Friday night. June. New York City.
It’s the eve of Game 5 of the NBA Finals and the series is tied. The boroughs are buzzing following the New York Rangers championship parade held earlier that afternoon, and the faithful believe that this will be the year their beloved Knickerbockers capture the title that has eluded them since the glory days of the early 1970s.
The league has been granted a reprieve from the tyranny of Michael Jordan, and the Knicks are closer to a title than they’ve been in 21 years in the new His Airness-less NBA, an NBA where suddenly everyone has a chance. As the game is about to tip off, a murmur spreads through the arena. Something is happening in Los Angeles. A police chase. A famous former athlete issued a warrant for the murder of his wife.
ESPN made a “30 for 30” film about the events of that day a few years ago. It was simply called, “June 17th, 1994.” The OJ Simpson car chase will forever be embedded like the long, rusty nail that is the chorus of “Call Me Maybe” in the memories of those that watched it, and enough has been written and said about that, but another thing happened that day. The Knicks won Game 5 of the NBA Finals and were a game away from winning their first title since 1973. That was the closest they had been since then, and the closest they would be until now.
In Patrick Ewing’s prime, Michael Jordan dominated the league and established his status as the GOAT. When Jordan decided his talents would be best used playing a sport requiring the athleticism of a bank teller for two years, another all-time great teamed with one of the best shooting guards of that era in Houston to fill the brief void. After Jordan’s second retirement panicked the NBA into a what-the-fuck-are-we-gonna-do-now lockout, the Knicks made it all the way to the Finals as an 8 seed in the fluky 47-game season in ‘99, only to find themselves without an injured Ewing and up against another pair of future Hall-of-Famers, Tim Duncan and David Robinson. The next year, the Knicks lost a TV remote-destroying series to the loathed Pacers in the Eastern Conference Finals, and thus began the agonizing road to mediocrity when they traded their aging superstar after another playoff gut-punch. The window had closed.
I say all this not to bring everyone on a depressing stroll down Woulda-Coulda Lane, but to point out that even with the thrown beer bottles, the fist-sized holes in the walls discreetly covered by paintings, the apologies to significant others in the morning and the other symptoms of heartbreaking sports losses, those were good years. Fourteen straight playoff appearances from 1988-2001. Following that up with 9 consecutive losing seasons before Melo’s arrival tends to romanticize it a bit, but those 14 years still represent a level of success many franchises would kill for. And the reason for that sustained success was the Knicks won the 1985 draft lottery and chose a young man from Georgetown named Patrick Ewing.
No matter what your opinion of Ewing and his noted (but exaggerated) immunity to the clutch gene, he was the anchor of a team that was largely successful for over a decade. There’s no way to build a franchise without a franchise player, and in the history of the NBA the champion has nearly always been a team led by a player they drafted. The Lakers drafted Magic, the Celtics drafted Bird, the Bulls drafted Jordan, the Lakers drafted Kobe and the Spurs drafted Duncan.
And this Golden State team that looks like Galactus and the rest of the league just planets for them to devour? They drafted Curry, Klay and Draymond. The roadmap for success in this league was drawn in 1956 when the Celtics selected Bill Russell and the route has never changed. Even when it has, like with Detroit in 2004 and the recently isolated viral outbreak known as The Heatles, it was only a temporary detour. Championships are won by franchises that draft their best players.
Year Pick Player
2013 24 Tim Hardaway Jr.
2011 17 Iman Shumpert
2009 8 Jordan Hill
2008 6 Danilo Galinari
2007 23 Wilson Chandler
2006 29 Mardy Collins
2006 20 Renaldo Balkman
2005 30 David Lee
2005 8 Channing Frye
2003 9 Mike Sweetney
2002 7 Nene Hilario
2000 22 Donnell Harvey
The chart above shows the Knicks’ 1st round draft picks since the last time they were in the NBA Finals up until 2015. There’s a few things that jump out right away: First, none of these players currently play for the Knicks. Sure, none of them would ever be mistaken for a franchise player, but a lot of these guys are good rotational players around the league and not a single one remained in New York long enough to develop an accent. Second, there’s too many years in which the Knicks didn’t have a 1st round pick, including every other year since 2009. Trading 1st round picks is the equivalent of getting Botox, in that the teams that do it are ignoring the future in a misguided attempt to remain relevant in the present.
Let’s leave that kind of team-building strategy to the guys in Brooklyn, shall we?
Finally, they were never quite bad enough to get a top pick. Sure, they never got lucky with the ping pong balls, most notably this past year, but because they had the league’s second-worst record they were guaranteed no worse than the 5th pick in the draft. The fact that they bottomed out enough to get a top-4 pick for the first time since (you guessed it!) 1985 when they selected Ewing is a big deal, but the guy that they used it on has quickly become somewhat of a bigger deal.
Kristaps Porzingis, man of 1,000 nicknames. Booed on draft night by a fanbase understandably weary of tall European men with a penchant for shooting (see, Andrea Bargnani), Kristaps has become much more than one of the parade of awkward men pegged as the “next Dirk Nowitzki” that have been drafted since Dirk came into the league in (wait for it)…the 1998-1999 season. The Mavericks have since been to the playoffs in 14 of 15 seasons, with two appearances in the Finals.
True, Dirk was able to win a title during a year when the NBA underwent a changing of the guard where Ewing could not, but the two teams followed an extremely similar trajectory in their respective eras. Dirk is still hanging on with a surprising Mavericks team, but he is beginning the slow, painful process of regression. Watching Kobe go through it has been downright painful. It’s never fun to watch Jordan on the Wizards, Ewing on the Magic, or Hakeem on the Raptors, but it is inevitable.
I bring up Dirk because Porzingis was compared to him so often in the months leading up to the draft. That Zing You Do is a completely different player than Dirk, but alas, he is a tall, white shooter. I also bring up Dirk because the Mavericks drafted him. And even if the Mavs hadn’t won the title in 2011, they had 15 years where their fans got to cheer for a team that was competing in the playoffs with a chance to win a ring, and that is all a fan can ask for. That’s what being a fan is all about.
If your team is good, life is good.
The Knicks fans have been starved for that kind of team and player to watch every night. When Melo arrived, it brought hope for basketball back to New York, but after three straight playoff appearances, the team began to regress again. It was all-too familiar. Whatever talent was left on the roster was stripped faster than a Lexus in a chopshop. The fun of having a competitive team in the playoffs was short-lived, and last year was a low point for the franchise.
Enter Phil Jackson. He surveyed the team and did what any smart businessman would do. He tore it down like a flipper when they see a shitty house on a good piece of land, because that’s exactly what the Knicks were. A structural disaster in one of the best landscapes the NBA has to offer, supported by a fanbase that showed up to MSG and sold the place out year after year and game after game no matter how closely the team resembled one of Michael J. Fox’s opponents in Teen Wolf.
A true rebuild demands a complete excavation—you can’t keep the existing frame and just update the furniture and appliances. So the Knicks went 17-65 last year (and missed KAT by a game because they won the last game of the season, but I don’t think anyone’s complaining now) and drafted Kristaps Porzingis, who looks like he might just be the player we’ve been waiting for.
In the last week, the Latviathan had games of 29/11, 24/14/7 and 20/14 as his MPG have increased. He has started hitting the 3’s he was famous for, and he has looked more comfortable with each game he plays. When Porzingis is in the game, the Knicks’ ORtg is 107.1, and when he doesn’t it falls to 101. This isn’t too surprising considering how heralded his offensive skill set was, but what is surprising is that the opponent’s ORtg rises from 101.8 to 106 when he takes a rest. This accounts for a total differential of 10.3, which is a substantial number. For perspective, let’s look at the total ORtg differential of some other highly regarded players at his position.
Kristaps Porzingis (+10.3)
Anthony Davis (+10.9)
Karl Anthony-Towns (+1.2)
Draymond Green (+12)
Marc Gasol (+9.7)
LeBron James (+29.3)
Blake Griffin (+4.1)
Steph Curry (+12.4)
Paul George (+9.9)
As you can see, the Porzingod is in good company. The first thing that leaps off of that chart is that LeBron’s rating differential is astronomical and is evidence of just how much he means to a team. You’ll also see that I snuck Steph Curry in there (because why not, the guy is awesome), but we can also assume that Golden State’s numbers are offset by a great bench, so even a high rating such as the +12 of Draymond and Steph is understating their effectiveness because the team keeps rolling even when they sit.
But guys like Gasol, PG13, Blake Griffin and Anthony Davis are high-level players on teams that aren’t loaded with bench talent, and their total ORtg differentials compare favorably with The Wedding Zinger. And I threw in KAT’s differential as a low blow to the consensus number one pick, I’ll admit. But the numbers show that Krampus-err, Kristaps, is here to take, not give. Does that metaphor work? Have we all seen the commercial and wondered why Ben Wyatt finds himself in a secluded cabin and Ron Swanson isn’t there cobbling a rocking chair out of a freshly-felled pine?
New York is one of the most important basketball cities on Earth, if not the most important. Knicks fans span generations and are incredibly loyal, die-hard basketball junkies who need their fix just as much as Jesse Pinkman does after a long day cooking in an RV. The drug of choice is a winning basketball team, and we might have just found our dealer.
Sports is the ultimate dirty Petri dish of clichés, where they’re cultured and harvested in a continuous 24-hour loop of regurgitated phrases, but it’s true that nothing is guaranteed and that anything can happen. Maybe none of this works out and this fresh whiff of hope is sighed away just like the days of Linsanity we all enjoyed so briefly. But I have a feeling this is different. And if the Kristapocalypse is nigh, I’m glad that Knicks fans will have a good, long time to enjoy it.