New York Knicks fans have proven themselves to be as loyal and passionate as any fanbase in the NBA this season. The energy they’ve given this low-budget upstart roster has been admirable, and they aren’t the main targets of the following criticism.
Between Julius Randle’s ascension, Derrick Rose’s triumphant second act, and a fun mixture of youngsters and veterans, Knicks fans have had enough reason to roar this season for a team many predicted to once again end up at the bottom of the standings. While the spike in local intrigue makes sense, the league-wide excitement about the Knicks being “back” is strange. More bluntly, the attention they receive from national media is not justified by this current roster’s prospects or the franchise’s historical résumé.
Behind The Mythos, Mediocrity
The New York Knicks are tied with the Houston Rockets for the ninth most NBA championships with two. Less than the Heat, Pistons, and Spurs, let alone the more obvious franchises. Of the nine franchises with two or more titles, four of them are at least 20 years younger than the Knicks.
The Knicks haven’t won the Eastern Conference in more than 20 years and they haven’t won a championship since 1973. To the organization’s credit, they have the third most Hall Of Famers of any franchise. However, this long list of stars hasn’t resulted in the sustained success several smaller-market teams have enjoyed in the last two decades.
While any franchise can hit a rough patch, it’s the depth and length of the Knicks lowest lows that calls into question the amount of attention they receive for simply being the Knicks.
Since their 1999 NBA Finals appearance, the Knickerbockers have missed out on the playoffs 15 times in 22 seasons. The number of last-place Eastern Conference finishes (3) equals the number of playoff series they’ve won since then. They made the Eastern Conference Finals in 2000 and have failed to get that far in the postseason since, with their only playoff series win in 20 years coming in 2013. Even if you dip into their widely acclaimed 1990s era, they reached the ECF three times and lost both Finals they appeared in.
Simply put, the Knicks have not earned this intense discourse about their future any more than an almost-there franchise like the Atlanta Hawks, the team that just ended their season. When they suck, historically great franchises like the Bulls and Spurs are not topics of urgent debates on ESPN about which free agent signing could make them great again. Not to mention the Knicks’ crosstown rivals have two more NBA Finals appearances than them this millennium, with the Nets winning the East in both 2002 and 2003.
As esteemed and historic as the New York Knicks are, they are not dominant or game-changing the same way franchises they’re regularly compared to are. They make the playoffs at a rate much closer to the Phoenix Suns than the Boston Celtics and they’ve failed to reproduce their 1970s success while the Lakers, Celtics, Warriors, Pistons and Spurs all have championship narratives in multiple eras of league history.
But It’s New York
Fuck the Nets, it’s only ever really been about the Knicks. A Nets championship—very possible in the near-future—seems to be the only way the NY hoops axis will tilt. Forget the dangerously toxic ownership. Forget that Madison Square Garden has become a playground for other teams’ stars to have career nights. Forget the losing—all the losing. It’s always in the NBA’s best interest to have the New York Knicks be relevant. Right?
In a shamelessly capitalist way, yes.
It is market size that largely determines the ratings of NBA playoff games, and it seems to be the best and often only answer to the question, “Why is the NBA better when the Knicks are relevant?”
In the pandemic-stinted 2019/2020 season, the New York Knicks made more money than every NBA franchise except the Golden State Warriors. The Knicks are also the league’s most valuable franchise according to Forbes, with nearly half of that valuation coming from the value of their “market” alone.
That’s right: of the 5 billion USD the Knicks are valued at, 2.3 billion comes from simply being in Manhattan. (It doesn’t hurt that owner James Dolan also owns media networks covering the Knicks.) While it isn’t an outlier compared to other franchises, the Knicks’ valuation still depends more on their location than most. Tack on their billion dollar arena and it’s clear that their actual performance trends don’t really affect their relevance.
The same could be said about their West Coast foil, the Lakers, but hey…they landed LeBron and Anthony Davis.
What’s particularly frustrating about the Knicks’ past decade is seeing a miserable and pointedly critical fan base leap into “We want Brooklyn” chants after barely escaping home court with one win in two games. Adding to this delusion is the limp criticism of the Knicks front office, most notably the loud complaints about James Dolan falling by the wayside during this not-so-bad season.
While Knicks fans have loudly expressed disappointment in their front office’s draft and free agency performances over the years, Dolan is not challenged by New Yorkers in any serious way. Funny enough, this is consistent with New York’s history of allowing fraudulent crooks to reign supreme. But hearing the Garden erupt in Game 2 against the Hawks, it hurts to see this impassioned fanbase blame the revolving door of failed coaches and GMs rather than the doorman who lets the wrong people in and kicks the wrong people out.
Knicks Owners Are Historically Wack
“I represent a corporation with more than $3.5 million in assets.”
It is comforting to think James Dolan is an anomaly in the otherwise regal track record of the New York Knicks franchise. Then you read about the birth of the Knicks and realize Dolan actually fits the mold of a Knicks owner perfectly.
Edward Simmons “Ned” Irish ushered the Knicks into the world in 1946 as their first owner. Reportedly an “adequate and undistinguished” sports writer, Ned began moving up in the world as a clever basketball promoter at Madison Square Garden. His ability to organize big money college games at the Garden—a trend that quickly became corrupt—helped Ned eventually become the owner of MSG.
When Max Kase, one of the nation’s leading sports writers, came to Irish pitching a pro basketball team that could lease out MSG, Irish flaunted a condition stating any professional team in New York had to be owned by MSG. Basically, if Ned couldn’t own a squad, it couldn’t exist.
In a meeting organized by Basketball Association of America (BAA) chairman Maurice Podoloff—who later became the NBA’s first president—Irish began his speech with, “I represent a corporation with more than $3.5 million in assets.” Soon after, twelve reps of the BAA voted unanimously for Irish over Kase to own the nascent New York team.
At its core, running the New York Knicks is about deep pockets and monopolizing. It’s unsurprising, then, that MSG was caught in a match-fixing scandal that got the New York District Attorney involved in 1951. After dozens of others went down, Ned refused to be humbled by the scandal born of the soulless commercial culture he created.
Irish proceeded to pull a number of big-money stunts in the following decade which led to the Knicks crashing and burning upon legendary coach Joe Lapchick’s retirement.
He bent rules to get draft picks, signed ineligible players, and bullied other owners into accepting financial rules that mainly benefitted himself. He also punked owners in other ways like refusing to put the smaller Tri-Cities team on his marquee when they visited MSG.
After Lapchick left in 1957, Ned Irish became the team’s lead decision-maker. He quickly hired and fired two coaches, rehired one of those coaches as a GM, and lost key players. With Irish leading team operations the Knicks went through six head coaches in 10 years, most lasting less than two full seasons.
Beginning in 1960, the Knicks achieved eight consecutive last-place finishes in the Eastern Conference under Irish’s watch. A decade of embarrassment that pained the NBA and delighted owners around the league.
James Dolan may not have overseen a huge gambling scandal or illegally signed college stars, but he’s done his fair share to make himself and the Knicks the NBA’s discolored grease stain. Highlights include regularly beefing with fans, former players, the media, and his own employees. He’s also made money decisions so disastrous that the NBA’s amnesty clause—which mostly benefits big-market teams like the Knicks—is named after his failure.
Save for the occasional “we didn’t forget about you” tweet, Knicks fans collectively seem content to let James Dolan rule unchallenged as they leap for joy at this current roster’s overachievement. Dolan recently made the respected Andrew Lustgarten his right-hand man as CEO of the MSG Company and key Knicks positions including GM, Assistant GM, and President have been refreshed with promising personnel. There are reasons for Knicks fans to be hopeful this summer, but the front office can only go as far as James Dolan allows them.
Much of the commentary from media sources surrounding the Knicks shares in this blind hope, as if Dolan hasn’t been steering the ship since 1997 and actively undermining his executives for nearly as long. Sure, even Ned Irish got it right by hiring Lapchick and later the title-winning Red Holzman. But it’s no secret that greedy, incompetent Knicks ownership has held the team back throughout its history.
In fairness, Leon Rose has done a lot with a little as the latest man in a long line of infuriating Knicks GMs. But once again, a team with Julius Randle as its best scoring option coached by the solid yet limited Tom Thibodeau would not excite most other fanbases as much as it has excited Knicks fans. Not to mention the free agent pool this summer is nothing like the abundance of the past five summers that the painfully wealthy Knicks could not take advantage of.
There’s nothing wrong with an American city being re-energized by a local team’s revival. But when a franchise like the Knicks receives exaggerated praise for a rare year of overachievement, we can no longer believe the NBA, on a franchise level, is a meritocracy.
If Knicks fans want their team to be taken seriously, they cannot be content with Tom Thibodeau and Julius Randle as long-term centerpieces. Much more importantly, they’ll have to demand consistency and stability from Knicks/MSG executives. This will not happen with James Dolan at the helm.
Pressuring the wealthy doesn’t happen often or successfully in the good ol’ US of A. But if any demographic of people can give momentum to the forced removal of a billionaire, it’s Knicks fans.
I mean, seriously…these fans could do it. If half the energy spent on verbally abusing Trae Young was put toward publicly denouncing James Dolan, they could do it:
Congrats on a good season, Knickerbockers. Here’s to one day having an owner that cares and an appeal beyond “the market.”