This Diwali, it seems that the everlasting lights of New York City has finally received the promised prosperity of the festival for the Knicks. With a newfound stability, my beloved NBA team could finally shed decades of their cursed spell.
– Karan Madhok / @KaranMadhok1
As per a Diwali legend, on the night of the Hindu festival, Lakshmi—the goddess of wealth and prosperity—wanders the world looking for a welcoming home to visit. This is why families do their best to attract the goddesses’ attentions: holding a special puja, cleaning their homes the best they can, decorating with diyas and lights, and placing auspicious decoration at the front door, all to ensure Lakshmi’s company after the last harvest of the season—before the long, cold winter.
If that is really the case, then it seems like the everlasting lights of New York City—the city of never sleeps—has finally received its overdue visit from Lakshmi. For the New York Knicks, the last season marked a genuine sense of relief, an emergence from years of darkness and gloom, like Ram, Lakshman, and Sita making their return from exile. And so far in the young 2021-22 season, the Knicks have continued their positive momentum with a decent early start that signals playoffs contention again.
Because of the city they call home, the real estate of their home court at the Madison Square Garden, their broadcasting deals, and ad revenue, the Knicks are consistently ranked as the NBA’s most valuable team—giving them no shortage of Lakshmi’s promised wealth.
But that wealth has rarely translated to on-court prosperity; despite an ardent fan-base and the attraction of a big market, the Knicks have only won two NBA titles in their 74 years of history—the last one coming in 1973, nearly half a century ago.
Even growing up nearly 13,000 kilometers away from New York City, I found myself fawning over the blue, orange, and white of the Knicks in their last golden era of the 90s—particularly during the 1998-99 lockout-shortened season when they became the first (and only) eighth-seeded team to make the NBA Finals. It was a magical underdog story. I was a teenager already obsessed with basketball and the NBA, looking for a team to plant my flag in; the ’99 playoff made me a mostly-monogamous fan in this new long-distance relationship.
Unfortunately, it has been mostly downhill ever since. After the year 2000, the Knicks have only won one playoff series. With a number of tumultuous coaching and GM decisions, expensive contracts that set development back by years, terrible trades that traumatized fans, bad behaviour by the team’s notorious owner, most of the past 20 years were a recurring nightmare, season after season of worst-case scenarios.
The exceptions were few and far in-between—Linsanity, Carmelo Anthony’s solitary first-place MVP vote, pre-injury Kristaps Porzingis—but all in all, the Knicks became the NBA’s marquee meme for dysfunction and disillusion.
But, like manic devotees worshipping an unloving goddess, Knicks’ fans are a fervent tribe, sticking with the dysfunction through thick and thin (but mostly thin) and through elation and embarrassment (but mostly embarrassment).
These knickerbockers are a vessel of pure joy ✨✨✨
— Karan Madhok (@KaranMadhok1) November 6, 2021
For the majority of these years, the Knicks often tried to go for the easy fix, pinch-hitting with big-shot sixers, instead of building a solid rhythm and partnership. And to extend that cricketing analogy, their recklessness in taking the big shot often left their wicket unguarded.
Year after year, the Knicks chose short-term hype over prudent team construction. Year after year, their endeavors failed; from Eddy Curry to Jerome James, Allan Houston’s extension to the Bargnani trade, the Knicks were stuck in a cycle of bad contracts, unhappy players, injured players, unfitting coaches, misbehaving GMs, and much-despised owner James Dolan.
Dolan is still in-charge, but in the last two years, the front office has finally been able to break the franchise out of this ominous orbit.
It all began with a heartbreak – yes, another one. In January 2019, the Knicks shocked the world by trading fan favorite Kristaps Porzingis to the Dallas Mavericks. Porzingis, a seven-footed young star from Latvia, was drafted by the Knicks in 2015 and had soon become a cult favorite for the fanbase. His size, shooting range, and defensive potential seemed to point towards future greatness. By his third season, Porzingis had become an All-Star.
But all was not well, and the Knicks’ curse of injury and disillusionment returned like déjà vu. Porzingis tore his ACL in February 2018 and was ruled out for the rest of the season. The Knicks decided against signing him to a rookie extension in the summer. With the team continuing to lose, the Knicks succumbed to Porzingis’ trade demand. Their return for the loss of this young star—still only 23 at the time—was considered to be measly by most NBA experts. It seemed that they were back to square one. At least there was cap space now—and a number of future picks.
In the past, cap space and picks has usually spelled disaster, a situation where the Knicks do what they do worst: going for the unsuccessful big shot. Like other teams, the Knicks targeted superstar free agents Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving that summer; instead, both players chose New York’s other team—the Brooklyn Nets—to immediately form a new contender.
The Kristaps Porzingis trade turned out to be a blessing in disguise
Knicks fans’ hopes were dashed a third time in the lottery for the 2019 draft, where the prize was scintillating young Duke University superstar Zion Williamson. The lottery was won by the New Orleans Pelicans, who picked Williamson. The Knicks ended up with the third pick and had to ‘settle’ for his college teammate RJ Barrett.
The team also made a number of somewhat-puzzling moves in the offseason, signing a number of players to short-term deals, including former Pelican Julius Randle. Randle, a former high pick himself, had already been in the league five years by that point, but his career hadn’t yet taken a star turn.
After another underwhelming season, the Knicks hired Tom Thibodeau in 2020, a defensive mastermind and one of the most respected coaches in the league. Almost immediately, Thibodeau righted the ship on the defensive end, making the Knicks one of the toughest teams in the league to score against.
Randle thrived in the system as the team’s primary option and made the first All-Star game of his career. Barrett improved on every end, particularly as a three-point threat. Underrated rookie Immanuel Quickly became a fan favorite with explosive performances off the bench. And a midseason trade reunited ex-MVP Derrick Rose with Thibodeau. A variety of injuries had dramatically cut short Rose’s superstar trajectory, but he was just the injection of offense that Knicks needed to boost the team.
This cocktail of chemistry, defense, and Randle’s dominance made the Knicks—expected by many bookmakers to finish at last place in the East—the biggest surprise in the league.
By the time the season ended, the Knicks had posted an impressive 41-31 record, good for fourth place in the conference and a home-stand in their long-overdue return to the playoffs. Thibodeau took home the Coach of the Year award.
Despite frenzied energy from the local fans, the first round of the playoffs against the Atlanta Hawks was a dud. Randle came up short under the pressure, and the Knicks’ lack of elite playmakers was exposed. Hawks’ guard Trae Young carved up New York’s defense and became the city’s favorite new basketball villain since Reggie Miller.
Still, the disappointment of how the last season ended couldn’t mask the overall feeling of optimism in Knicksphere. The team was not terrible, and most importantly, they weren’t an embarrassment anymore.
Have the Knicks learned their lesson from last year’s playoffs?
Over the most recent offseason, the Knicks chose to add players that fit their needs, solving their biggest problem of perimeter creation and pick and roll offense with the addition of Evan Fournier and Kemba Walker.
All of this brings us back to the present day. So far in the 2021-22 season, the Knicks have again started better than expected. In Thibodeau, they have a coach who is a true ‘floor raiser’, as in someone who ensures that even the worst teams do better than expected of them. Randle has extended long-term with the team and now has more help on the offensive end.
Barrett has shown early flashes of growing confidence – he could be one of the most improved players in the league this season. Mitchell Robinson, the talented big who was injured much of last season, has returned healthy to guard the post. The core Walker, Quickley, Rose, Fournier, Toppin, Burks, Noel, and more, make it one of the deepest squads in the league.
The Knicks stand 6-4 at the time of writing. Even the biggest Knicks optimist—such as myself—will be hard-pressed to believe that this year’s team could do better than last season’s surprise fourth-place finish; the conference seems to be far more competitive this time around.
But for the first time in years, the Knicks have seemed to figure out what not to do in the spirit of Diwali. The management was careful in its gambles, kept a cool head in their transactions, and most importantly, favored the growth of team chemistry and culture.
This is a roster of players that the Knicks fanbase truly loves, and features a number of young players who could be the pillars of the team’s future.
The wealth is there, and so is the prosperity. All I hope for now is a little more Lakshmi, the type of blessings that could finally deliver a championship in the coming years.