The Knicks unlikely season of optimism is about to begin

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How we went from the nightmare of losing Kristaps Porzingis to unexpected hope in 2018.

Oh My God No. Please no. No no no. Don’t do this to us…

The way I was staring at my phone, it probably looked like I just got a text from my wife telling me either that our daughter had locked herself in the bathroom with a tub of ice cream or that the cat died.

This can’t be happening. This isn’t happening. There’s a mistake. There has to be a mistake. OH GOD WHY CAN’T THIS BE A MISTAKE…

Well, someone had died, if you count the hopes and dreams of an entire fan base as a person. I think that’s only fair. Knicks Twitter definitely has a pulse, is moody, doesn’t like its parents (Dolan) or annoying younger brother (Brooklyn), throws up a lot, probably needs therapy, and has violent mood swings brought out by seemingly insignificant events. So it’s a bipolar teenager with an eating disorder.

F my life. Why can’t we have nice things. Just once. Just one goddamn time….

I’ve been a cell in this living, breathing, orange and blue organism for 25 years now, and in all that time I couldn’t ever remember feeling like I did that night. February 6, 2018 – the night the One True Unicorn went up for a dunk over an imposter and never came back down, but instead floated away into the abyss like Poochie the Dog.

What made it worse was that of all places I could be when it happened, I was at a damned Nets game. Another teacher in my school had season tickets and the Rockets were in town. The Knicks hadn’t won a game in what felt like a month and the team’s playoff hopes were being autopsied for still-functioning organs. I figured one night off from banging my head against the wall wouldn’t hurt.

When my phone started buzzing, I didn’t want to be rude so I ignored it. That changed when I overheard a couple guys in front of us mention Kristaps going up for a dunk and coming down in a heap, at which point I went straight to Twitter.

You know it’s bad when you scroll through your feed and it’s just variations of the word “no” – some with one “O”, some with many, some in all caps, some with a blend of caps and lowercase, a few “no’s” preceded by expletives, several followed by the little ghost face emoji that kind of looks like the mask from Scream…it was a healthy mix.

I don’t remember much after that. James Harden could have stood on Chris Paul’s shoulders and attempted to fire a half-court shot from his anus and I wouldn’t have known it was happening. I was in a trance. When I finally saw the video, I was done.

I went through the first four stages of grief pretty quickly: denial (see above), anger (best represented by the compilation of Al Pacino scenes below), bargaining (“medical technology is amazing these days, and this season was already over, and we do have our draft pick…”) and depression (“why is every good thing that happens to this team eventually followed by an uppercut to the groin? Is God a Celtics fan? Or maybe he just hates me.”)

By the next morning, I was teetering on the brink of acceptance, but there was one thing I couldn’t get past: next season – the season where the ascent up the mountaintop was supposed to begin in earnest – was going to be a wash. And that I couldn’t accept.

It’s not that I thought the Knicks were winning anything in 2018. I just knew NBA history. I knew the way that teams built around KP-level stars usually progressed. The first few seasons were about getting their feet wet. Then came the year where the star emerges in full bloom – that was 2017. Next comes the season where the team starts to coalesce around their centerpiece, and maybe even wins a playoff game or two. That was supposed to be 2018. After that, the real fun starts.

I’d been watching basketball long enough to know that teams couldn’t skip steps. It’s like dating: some awkward conversation, followed by a perfectly delightful meal, followed by a stroll back to the apartment and that magical moment where you stare deep into each other’s eyes, followed by super fun happy time, followed by pancakes.

You need the stroll. It’s the essential ingredient to the whole equation. Without it, there’s no time for her to rationalize against the incredibly poor decision she’s about to make. Without that stroll, I’d still be a virgin.

On February 6, the Knicks tripped and face-planted just as they were leaving the restaurant. At the time, it seemed like everything that mattered was suddenly in limbo. Would KP buy in long-term without seeing a winning product first? Could they still market themselves to the free agent class of 2019? Did the slow climb to respectability reach a permanent impasse? Would Jeff Hornacek get to keep his job? Was Kurt Rambis going to get a seventh life in the NBA (two more to go!)? It was all up in the air. Whatever the 2018-19 season was going to mean, it wouldn’t be what everyone originally thought.

That was eight months ago, but it feels closer to eight years. With the flames of the Night from Hell still in the rearview mirror, there is a palpable excitement in the air. Writers are pumping out columns about the Knicks that contain words like “hope,” “competence” and “optimism.” “Right” and “direction” no longer make strange bedfellows when describing this team.

The whole thing is a bit surreal…it’s like getting engaged to someone you only started dating a few months ago. This is all happening so fast! You haven’t even met my first cousins yet! I don’t even know if you like Game of Thrones! Would you ever adopt? I don’t do dishes.

Not only is this all taking place so soon after the KP injury, but lest we forget, Phil (expletive deleted) Jackson was still running this show a little more than a year ago. In late June 2017 – not that far back – the perception of the franchise had reached a new low for the Dolan era. Think about that for a second. I’m not sure what’s more preposterous: how bad things got, or how quickly they’ve since turned around.

It would have been tough to convince anyone last summer that by opening night 2018, KD to the Knicks buzz would become so prevalent that it’s starting to get annoying. That would have been especially dubious considering KP’s injury happening in the interim.

And yet…here we are.

Are things actually as good as they seem? Probably not…if a POW ate nothing but gruel and water for 17 years and you gave him a White Castle slider, he’s going to think he died and went to heaven.

(That’s a bit unfair. White Castles are delicious.)

There’s also the bit about, you know…not being a complete and total tire fire of an organization. Turns out, hiring a career personnel man to run your basketball team is a better move than empowering a septuagenarian with no league connections and zero front office experience who had a penchant for pissing people off. Who knew!

As Scott Perry and Steve Mills have made clear, the new approach no longer sees the Knicks trying to get lucky by the end of the first date. Instead, they’re trying to build a relationship that lasts. Should they be commended? Sure…although nearly two decades of cold showers would drive anyone to switch things up. It’s resulted in an emphasis on development and a renewed prioritization of upping the team’s image throughout the league as opposed to trying to win the back page. No draft picks have been traded. No long term contracts have been signed. It’s been beautiful to watch.

All of this is true, and all of it has contributed to the positive juju everyone’s feeling. Still, there’s something else at play here…something that ushered away the black cloud that’s been floating over this fan base for nearly two decades…something that put a pin in the balloon that contained all that angst and anguish, all the doubt and doom.

(…takes a healthy whiff…)

Ahhh…you smell that? It’s the scent of freedom. Freedom from expectations, freedom from the pressure that inherently comes with playing in the epicenter of the modern world – pressure that is only amplified by a 45-year drought – and freedom from having to live up the best gift the franchise has been given since Patrick Ewing.

Let’s go back a second. Heading into February 6, the weight of the world was once again piling up. After a fool’s gold start to the year, the season was spiraling. You could feel the anxiety starting to build towards the summer…could they afford to take a step back in the hope of taking two steps forward? Would Kristaps accept it? Would Dolan? How much faith did Mills and Perry really have in their purported freedom to operate as they saw fit? If the team rebounded and missed the playoffs by only a few games, would they be able to sell morepatience to a fan base that, for a few months at least, got a taste of what they’d been missing for so long?

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We didn’t realize it at first, but when KP went down that night, all those questions vanished into the Garden’s rafters. In the most ironic of twists, the thing that we thought would be our undoing has instead has become our liberation.

As it turns out, the Porzingis injury has become a get out of jail free card of sorts. It’s a quarter you found on the floor of the arcade. How often in sports does a team get the chance to operate free of both expectations and critique while still maintaining a hopefulness that better times are near? Almost never. The KP injury made this situation possible, and the front office’s measured approach since then has made it a reality.

This is, of course, a big heap of lipstick on Wilbur. If given the choice between having your potentially transcendent, generational young star tear his ACL or not, you choose not.

That said, the unicorn is on track for a full recovery. The Knicks went 6-22 from February 6 on, a record that put them in a position to draft Kevin Knox (had they gone .500 over that stretch – not inconceivable – they would have drafted 11th, not 9th). It made pushing off KP’s extension talks a mutually agreed upon decision as opposed to a contentious one. The organization’s support for their injured star during his time of need seems to have breathed new life into an unhealthy relationship. For a destructive event everyone wishes never happened, the aftershocks wiped the slate clean – largely for the better.

Anything – literally anything– that resembles winning basketball from this team in the next six months is gravy. With the sole focus on development, victories are temporarily a secondary concern. Even so, the rest of the league will be watching to see whether the blocks are being cemented towards something bigger and better. If they aren’t, the Knicks will just be the latest example of a young team that can’t get out of its own way. Moderate improvement – and hard fought losses – will matter.

There are other ways they can still muck it up. Fiz could glue young players to the bench, allow tension to fester in the locker room, and not hold players accountable. In other words, he could become Jeff Hornacek. That doesn’t seem likely though, and unlike Jeff, Fiz has about as much job security as can exist in a profession where there really is no such thing.

It won’t be candy canes and gumdrops all year long. There’s already handwringing over Frank, whose development many feel would benefit from more time as the sole ball handler on the court. Half the roster is on one-year deals, and will be looking to improve their stock. Courtney Lee is also here, although for how long is anyone’s guess. Finding a tenable deal to move him will be just one of the many challenges that await.

Such is life for the 2018-19 New York Knicks. David Fizdale’s challenge – laying the foundation for a culture of winning by setting high expectations for a team that isn’t expected to win very much at all – isn’t a simple one. On top of that, he has to live in the grey area between doling out playing time that is earned and giving minutes to young men who need to be developed. It won’t be easy.

But then again, with or without Porzingis, this season was never going to be a cakewalk. Luckily, he front office, the coach, and the city all seem to have embraced the silver lining we wish we didn’t have to.

This isn’t the path we anticipated, but it’s the path we’re on. For once, the best thing Knicks fans can say isn’t “it can’t get much worse,” but “it’s about to get a whole lot better.”

I’ll take it.


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