Sometimes I wonder what it’s like to root for a structurally sound winning team. I mean, not just a team that might end up with 42+ wins this season; a team that’s pretty much guaranteed a stable course of 45+ wins in the next three years, with a hopeful peak of 55+ and a Conference Finals appearance at worst. I’m an NBA fan since 1994, and a Knicks fan since 2008 (but was rooting for them here and there, nost notably in the 1999 finals – I’m a sucker for underdogs). In that span, I saw many contenders come and go. Real contenders, not 8th seeds that vault up to the Finals in a shortened season or a bottle-in-the-lightning 54 win team that sees his magic just vanish the year after (maybe Bargs was really a magician, then). It’s hard to keep watching a team that’s bad, that’s used to be bad, that’s almost supposed to be bad just because they are the Knicks.
I’ll tell you a little story. As you might know, I’m from Bologna. For a few decades, it was called “Basket city” in Italy because it’s probably the place where people breathed basketball the most, in a country where soccer gets the lion’s share of hooligans and casual fans alike. We had two teams in the top Italian league for a long time. Their battles were ferocious, and every year at least one of them was seriously in the mix to win it all. Sometimes, they were both in the mix. In 1998 and 2001 they played each other in the Italian finals. I grew up rooting for one of them, Virtus Bologna. In my lifetime, Virtus has won 6 Italian titles (1998 and 2001 included), 2 European titles, a bunch of other unimportant stuff and was a talent factory for players both Italian and foreign. We had a lot of talented players donning the black and white jerseys: Manu Ginobili is the most famous one, but others were Predrag Danilovic (briefly in the NBA with Dallas and Miami), Radoslav Nesterovic (winner of a ring with the Spurs in 2005), Marko Jaric (a mediocre NBA career punctuated by the fact that he dated and later married and fathered two sons with supermodel Adriana Lima), Marco Belinelli (you know him – another ring with the black and white Spurs… hmmm), Michael Ray Richardson and so on.
Point is, I know what it’s like to root for a winning team. I just don’t know what it’s like in the NBA (nor do I now in the Italian league, where Virtus is a terrible team that reshuffles its roster every summer and finishes regularly in the bottom half on the standings). And since I know what it’s like to root for a winning team, I also know that Philly fans must be elated with their team, even after botching at least 2 top-3 picks. That’s what a winning team looks like. That’s what we could have if we just stopped giving stupid contracts to mediocre players. And that, in the end, is why this season matters, and this offseason matters even more: we need not to do any stupid thing to slowly get where we need to be. Aside from an inevitable KP-max (and I would argue that a smart management wouldn’t see that max as inevitable, but who are we kidding here?), every other move has to make sense. And our roster needs to be thoroughly examinated to know who should we be building around and in what role should they be featured.
We want to feel like Philly fans. I don’t know if we deserve it. I know that’s what makes us fans, though. The hope for improvement. The desire to see this mess pan out. And the primal need to jettison THJ out of here.
– This is getting harder every new game. I might have to ditch this gimmick soon if things don’t turn around a bit (but yay for the tank! Praised be the big ping-pong ball/frozen envelope in the sky). Anyway, Damyean Dotson (14 pts, 1 reb, 54.5 FG%) takes away the half-eaten, stale cake here. The guy missed a few games with an injury to his shooting shoulder and came back without missing a beat. If I had to make a list of things that I liked in the first 33 games of the season, it would go like this (in descending order): Mitch; Trier; the steadiness of Dotson; Vonleh’s all-around play; those games where Kanter wasn’t a starter; a few Knox highlights. That’s all. I wish he would rebound a bit more, as we know he’s capable of. His DReb% this season is a full 4 percentage points worse than last season, and it’s not like he’s always sharing the court with other noted bound-chasers. He seems a bit less interested in grabbing the ball after it bounces off the rim, I don’t know why. Also, not a real class act for dunking the ball on the last possession. I don’t mind it, because I never understood why you’re not supposed to shoot the ball in the last possession of an already decided game, but a layup would have been better.
– It’s pretty hard to tell who was really bad tonight, as a mantle of mediocrity engulfed the whole team. I guess I’ll go with Frank Ntililkina (3 pts, 2 rebs, 2 ast, -9 +/-) here, simply because you can’t shoot 1-7 from the field while failing to generate any kind of offense and expect not to be scolded. You’re being given opportunities again, Frank. Maybe they’re not the best opportunities ever, but they are chances nonetheless. If you want to stick in this league, you have to make them count. We’re getting past the point where he should be cuddled because he can give you so much on the defensive end: if this is what he gives you on offense, it’s hard to play him at all. This season he should see every minute he can muster, but at some point he has to show something with some consistency, or else this is not going to be his home for long. It’s sad to think about that, because you can see the brilliance in defending. At the very end of the first quarter, Frank was the first Knick to be able to put a body in front of Embiid. Embiid has 9 inches and probably a full 60 pounds on Frank, but Frank was unfazed (of course the possession ended with Knox fouling Korkmaz for three – generating a four-point play opportunity). I’m the first one to say that not playing Frank would be a waste of defensive prowess, but Frank has to earn it, and he’s not doing that.
– Kevin Knox is something else in December. There were better players selected after him, but he’s exceeding my Mariannes Trench-low expectations. His 17/6/1.5 average are quite good for a teenage forward who’s still learning to use his body appropriately. The THJ-to-Kevin alley-oop to end the first half was very sweet. He’s also chucking better shots and looks a bit more under control driving to the rim. We still don’t know what to make of him, but the picture is a little bit better.
– Enes Kanter just grabbed 6 boards and missed a couple of reversed layups he usually makes in his sleep. His best contribution to the night may have been the time when Wally said “Without Kanter, there’s no one able to guard Embiid on the court!”. That almost made me spill my coffee. A full 45 minutes after I drank it. Wally is the rare case of old-school player turned color commentator where not even the eye test works. If Wally is the one who’ll replace Clyde after the Hall of fame PG calls it a day, he’ll be the worst color commentator in the league by a wide margin, taking the scepter from Austin Carr. Embiid abused of everyone tonight, as he’s wont to do, but especially Enes.
– THJ scored 27 in 29 minutes thanks to a perfect 10-for-10 from the line. I still don’t get why one should be on a terrible team while going through the acute pain brought by plantar fasciitis, but I felt a little more alive when he barked in Kanter’s face for a full 30 seconds (even while dribbling the ball) after Enes completely missed a rotation. Timmy might be a decent leader in his commitment. It’s just a shame he mostly sucks at basketball.
– If vampires were real, they would have gone crazy over Kornet tonight. He lost blood in almost three separate occasions.
– Vonleh keeps on being a mini-Draymond: 6/10/5 and 2 blocks. A little bounceback game for him.
– Mudiay is a goodish player when the defense is lazy or short. Tonight he was the Mudiay of yore, 11 points on 12 shots. Mud’s bad games are useful because they might act as a reminder for our front office not to break the bank for him. I hope.
– Mario makes me feel sad even when he enters the game with just 3 minutes to play. It’s painfully clear that he doesn’t care about basketball. Like, at all.
– Courtney Lee and Lance Thomas are the most tank-happy veterans you’ll ever see: they play scarcely, they suck and they don’t complain. Beautiful human beings. Sadly, they’re costing us 19 million dollars.
Who wants to lose against the Hawks? I do! But play better guys, I beg of you.