Tuesday, October 23, 2012

NBA WEEK: (More Than) Ten Years Gone: The Knicks in 2012

Zach Dorfman gives his take on the State of the Knicks before the 2012-2013 NBA Season.

Editor's Note: NBA Week continues today with a closer look at the 2012-2013 New York Knicks. Zach Dorfman (who has contributed to Dissent and the Montreal Review among other places) sizes up the team's chances and also explains why he is a somewhat unlikely Knicks fan.

The strangest thing about my being a Knicks fan is the fact that I am a fan at all.

I don’t care about "professional sports", generally, with its peculiar combination of scholasticism and tribalism. Perhaps this is because I am congenitally bad at playing these games—except for a short stint in little league baseball (playing left field, of course) and kids’ soccer (when we were also so young we barely knew which goal was ours)—I have continuously avoided organized sport. In high school, my gym coach would allow my friends and me to engage in Frisbee or spirited rounds of hacky-sacking instead of the officially mandated games of touch football. We didn’t want to be there in gym class; the coach knew we didn’t want to be there, and he didn’t really want us there either, since we just fucked up his games. There was a certain  implicit understanding between us that, on a larger scale, prevents wars; a reflection of social dynamics that we didn’t really care to understand at the time, since we just wanted to bounce a multicolored yarn ball filled with beans off our knees and smoke Camel Lights.

I grew up in the northern suburbs of New York City in the late 1990s. This matters a whole lot, because I came of age when the Knicks had an amazing Cinderella run to the NBA finals—the first eight seed in the history of the league to do so—only to lose to the Spurs in five games. I loved this team, and watched almost every single game in those years. Allen Houston’s peerless form. Latrell Sprewell’s nasty-ass slashes to the rim. Larry Johnson’s post-Grandmama rebirth and the infamous four-point play. Charlie Ward’s gratuitous on-court praying. And (an old) Patrick Ewing, one of the greatest players in the history of the NBA to never wear a ring.  The extraordinary sense of disappointment I felt when the Knicks lost in the ’99 Finals (even thought they were extreme underdogs—Ewing was injured the whole series), and the Eastern Conference Finals in 2000 to Reggie Miller’s Pacers, would come in handy for my future Knick fandom, because the Knicks are perennial underachievers with possibly the worst (and greediest) owner in the League, and they will probably never win a championship under James Dolan’s leadership. It’s true.

Fast forward more than a decade from that magical run in ’99. I, like many other Knicks fans, have tried to erase the Isiah Thomas years from my memory. That was easy, since, to be honest, I just stopped watching Knicks games after they became a laughably bad team—literally the Platonic opposite of what a good basketball team was supposed to be. But like a true Knicks fan, I didn’t just stop watching the Knicks, I stopped watching basketball in toto (except for an occasional playoff game, admittedly). If the Knicks weren’t good enough to follow, well, I didn’t need basketball at all.

I realize that to some of you this may sound ridiculous. Great players are great players, no matter what city they wear on their jersey. (Note: except Miami. No self-respecting Knicks fan can ever root for Miami. You just can’t.) And I get it. But you see, the Knicks are my one great sports love—bigger than the game of basketball itself, more important than all other professional sports teams in all the leagues combined. I’m back in the thralls of fandom again, and it feels so good.

So what to make of the 2012-2013 season? Let’s start with the positive news. James Dolan has assembled an all-star squad, but from the year 2001. Happily, this includes Kurt Thomas (the oldest active player in the NBA) and Marcus Camby, both of whom were members of the that 1999 Knicks team. Deep down, I don’t care that they’re old. I’ve missed them terribly. We have also managed to pull Rasheed Wallace out of retirement(!) to play for us. I’ve loved Wallace since his “Jailblazer” days in Portland and he is legitimately insane, and will surely proceed to accrue roughly one technical foul for very basket he scores for us this season. And Jason Kidd! Wow! Only he’s 40, likes to drive very drunk, and was once on the Nets. The New Jersey Nets, who were always the Knicks’ annoying younger brother before anyone had heard the name “Prokhorov”—and when Sunny’s Bar in Prospect Heights was still standing.

On a slightly less ancient note, we resigned Steve Novak, an excellent spot-up shooter. We also resigned the extraordinarily strange, talented, and underachieving J.R. Smith, who is apparently close friends with Novak. (This is the weirdest possible duo on the Knicks). We also brought Raymond Felton back from an extended eating binge, and let Jeremy Lin, the most exciting story in Madison Square Garden in a decade, leave the Knicks because James Dolan—who overpays for almost everyone—decided that in this particular case, frugality was key. James Dolan is the world’s worst human.

But there’s no doubt that in terms of raw potential and athleticism, this Knicks squad is the best in over a decade. Tyson Chandler is a truly amazing defensive player. In an NBA with very few top-notch big men, Chandler is a treasure. Watching him bang it out in the paint this year with Kevin Garnett or Andrew Bynum will be an unmitigated joy. Carmelo Anthony has limitless potential—and on a good night I almost believe he’s as good as anyone playing in the League right now—but seems churlish at times and spoiled at others. It’s not clear that he really knows how to adapt his game to the play of others and not just the other way around; this, more than anything, will define our season. If Carmelo and Amar’e Stoudamire (whose legs may fail him at any point, for good) can’t find an effective way to play together this season, I think it’s fair to say that this current lineup is a failure. Because there’s just too much damn talent on the team to consider the six or seven seed a success.

And just where will the Knicks fit in the Eastern Conference this season? Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose. On the one hand, the balance of the power in the East—and maybe the NYC metro area—has shifted somewhat. Orlando, minus Dwight Howard, will likely be a lottery team. Philadelphia has got a franchise player in Andrew Bynum. Boston will be weaker without Ray Allen, but still formidable. (I never bet against Paul Pierce.) Chicago will be without Derrick Rose for a significant chunk of the season, which will undoubtedly affect their overall place in the standings. Indiana is ascendant. The Brooklyn Nets, with a Joe Johnson/Deron Williams backcourt, will be a playoff team—maybe even a better one than the Knicks. And Miami? I’m a Knicks fan for life, but I’m no fool, and there’s no way this Knicks team is going to best Miami in a seven game series. I’d be ecstatic for the third seed, and a hard-fought loss in the Eastern Conference Finals, but I’m not betting on it. 

One must bow to reality: John Starks couldn’t shoot his way out of a slump, and James Dolan can’t buy his way out of one, either.

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