NEW YORK — Working at Madison Square Garden requires the acceptance, if not necessarily the understanding, of a few immutable truths.
To wit: It is never too soon to boo. It is never too early to panic. Patience is not an officially sanctioned virtue. Logic need not, and probably will not, apply to anything concerning the Knicks.
The boos and the brief “Fire Woodson” chant on Sunday sounded ominous enough, coming amid a 120-89 rout by the San Antonio Spurs that left the Knicks with an equally unsightly 2-4 record. But it is not the discontent in the upper deck that should concern the Knicks as much as the madness in the baseline seats by the home bench.
That is where James L. Dolan, the Garden chairman, resides.
Dolan is not known for his patience or, for that matter, his basketball acumen. Nor is he known as a man of realistic expectations. When the Knicks falter, Dolan crosses his arms and scowls. When they fail outright, he explodes, then takes out his frustration on the nearest available employee.
Even the dance team has felt the owner’s wrath, according to the New York Daily News, which reported last week that the impulsive Dolan had benched the dancers for reasons that remain unclear.
Team officials privately dispute those reports, but none have gone on the record to explain why the dance team, once a fixture, disappeared for two straight home games. (The dancers performed just once on Sunday, looking much crisper and competent than the Knicks themselves.)
If the dance team isn’t safe, no one is. Dolan removed his general manager, Glen Grunwald, on the eve of training camp. The next target, if the Knicks cannot steady themselves soon, could be Woodson, Grunwald’s college teammate.
Despite the $88 million payroll—the NBA’s second highest—this Knicks team is not built to contend for a title. It might not even be good enough to win a first-round playoff series, their limitations evident to everyone except their owner.
The Knicks’ flaws were on full display Sunday afternoon, as the Spurs methodically picked them apart with clever passes and backdoor layups. The team that coach Gregg Popovich grumpily called a “C-plus” outfit before tipoff looked ready for another trip to the NBA Finals.
The Spurs had 35 points in the first quarter, 61 points by halftime and a 37-point lead in the fourth quarter. San Antonio shot 54 percent for the game, while the predictable, isolation-heavy Knicks hit just 38 percent of their shots. They looked barely functional.
“Embarrassing,” said Carmelo Anthony, the Knicks’ star forward.
Woodson simply conceded, “We didn’t compete tonight.”
That has become an early and alarming theme. The Knicks have fallen behind by double digits in the first half of their last three home games. Their only victories so far have come against the Charlotte Bobcats and the Milwaukee Bucks, both likely lottery teams.
As of Sunday, the Knicks ranked 23rd in offensive efficiency and 18th in defensive efficiency. They were also the first team in the league to call a players-only meeting, which is never a good sign.
If the losing continues, there is no telling how Dolan might react. Woodson is vulnerable, despite having his 2014-15 option picked up last month. A hasty trade—perhaps involving Iman Shumpert—would surprise no one.
At the Garden, it’s never too early for a crisis.
“This city, and like you said, this organization, is not known for being patient,” Anthony said. “But right now we have to figure it out. If patience is the way to go, then patient we have to be. There’s no panic button being pushed right now.”
It is early, of course, and some caveats are warranted. The Knicks are missing their defensive linchpin, Tyson Chandler, who could miss four to six weeks after sustaining a small fracture in his right leg on Nov. 5. Having failed to sign a viable backup center, the Knicks are now starting Andrea Bargnani—a 7-footer who does not defend or rebound—with predictably awful results. Tony Parker repeatedly sliced his way to the basket on Sunday, going 8-of-12 from the field.
The Knicks have few other options. Amar'e Stoudemire and Kenyon Martin are both playing under medically imposed minutes restrictions, to preserve their fragile knees. Stoudemire logged just 13 minutes Sunday, finishing with two points and two rebounds. Martin never left the bench.
The Knicks are also trying to assimilate several new rotation players, which could take some time.
“That’s been the toughest part,” Woodson said before tipoff, although he quickly noted, “We had to do a lot of juggling last year. We seemed to make it work.”