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It appears Mets fans will be able to make the indisputable claim this Christmas that their team is a greater source of hope than the Knicks are for their own fans.
Let that marinate as you ponder how far the Knicks have veered off course under the stewardship of James L. Dolan.
The hint of consolation here, more than than 20 years removed from the team’s last trip to the N.B.A. finals, is that Dolan may even see it this time.
No, no: No one is suggesting that Dolan, like the Wilpon family with the Mets, is suddenly prepared to sell the team. There has been zero indication that Dolan will make the Knicks available to a hedge-fund billionaire, as the Wilpons have done in their advanced negotiations with Steven A. Cohen.
Yet I do think Dolan has reached the point where he understands, deep down, that the Steve Mills era cannot continue — and, most crucially, that the hiring of a proven program builder from outside the organization has to happen.
Hinting as this is as far as we dare go until Dolan actually severs ties with Mills and hires that top-tier external candidate. But there is a growing cadre of N.B.A. observers that believes Dolan is planning a legitimate campaign to try to lure Masai Ujiri away from the Toronto Raptors.
Better yet for long-suffering Knicks followers: There is no shortage of plugged-in league insiders who believe Ujiri can indeed be lured to Gotham — even after he just helped the Raptors win a storybook championship last season.
It naturally won’t be straightforward. We’re still talking, after all, about the Dolan Knicks.
In Toronto, Ujiri can keep making Knicks-level money and continue his happy coexistence with an ownership group that loves him unreservedly. He is also under contract to the Raptors through the 2020-21 season. Would the Knicks be willing to pay to bring him over from Canada sooner?
Trust us, though, when we say that the chance to run the Knicks — even at the lowest point (so far) in franchise history — would appeal to Ujiri or other top names in the business. The Knicks are on course for their sixth successive 50-loss season. Up is the only direction they can go.
And basketball immortality awaits the savior who can finally overcome the Dolan factor and drag the franchise back into the league’s elite.
There is certainly risk involved for Ujiri or anyone else from his stratosphere — such as San Antonio’s R.C. Buford or Golden State’s Bob Myers — who would let himself believe that Dolan is finally ready to give his top basketball executive something resembling real autonomy. The stain that a Knicks stint has left on everyone associated with the team in the 21st century besmirched even the résumé of Phil Jackson, whose name is as likely these days to be associated with a disastrous reign at Madison Square Garden as his record 11 championship rings as a coach.
The Zen master probably came the closest over these past two decades to wielding the requisite authority to do big things, but in truth he wasn’t granted nearly enough freedom to, say, oust Mills or revamp the team’s medical staff as he saw fit. It was also, above all, the wrong role for Jackson from the start. He’s the most successful coach in N.B.A. history, but he had never run a franchise.
Ujiri. Buford. Myers. Dallas’s Donnie Nelson — chiefly responsible for persuading the Knicks to surrender Kristaps Porzingis in a Jan. 31 trade that looks increasingly favorable for the Mavericks — is another good name with a championship pedigree.
Perhaps you will recall that this same newsletter advocated the same course for the Lakers in April after the unexpected resignation of Magic Johnson as team president. Breaking away from their stubbornly outdated practices to go outside the organization and sign a superstar general manager made too much sense. Rival teams were shocked (and relieved) at the time that the Lakers didn’t use their financial might to chase the likes of Myers or Buford in pursuit of the ultimate fresh start.
In the Knicks’ case, though, hiring someone like Ujiri to thoroughly clean house and start rebuilding is several notches more crucial than it was for the Lakers.
Despite the Lakers’ own six seasons of dysfunction, they still had LeBron James on the roster. LeBron’s presence, in turn, led to the trade acquisition of Anthony Davis. The Lakers, in spite of themselves, began the season with two of the game’s top five players to combat the longest playoff drought in franchise history.
The Knicks? Years of losing and Dolan’s meddling — along with the damage done by the unsavory treatment of Porzingis, Carmelo Anthony, Charles Oakley, etc. — prompted Kevin Durant to spell it out better than any scribe could.
“The cool thing right now is not the Knicks,” Durant said in an October radio interview as part of a lengthy explanation of why signing with the methodically built Nets was so much more appealing to him and Kyrie Irving.
There was such a symmetry last Thursday night, watching David Fizdale’s final game as the Knicks’ coach play out as the Dallas Cowboys were losing a crucial game at Chicago. The Knicks, fresh off a 44-point loss in Milwaukee, sealed Fizdale’s fate by losing to Denver at home by 37. You just knew it would be his last game in charge. You also knew that all eyes, as with the unraveling Cowboys and Jerry Jones, would immediately be riveted on Dolan.
History will show that Fizdale both got a raw deal and did a poor job in his mere 104 games in charge. Losses by a combined 81 points in his final two outings, combined with the Knicks’ gritty effort in a 1-point loss to Indiana in the debut of the interim coach Mike Miller, should tell you that Fizdale was no longer getting a response from his players. It wasn’t much of a roster to lose, overloaded with ill-fitting players and bereft of shooting and playmaking, but he did lose it.
Yet it’s also true, given the current setup, that Fizdale never had a chance. Mills and Knicks General Manager Scott Perry hired Fizdale over Mike Budenholzer — who, incidentally, is in the midst of a 15-game winning streak in Milwaukee — because they hoped Fizdale, a former Miami Heat assistant coach beloved by James and Dwyane Wade, could help restore some of that lost “cool” Durant was talking about. Fizdale knew the deal going in, but now we all see it clearer than ever: Only Dolan can effect real change.
But Dolan isn’t about to greenlight the sort of surprise sale talks that have suddenly made the long-suffering Mets public so giddy, but there are clear steps to take. No. 1: Suspend any urge to let Mills hire another coach. No. 2: Go all out for Ujiri or another G.M. from the highest pedigree, as he once did with Donnie Walsh, and then get out of the way, which he never quite managed with Walsh.
Is Dolan even capable of that? Will he finally look in the mirror? Will he finally get it right?
One of the craziest parts of this whole saga, to this relative Gotham newcomer, is that I think Knicks fans would actually forgive Dolan for so much of the misery if he managed to win the Masai sweepstakes — and then pledged to let Ujiri make his moves.
That’s how badly countless New Yorkers want the Knicks to be good.
The Scoop @TheSteinLine
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You ask; I answer. Every week in this space, I’ll field three questions posed via email at email@example.com. (Please include your first and last name, as well as the city you’re writing in from, and make sure “Corner Three” is in the subject line.)
Q: Do you believe the N.B.A. consensus has overestimated the likelihood of Kevin Durant’s ability to return to form from what has proven to be the most devastating injury for an N.B.A. player? The background for that question: There have been 35 N.B.A. players since the 1991-92 season who tore their Achilles’ and only one of the 35 — Dominique Wilkins — returned to top form. — Jason Fortin
STEIN: Not exactly, Jason. “Consensus” isn’t the right word here.
There was no shortage of naysayers who immediately said he would never be the same after tearing his Achilles’ tendon in Game 5 of the N.B.A. finals. So a successful Durant comeback is hardly considered an automatic.
The reality is that no one knows how Durant will bounce back a mere six months into his rehabilitation. Just don’t forget that the biggest names were all older than Durant when faced with an Achilles’ tear, which complicated their comebacks.
Dominique was 32. Isiah Thomas was 32 and never played again. Kobe Bryant was 34. Chauncey Billups was 35. Patrick Ewing was 36.
The daunting history of difficulties so many N.B.A. players have faced in recovering from an Achilles’ injury is well documented. Is Durant given more benefit of the doubt because he has such elite skill? That’s only part of it.
It also helps that he was just 30 when the injury occurred, carries so little weight on his slender frame and is regarded as a dogged worker in the gym — as Wilkins was when he made it back to an All-Star level. I would have bet on a robust Kobe comeback in his early 30s for the same reason.
I fall into the category forecasting more of a Nique-style comeback (or even better) because of Durant’s relentless work ethic — and because his offensive brilliance is not reliant on at-the-rim explosion. I would also argue that for all the risk involved, 29 other teams would have signed Durant to the contract the Nets did if they’d had the chance.
That includes the Knicks — no matter what was said or leaked about their reluctance after the fact. Durant’s talent is too tantalizing.
Does 70 wins even matter? — @BBennett1992 from Twitter
STEIN: On Friday night, after Milwaukee routed the Los Angeles Clippers on Giannis Antetokounmpo’s 25th birthday, I tweeted about how real the 70-win talk generated by the Bucks in the season’s opening quarter was starting to feel.
This question falls right in line with growing apathy about the regular season that plagues the N.B.A. these days: Who really cares about a 70-win season?
My interest, of course, isn’t necessarily rational and won’t help the Bucks one whit in their far more important quests — getting to the N.B.A. finals, at the very least, to give Giannis every reason to sign a contract extension when he’s eligible to in July.
But I would be at the front of the line lauding the Bucks — last season’s only 60-win team — if they got to 70. I’d even like to believe that basketball karma will more often than not reward those who treat the regular season so seriously.
The 2015-16 Golden State Warriors (73-9) and the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls (72-10) are the only teams to cross the 70-win threshold in N.B.A. history. Those Warriors, of course, blew a 3-1 series lead in the N.B.A. finals, which certainly doesn’t help my argument. How much did hoop karma do for Golden State?
Yet I will continue to say that Golden State’s 82 games that season, and specifically its ridiculous 24-0 start, remain one of the wildest (and most memorable) rides I have ever witnessed in nearly 30 years of covering the game. There would be something undeniably special if the Bucks, especially in these load management times, could follow suit and win 70-plus of their own in a season with so much riding on it — even if a 70-win season doesn’t guarantee anything.
I’m not saying they need to chase a 70-win season. But I hope they don’t fight it, either.
The Bucks, for the record, are keeping Giannis under 32 minutes per game, which would represent his lowest figure since his second N.B.A. season in 2014-15. They’re really not behaving like they’re chasing anything.
Who’s better at age 25 — Giannis or Raheem Sterling? — Matt Sewell
STEIN: Good one, Matt. This Manchester City fan appreciates the effort.
Sterling celebrated his 25th birthday two days after Antetokounmpo’s, so hopefully I can get away with answering this one on a timeliness basis. But we’re stretching to draw any further link between them.
Giannis has responded to last season’s playoff disappointment in the Eastern Conference finals, along with a rough FIBA summer with the Greek national team, by taking his game up multiple notches. The league’s reigning Most Valuable Player Award winner, as a result, is the overwhelming favorite to win it again.
Even with his minutes reduction, Antetokounmpo is averaging better than 30 points per game for the first time (30.9), thanks in part to the career-best 10.8 free throws per game he’s generating as well as his career-high 5.0 attempts from 3-point range per game. Shooting a passable 31.9 percent from deep, Giannis is giving off the strong vibe that he’s only going to get better.
Sterling reached new levels last season under Pep Guardiola and has become one of the pillars of England’s national team. But it’s much tougher for one soccer player to have the same sort of impact one basketball player can have in a five-on-five sport. And Sterling, objectively, can’t even be described as the best player on his club; Kevin De Bruyne, Sergio Aguero and Ederson are all ahead of him on this scorecard.
Do we already have our eight playoff teams in the East? To put it another way: Of the East’s bottom seven teams through Monday’s play, who can you see making a real push for the postseason? The No. 9 Pistons, mired at 10-14, are really the only team of those seven that began the season with playoff expectations. Even at this early juncture of the season, it’s a reasonable question.
This is a natural time, now that each team has passed the 20-game marker, to check in on one of my favorite statistics: plus/minus ratings for teams. The problem, not surprisingly, is that the league’s only two 20-win teams — 21-3 Milwaukee and the 21-3 Lakers — are inevitably tied at the top of the league in this category as well at plus-9, which is calculated by subtracting home losses from road wins. The 4-19 Knicks find themselves in the league’s plus/minus basement at minus-9. The 5-20 Warriors, by contrast, are only minus-5, thanks to their three road wins.
There are five players averaging more than 90 touches per game: Dallas’s Luka Doncic (96.0), the Lakers’ LeBron James (93.2), Denver’s Nikola Jokic (91.6), Philadelphia’s Ben Simmons (90.4) and Toronto’s Kyle Lowry (90.3). Houston’s James Harden (88.5) isn’t far off.
The most impressive aspect of the Bucks’ current 15-game winning streak: Milwaukee was 7-0 while Khris Middleton, its second-leading scoring, was out with a thigh injury.
Mike Miller on Friday became the 30th Knicks head coach in franchise history when he was named the interim replacement for the fired David Fizdale. At 21-83, Fizdale posted a winning percentage of .202, which ranks as the lowest for Miller’s 29 predecessors. Miller, 55, coached the Knicks’ G League team for four seasons before being called up to the major league staff this season.