As the Rambis era continues to rear its ugly head in performances like last night’s game, my mind wanders to construct exactly how this situation came to pass. The Knicks were 22-22 and on the cusp of breaking back into the playoff conversation after a January 20th OT victory over the Jazz before everything went to hell. Since that fateful midpoint of the season, the Knicks have lost 14 of 17, their head coach was fired just before the All-Star break, and blame has cycled from one scapegoat to the next in the ensuing weeks. Melo has played well, probably the only Knick who has consistently done so, yet the fanbase was calling for him to be traded before the deadline. We all complained about Fisher, but I don’t think anyone was calling for his job on February 7th when he was fired following a brutal stretch against some of the league’s best teams. They played 6 of the league’s 8 best teams in a 10-game stretch following that win over Utah, losing 9 of those 10 games, and at the end of that gauntlet, Fisher was fired.
What happened? We will never know all the gory details about this, but I’m going to write out my own plot to this movie. Fisher, listening to his players and seeing their struggles to execute the triangle in the modern era of basketball, goes to Phil and asks to abandon this aging concept for an offensive approach more suited to their current personnel. Phil tells Fisher to stick with the process, that the players will come around, that the system will work given time to be implemented. Fisher says the team doesn’t have the shooters, that Kristaps isn’t reliable from the midrange and Afflalo is a shadow of his former self. Calderon can’t beat anyone off the dribble and no one on the bench is consistent except the surprising Lance Thomas. They have to play more pick and roll, and they have to shoot more 3’s out of drive-and-kicks. Phil insists on staying the course and refuses to budge on his evangelical faith in the Triangle. Fisher and him have a clash of egos, and Fisher is excused after a dramatic confrontation behind the scenes because emotions are running a thousand miles high after a particularly trying set of games.
Jackson and friends took the weekend to discuss how they would approach this from a public relations standpoint, and decided that the team’s public stance would be that the coaching change was for the good of the team, that the Knicks needed a culture shift, and that making the playoffs and salvaging the season was the reason for firing Fisher. The Knicks privately knew they had already played themselves out of a realistic shot at the playoffs, and so allowed Rambis to finish out the year as a Jackson lackey who would keep preaching the creed of Zen. Phil has plans to seek a new candidate this summer, or maybe even install himself if he’s feeling frisky enough (and I think that’s a real possibility here), and so he tells Rambis to use this opportunity as well as he can to market himself for another chance at an NBA head coaching job. Rambis has waited six years for another chance after being laughed out of Minnesota, so he takes this really seriously and says a lot of Ra-Ra quotes to the media and plays his best players a ton of minutes to chase meaningless wins down the stretch of a rapidly unfurling season.
And that leaves us where we are now. Kristaps was consigned to the bench nearly the entire 2nd half of Sunday night’s game, his minutes are being handled more erratically then an alcoholic’s house plants are watered, and players are jumping all over the place in rotation up and down the bench. The only thing that seems assured is that Melo will play 40 minutes a night, and RoLo and Calderon will be right there with him for most of the way. Tonight, the incredibly hot Trailblazers come to town, boasting one of the best backcourts in the league and a young, athletic roster brimming with confidence. My god, could you imagine if New York had Dame on this team? How many games would they win if you switched Calderon with Lillard, 52? 55? He’s such a gifted young player, and I’m so impressed with how Portland has completely overhauled their roster around him and achieved this kind of success in year one. To lose 4 of 5 starters from a playoff team and come back the next year and be a playoff team is the kind of thing usually reserved for the big schools in college basketball.
Portland has won 13 of their last 15 games, and one of those losses was a wonky home game against Houston where the Blazers held a 22-point 3rd quarter lead and somehow collapsed into a 15-point defeat. Houston has a weird way of pulling that kind of performance out of their ass every now and again (see, game 6 @ LA Clippers, 2015) when they get super focused, and Portland was fresh off their convincing curb stomp of the Warriors, so I’ll excuse it as a case of emotional exhaustion. So a team that’s 13-2 in their last 15 is playing a team that is 3-14 in their last 17, to put it simply, and the strength of the team that is 13-2 is the glaring weakness of the team that is 3-14. All this is to say that the situation does not bode well for our Knicks.
Portland, lovingly referred to as Rip City by their rabid fanbase of hipster counter-culture cycling enthusiasts, comes into MSG loaded with confidence and locally grown kind bud. The Knicks will have to do more than “try really hard” to beat this team, which is well-coached and plays with the ferocity of a team that has nothing to fear. One thing I haven’t questioned too often this year with the Knicks is their effort, I will give them that—the team has lost a LOT of close games and remained competitive in the majority of their games this year, even against the league’s best teams, but their late game coaching and poor general strategy has been the difference in them being a playoff team and being 11 games under .500 right now. It’s a shame that in a game of chess, they fired the guy who was playing checkers and made the guy playing chutes & ladders his replacement for the remainder of the season. But that’s where the Knicks are at right now, and even if Rambis thinks a checkmate is when Australians split a bill at a restaurant, the Knicks have 21 more games to play, starting with tonight against Portland. They may as well win some of them.