The NBA Needs Dumb Teams, And The Knicks Are Here To Help

The NBA seems to have figured some important things out about how to build a winning team. With some very important exceptions.
June 20, 2017, 7:01pm
Photo by Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports

When the sort of people that use the term "Woj-bomb" use the term Woj-bomb, they are referring to both a specific thing and a specific type of thing. It refers to a piece of breaking news or news-adjacent speculation broken by The Vertical reporter and editor Adrian Wojnarowski, but a Woj-bomb is also, in its ideal form, something startling and unforeseen.

So, for example: the news that the New York Knicks are considering trading the gangly and universally beloved 21-year-old prodigy Kristaps Porzingis, and considering it seriously enough to look into drafting a replacement for him in Thursday's draft, is a true Woj-bomb. The later reports that basically every team in the NBA was extremely interested in trading for Porzingis, in contrast, do not really rise to Woj-bomb status.

The first is baffling and new; the second is just the natural response of reasonable NBA executives to the possibility of acquiring one of the best young talents in the NBA. The first is unthinkable, but the second is merely obvious, or at least obvious to everyone but the Knicks.

The NBA is in a strange way at this moment. The league is healthy and wealthy and fun in a way it has seldom ever been before, but also top-heavy in a way that cast a dreary and inexorable fug over the playoffs right through the inevitable confetti storm and trophy presentations at Oracle Arena. Reasonable parties can disagree on whether the NBA's ongoing, Warriors-led stylistic revolution is good or less-good for the game, and about whether the overwhelming dominance of two super-teams is catastrophic or just kind of annoying. The superheated rumor churn of this last week suggests that everyone—superstars like Paul George and Jimmy Butler trying to put themselves where they want to be, teams like the Sixers and Celtics working on building teams that can compete in this strange new climate—at least understands the terms of the debate. Or everyone, again, but the Knicks.

There is a universe not that far from this one in which the Knicks, instead of looking to trade one of the most valuable players in the league, are at work on building a super-team of their own around him. In that universe, Phil Jackson could have been working with Carmelo Anthony to pitch a player like Chris Paul on signing with the Knicks as a free agent, and offering the opportunity to play with a certified star in Anthony, a rising one in Porzingis, and whatever prospect the team chooses with the eighth pick in the draft. There are some things that would need to be waved away in that pitch, from the presence of a stained prank bluesman in the owner's suite to a history of unbroken dysfunction dating back at least a generation. But it's a pitch that could be made.

When you're on the Knicks. Photo by Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

In this universe, though, Jackson and Anthony basically can't be in the same room after Jackson popped off with some Junior Soprano-style grousing about how his team's centerpiece star Never Had The Makings Of A Varsity Athlete. Jackson has done everything imaginable, and a few things I honestly could not have imagined, both to alienate Melo and depress his trade value, and he appears to have alienated and depressed Porzingis in the process. Porzingis returned to his native Latvia after skipping his exit interview with the Knicks at season's end, and no one from the team has had any contact with him since. Last year, Knicks assistant Josh Longstaff traveled and trained with Porzingis. The Knicks fired him.

It is very difficult to tell what the Knicks are doing, or indeed even trying to do. Jackson is clearly in charge at the Garden, but his authority has been exercised exclusively in reverse—by trying to tear down the team he built, by attempting to find players to plug into the antique offense that built his brand as a coach a couple decades ago, and most recently in undoing the one thing that he has demonstrably gotten right as the team's chief executive. A player like Porzingis is the reason that teams tank seasons; the NBA's economic structure makes players like Porzingis more valuable than all but the most elite superstars, because the value he creates so far exceeds his salary. He is, in just about every way, more valuable to the Knicks than Phil Jackson is. People that think about basketball the way that Phil Jackson does can, in 2017, be hauled out of diner booths in any of New York City's five boroughs. There's no telling when the universe is going to make another Kristaps Porzingis. The choice between paying Phil Jackson what he's paid for the work he does and paying Kristaps Porzingis what he's paid for the work he does—and will be paid, for the work he will do in the future—would not be a choice at all for just about any team in the NBA.

It's tempting, and maybe not wrong, to assert that the Knicks are the only team that could fuck up the great good fortune of having Kristaps Porzingis on the roster. But while much of the NBA reasons and reckons with the challenges of the NBA's current bipolarity, there are a few teams—teams like the Knicks if also distinct in their own dysfunctional ways—that are doing something different. The Knicks are performing some strange and bleak boomer-ish refusal of the future and retreating into vain nostalgia and sour fantasy.

The Bulls are listening to offers for star Jimmy Butler. Photo by David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

The Chicago Bulls, in their clubby and steakheaded stubbornness, are nearly as dysfunctional, to the point where the possibility of the team trading its best player is received as good news simply because it represents the possibility of something changing. The Orlando Magic are a vacation house whose owners have forgotten it exists. The Cleveland Cavaliers, who just parted with one of the best-respected executives in the league after three straight trips to the NBA Finals, are owned by possibly the only man alive possible of spoiling the blessing that is LeBron James. It is impossible to tell what the Sacramento Kings are doing, although it unsurprisingly seems to have something to do with iterating the hyperactive whims of their tech-lord owner. This is not an underclass, really; these teams are just going their own way, in defiance of their fans' hopes or the broader trajectory of the league or the general imperatives of progress.

It is a sad and frustrating thing to care about teams like this, not least because of how flagrantly and obviously the teams in question do not care themselves. But the NBA needs teams like this, in the same elemental way that fire needs oxygen. If every NBA team was reasonable, and did the things that reasonable teams do, the league would both make a lot more sense and be much more predictable. Winning teams are not possible without their opposites. The Knicks are flubbily reactionary where the rest of the league is giddily futuristic, they are rich and mean and fat and sad and determined to become only more so by any means necessary. Super-teams cannot exist in a universe that does not also contain their inverse; the Knicks, now and for the foreseeable future, are that.