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