New York City’s basketball soul is beyond dispute. And maybe — probably — Madison Square Garden really is the mecca of basketball that New Yorkers assure us it is.
But the mecca of championship basketball, at least in the NBA, is not up for debate. It is of course that other Garden — and by lineage, its lesser successor — in our driving-and-kicking city.
That doesn’t stop New York NBA fans and media from carrying themselves with exaggerated importance and accomplishment. New York treats the Knicks like they’ve made the history that the Celtics have made.
You almost want to point out that their last championship was a direct relation to a John Havlicek injury. But then you realize. That was 1972-73, so many seasons, so many Micheal Ray Richardsons and Bernard Kings and Patrick Ewings ago. And that was their last championship. You might sympathize, but they did put an official end to the new Big Three era last spring. So you snicker instead. The Knicks want admiration for their lore.They can’t have it. They get pity for their lack of any real lore in the last 40 years.
I suspect I don’t have to explain in rich detail, with diagrams featuring Pat Cummings and Ken Bannister and other Knicks of non-championship vintage, as to why I’m bringing this up now. So the synopsis: Phil Jackson, a dependable forward on their last great teams whose real NBA legacy is as the superstar-whisperer as the coach of 11 championship teams, is punctuating his career where the first sentence of his story was written.
He’s back, as the Knicks president, and if you listened closely during his introduction/homecoming Tuesday, you could almost hear the Knicks media humming “Glory Days” in unison.
Oh, there’s no doubting that this is a fascinating story. It’s almost worthy of the coverage it has received. Jackson is as compelling as he is successful, and all facetiousness and snark aside, those early-’70s Knicks teams are entirely worthy of the sepia-toned admiration with which New York hoops nuts remember them.
But a deeper reality seems to have been lost in the Celebration of Phil, Who Played With Clyde and Willis, You Know:
He’s not going to turn it around. Actually, let me temper that: if he even comes close to doing so, it will be the greatest accomplishment of his career.
The Knicks’ current roster doesn’t have much. No one is confusing J.R. Smith with Bill Bradley, you know? Tim Hardaway Jr. is doing a decent job carrying on the family name, and Iman Shumpert, who tortured Paul Pierce in the playoffs last year, would be a fine role player on a good team. But Jackson has famously picked his spots in the past, taking over ready-made rosters and pushing them over the top. Here, there is no Jordan. No Kobe. No Scottie. No Shaq. And not a hell of a lot of hope. The Knicks don’t even have a first-round pick this year or in ’16.
I’m a fan of Carmelo Anthony. He’s a joy to watch when those rainbow 20-footers are falling. But his approach to basketball — shoot first, shoot last, and pass only out of desperation or pity — comes straight from the ’70s. World B. Free, meet Carmelo K. Anthony. The only thing I’ll guarantee you after his stint with the Knicks is done is that Jackson trashes Melo with the Kobe treatment in his next candid book.
Anthony is a free agent after the season, and with millions coming off the books next season, the Knicks will have space to sign a prominent free agent or two in the summer after next. There’s talk of the usual big-ticket acquisitions — Kevin Love, maybe Rajon Rondo — and New York seems to be setting itself up to gets its hopes jilted by LeBron James again.
But as they learned when LeBron headed to Miami instead of New York, counting on an NBA superstar to choose your cold city is an uncertain way to salvage a franchise. Maybe if Jackson were the coach, his presence would have an effect. But as a front-office executive who may not have the patience to build? It’s hard to figure who he might lure there.
Know what I thought while watching the Knicks desperately fete Jackson? Thank goodness the Celtics aren’t making such a desperate lurch at respectability. With Danny Ainge and Brad Stevens and a stockpile of first-round picks (potentially 10 over the next five years), they’ve already taken major steps in a proper rebuilding process, less than a year after their last championship core was dismantled.
Jackson suggested the Knicks, lacking those picks, will build out the roster by mining under-appreciated talent from around the league. That sounds like a fine way to end up with a backcourt of fringe players familiar to Phil. Hello, Jordan Farmar and Devin Ebanks.
Meanwhile, the Celtics’ future is right there on your television screen. Spend even a little time watching the NCAA Tournament through the weekend, and you’re certain to see a Celtic or two of the near future.
It’s both amusing and reassuring when you think about it. The team with the higher banner count — the Celtics have won six of their 17 championships since the Knicks last won one — is starting fresh, preparing to build the foundation of their next great team.
Meanwhile, the franchise that should rebuild from scratch doesn’t have the assets to do so properly. The Knicks must hope against hope that a marquee free-agent chooses them in a couple of years. But for now they must turn to their distant past, one so much less impressive than the Celtics’, to find any shred of hope.
There’s so much to be determined, yet I can’t help but believe Celtics fans should like where this rivalry is headed. Because right now it sounds a whole lot like where it has been.