Six years ago, New York magazine ran an article headlined “Absolutely, Positively the Worst Team in the History of Professional Sports,” about the New York Knicks. It was not hyperbole. The story detailed the “overaged frat house” culture established by team owner James Dolan, the paranoid locker room atmosphere, the disastrous trades and free agent signings, the lazy, petulant play on the court, and most of all, the haughty ineptitude of then-President and head coach Isiah Thomas. “Never has so much been spent for so little in the world of sports,” it concluded.
There’s a new contender for that title: It’s the 2014 New York Knicks. At 22 and 40, the team is all but out of the playoff picture. Their play is once again a monotonous succession of defensive lapses and disorganization. Later this month, a group of Knicks fans plans to protest outside Madison Square Garden. The organizers are angry over Dolan’s “failure to allow knowledgeable basketball people the autonomy/power to make basketball-related decisions.”
The New York article came at the close of the Thomas era; he was fired at season’s end in 2008. That was supposed to be the bottom. The franchise brought in local-kid-made-good Donnie Walsh to clean house. With Thomas gone, Walsh unloaded the team’s most expensive players and made room under the NBA salary cap to pursue LeBron James when he became a free agent in the summer of 2010. (A pair of excitable writers at New York penned an open letter to James inviting him to the city.) James didn’t come, but the Knicks did get a consolation prize in Amar’e Stoudemire. There was hope.
The following winter the Knicks traded for Carmelo Anthony, a proven scorer then with the Denver Nuggets. There were disturbing signs at the time. Well-sourced NBA writers reported that the exiled Thomas was behind the move, still whispering in Dolan’s ear. Walsh insisted the trade was his, then resigned as team president in the summer. But Knicks fans wanted to believe. Good things were happening. In 2011 the Knicks made the playoffs for the first time in seven years.
The next season brought “Linsanity.” In a February game against the New Jersey Nets, the injury-depleted Knicks turned to Jeremy Lin, a second-year guard at the bottom of the bench. He scored 25 points that night and, over the next month, lit the city and then the world on fire with his ecstatic play. Lin—young, unassuming, joyful, still improving, and cheap—was the perfect antidote to the Knicks of old. That year the team won a playoff game for the first time in 11 years.
In the off-season, in a reminder that they were still the Knicks, the team let Lin go to the Houston Rockets, who outmaneuvered them with a “poison pill” offer. Still, the team had Anthony and a great defensive force in center Tyson Chandler. They finished second in the Eastern Conference in 2013, and they even won a playoff series. Knicks fans could convince themselves they were a piece or two away from title contention.
They were, instead, on the brink of a familiar misery. This year the Knicks have not been above .500 since they won their first game of the season. They’ve lost 13 of their last 16. In a cruel but predictable twist, the Anthony trade cost the team a chance to land a possible franchise savior from a strong draft crop this summer. And Anthony, a potential free agent at the end of the season, is reportedly growing tired of losing. There’s no clear route to things improving anytime soon.
Last fall the team rehired Steve Mills, the man responsible for bringing in Thomas, as general manager. Mills was part of the group that cost the Knicks $11.6 million in a sexual harassment settlement and that former league Commissioner David Stern called “not a model of intelligent management.” In a preseason interview with the New York Post, Dolan attributed the Knicks’ management changes to advice from the consultants at McKinsey.
Luckily for McKinsey, everybody knows that Dolan doesn’t really care what anybody else thinks. To get a sense of the owner’s regard for outside opinion, take a look at the Madison Square Garden Co. (MSG) board of directors. As Anucha Browne Sanders, the former Knicks marketing executive who filed the sexual harassment suit against the team in 2006, told New York magazine six years ago, “There’s no way to fix the problem when the problem is ownership.”