Fans and local media consider the New York Knicks an iconic franchise, synonymous of what’s best about the NBA. For the last 20 years, they’ve talked (emptily) about reclaiming their rightful mantle.
But, aside from some fuzzy memories, was the organization ever that great?
The Knicks, 46 years and counting since their last title, don’t sit so pretty when one removes those nostalgic rose-colored glasses.
A Basketball Association of America founding member, the Knicks competed for its first 22 years of existence but lost three Finals to the Minneapolis Lakers (two) and the Rochester Royals. The Knicks then failed to reach the Finals for 16 years until league expansion occurred.
By 1967-73, the NBA grew from nine to 17 teams. This significantly diluted the talent level during the Knicks’ title runs and lent an advantage to experienced teams such as the Boston Celtics, Philadelphia 76ers, Los Angeles Lakers and Knicks, who won six of the seven titles. The second-year Milwaukee Bucks faced off against New York in the 1970 playoffs with rookie Lew Alcindor (but one year shy of Oscar Robertson) and came up short in 5 games.
New York’s rivals significantly weakened when all-time greats abruptly left the Eastern Division. The 1968 champion 76ers traded the moody Wilt Chamberlain for scraps to the West Division’s Los Angeles Lakers because of “team chemistry” reasons. The Celtics dynastic run of 11 titles in 13 years crashed to a screeching halt in 1969 with a mini rebuild when Bill Russell joined other Celtics Hall of Famers in retirement. Both rival squads had disposed of New York during the 1967-69 playoffs.
The alleged “magical” 1969-70 season barely saw the Knick crossing the finish line after a grind.
Hall of Famer Red Holzman’s crew jumped to a Warriors-esque 23-1 start with fellow Springfield inductees Walt Frazier, Earl “The Pearl” Monroe, Willis Reed and Dave DeBusschere leading the way. They peaked with a 1712 Elo rating per 538, the highest point in Knicks history that neither Carmelo Anthony, Bernard King, Patrick Ewing or Jeremy Lin could never quite reach again.
That rating steadily declined as New York limped to the playoffs with a 37-21 mark. The Baltimore Bullets pushed them to seven games in the first round. The Lakers then landed haymakers to the Knicks and forced a decisive Game 7 in the Finals.
Willis Reed gutted through a severe torn quad injury while his squad won 113-99, though his four-point effort became lionized over the years while it was actually series MVP Frazier who carved the aging and weaker Lakers with 36 points and 19 assists.
Holzman’s team survived the Finals with a 1591 Elo rating over Chamberlain, Jerry West and Elgin Baylor’s 1552 Lakers. While Elo isn’t perfect, it provides an approximate idea of team strength. (For example, the legendary 2016 Finals saw the Cleveland Cavaliers (1759) upset the Golden State Warriors (1756), who built an 1837 rating earlier that year.)
But that moment nearly never came. West had drained a half court buzzer beating 2-pointer that tied Game 4. The great irony is this came nine years too early as the 3-pointer hadn’t migrated from the ABA yet. This rule would’ve given LA a third straight win and most likely the series. (Man, The Logo and friends never could catch a break until the Knicks laid down two years later!)
All-time great teams like the Bucks (1971; 66-16; 1723 yearly Elo average) and Lakers (1972; 69-13; 1735 Elo average) took the next two years as the Knicks stalled in the playoffs. 1972-73 saw MSG’s team rebound to a 57-25 record and a league-leading defense that only allowed 98.2 points per game.
New York beat a not-quite-ready Baltimore Bullets team, the Celtics and a rubber match with an aging Lakers collective for its second and last championship. (They were stronger this time but still a below-champion average 1660 Elo to the Lakers’ 1652).
Look, championships are championships, so this isn’t meant to denigrate what those Knicks accomplished. But let’s also not pretend like they ran the league as a dynasty.
And regardless of how you feel about that era, it’s now been a couple generations and counting.
That fabled core started aging out and retiring shortly after the second title. The Knicks then faded into the quagmire of NBA teams jockeying for relevance. Fans at least got to witness fellow New Yorker Bernard King score some mean buckets for four seasons before a knee injury limited his career.
Georgetown’s Patrick Ewing arrived via luck (or David Stern’s alleged frozen envelop shenanigans if you have an affectation for tin foil) to dominate the post for 15 years.
He, unfortunately, couldn’t land the coveted title that the faithful (including superfan Spike Lee) yearned for. Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls (five times), cut-throat Reggie Miller and the Indiana Pacers (three times), and the Miami Heat cut down iterations that included Ewing, Charles Oakley, Anthony Mason, John Starks, Allan Houston, Latrell Sprewell, Marcus Camby, and/or Larry Johnson in the Eastern Conference rounds.
New York’s best chance came via the 1994 Finals when Jordan retired and the Houston Rockets were down 3-2. However, Hakeem “The Dream” Olajuwon took control of two nail biters (86-84 and 90-84, respectively) with a combined 55 points, 20 rebounds, 9 assists and 7 blocks to steal the series.
New York’s last exciting season was the strike-shortened 1999 campaign as Jordan retired again. Head Coach Jeff Van Gundy pushed his team to 27-23 and managed to be the first 8th seed to win a conference final. New York quietly bowed out in five games to Tim Duncan, David Robinson and the ascending San Antonio Spurs.
Winning a title during the 1990s might have created a connective tissue of “greatness” to those 1970s teams and legitimized a franchise legacy we could talk about today. Unfortunately, what happened next has combined with another two decades gone to mean the Knicks are not an icon: They are a career also-ran with a few asterisks of laudable success.
New team governor James Dolan started messing with the team’s makeup when he denied Ewing a contract in 2000. Soon after, Van Gundy, Executive (and former player) Ernie Grunfeld and the 1999 Finals core left.
Abject failure has been the modus operandi since then.
The Knicks have missed the playoffs 15 of the last 19 years, with 2019-20 soon to follow. (They are worst in the East. Again.) Isiah Thomas’ sexual harassment scandal, Dolan kicking fans out of MSG and former president Phil Jackson’s puzzling tenure further kneecap the organization’s brand.
New York lost out on free agency in 2010 with LeBron James and friends opting for sunshine over brutal winters, and again when Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving decided on the cross-borough rival Brooklyn Nets.
What did the Knicks expect when even Jay Z decided to invest in the Nets years ago over their brand?
Even the 2019 NBA Draft—where falling to third is perhaps (tinfoil) karma for the alleged frozen envelope—prevented the Garden from bringing in Zion Williamson as the main attraction.
RJ Barrett has promise but won’t be the next Ewing. All this put “take that for data” truther Dave Fizdale on the head coach hot seat rather unjustly (as so many Knicks coaches have been for the past two decades).
The hot seat boiled over on Friday with Fizdale’s ouster. That’s sure to just keep the cycle going, per ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski:
Knicks also dismissed assistant Keith Smart, league source tells ESPN. https://t.co/op7sOkJiiz
— Adrian Wojnarowski (@wojespn) December 6, 2019
The dysfunctional roster has ill-fitting parts, including too many guards who lack explosive athleticism and 117 power forwards. Free agents such as Julius Randle marginally improve the team but are taking up future cap flexibility during the player movement era.
New York City still exists as the emotional Mecca in the basketball universe, a religious experience where god-like ballers such as Abdul-Jabbar, Chamberlain, Julius Erving and others earned their stripes on the blacktops of Rucker and Dyckman Parks, the West Fourth Street Courts and more than 500 courts throughout the boroughs.
The metropolis indeed possesses a storied history of highly skilled prep and collegiate teams with tough-nosed defenders and flashy point guards executing highlight-reel passes. The Dream Team once recruited native Chris Mullins and Ewing to crush the Olympic faux competition.
But so little of that actually has to do with the Knicks, a franchise that hasn’t been kind to a fervent fan base who dutifully packs the cathedral known as Madison Square Garden, fattening Dolan’s pockets as he epically fails to construct a winner.
Twenty years of living in NBA Hell has caused Knick fans to escape by remembering the franchise’s good old days of running the NBA.
Except, that never actually happened.
Sometimes, rose-colored glasses are all you have. It’s just that they aren’t very good at blocking out the smell.
Bob Bajek is an award-winning investigative journalist and TBW staff writer who has extensive experience in news and sportswriting for various outlets including Bleacher Report, The Chicago Tribune and Pro Football Weekly. He firmly believes Drake spread the Gospel of Steph before his official coming… and fans need to forgive the Warriors after providing free tacos for four NBA Finals.