The Knicks, flexibility, and hope

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NBA fans love them some flexibility.

If a team is heading into a season as a true title contender—and in most seasons this number is scant—its fans are cool. If not, its fans yearn for flexibility. Teams deemed to have flexibility can be of many varieties: A team who is tanking and stockpiling draft picks and hoping to eventually land a franchise player on the cheap, or a team with tradeable assets and cap space who can grab a difference maker at the deadline or in free agency. What nobody wants their team to be is stuck in the middle. In the NBA, being strapped with a team that’s not good enough to contend is a death sentence. A lot of fans would rather watch their team win 14 games for three straight seasons than have them win in the mid 40s and lose in the second round of the playoffs, as long as there is a plan in place. But everyone has a plan, even if its a dead end. What we really mean, in the NBA, when we say that a team “has a plan”, is that nobody knows what they’re going to look like in two or three seasons. They have flexibility.

For fans, flexibility equals hope. It equals optimism. It’s how you get from a column titled, simply, “The Knicks Suck” to one written seven months later about the the Knicks maybe moving in the right direction. A lot has certainly changed in the time between those articles were posted, the biggest of all being that Phil Jackson is now running things. Phil’s first major player move involved the Knicks actually receiving draft picks in a trade and shedding an unwanted player on another team, things the Knicks usually take the other side in doing.

Most sane people recognize that the NBA is a player’s league, and you’re basically Sandra Bullock-in-Gravity if you don’t have star players. Carmelo Anthony is a star player. He is a flawed, often times one-dimensional one, but his talent is undeniable. We’re just over a year removed from him carrying the Knicks to 54 wins and a second round playoff appearance, a feat that looks all the more impressive in contrast to 2013-14′s dumpster fire of a campaign. But it’s been proven that in the modern NBA, you need to build correctly around your stars. Look no further than this past season’s Miami Heat, who won 54 games (same as the 2012-13 Knicks) and got waxed in the NBA Finals because the team around the unquestioned greatest player on earth wasn’t nearly good enough. Building well-rounded teams and surrounding your best talent with good fits has always been the blueprint. But you’re going nowhere if you don’t have the key talent in place.

It’s been debated whether or not Anthony is that guy, and that debate will continue. But what the Knicks have done since Jackson took over is create the scenario where he doesn’t have to be. Or, if he does have to be, that they can build properly around him. There are a few models one can point to. Firstly, the Boston Celtics’ “Big Three” of the late 2000s was only possible because Paul Pierce was in tow. And it’s certainly worth remembering that before Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen came aboard and Celtics started, you know, winning, Pierce wasn’t exactly thought of as a “winner”, as he is now. The Celtics needed to get the requisite, well-meshed talent around Pierce to win, and Danny Ainge was able to, despite a bumpy relationship with Celtics fans to that point. Ditto for the Dallas Mavericks, another team with a star in Dirk Nowitzki that many thought would never win, until they did in 2011.

No situations are the same. The Celtics and Mavericks’ models are difficult to replicate, but they act as a blueprint. Those teams had flawed stars in place, but had that all-important flexibility which enabled their front offices to construct a contender. The building has only begun for the Knicks, but at least the Knicks seem to be finally, actually, be building. In addition to Carmelo being on board, they’ll will have crucial cap space heading into next offseason (and perhaps beyond if they don’t use it—which, remember they don’t have to), they own their first round draft choice in the coming draft (for once), and suddenly have a litany of young talent that could either blossom into a core or be attractive to others in trades.

As of now, the Knicks are still far off from title contention. But in the NBA, you don’t have to know you’re a title contender today. You just have to know that a title in the near future is possible.

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