The 2013-14 New York Knicks were supposed to be fun. The plan was to use last year's 54-win season as a springboard for a championship campaign this time around. The team had high hopes. The fans had lofty expectations.
But then the Knicks happened.
Dumb decisions, both on and off the court, derailed this team before it ever got going. By the time the calendar hit 2014, all was lost. While the season went by in car-crash slow motion, it is still hard to fully understand what happened. That is, until you start untying picking apart the wreckage.
The old adage that you would rather be lucky than good rings true in the NBA. No matter how talented the team, luck plays a role along the way. A team needs to be lucky to stay healthy over the course of the year and to land the right matchups come playoff time. But while a dash of good fortune is vital for any contender, smart organizations do everything in their power to make their own luck.
The Knicks? Not so much. They take the cross-your-fingers-and-hope-nothing-goes-wrong approach.
Sure, Tyson Chandler got hurt early on, and the team lost a key veteran in Kenyon Martin. But those were always potential potholes, and the team did nothing to fill them during the offseason. I mean, who in their right mind thought Martin was going to last 82 games?
Ultimately, luck had nothing to do with this year's failures. The Knicks spent the offseason making the wrong decisions—and the regular season acting them out.
If the Knicks were a house torched with flames, the arsonists came from within. The list of suspects:
Fresh off an improbable but well-deserved Sixth Man of the Year award, J.R. Smith regressed back into the streaky jump-shooter he had always been. It was as if he forgot that his best months as a pro came last spring when he shifted away from fall-away jumpers and finally started attacking the rim. He went from averaging 3.1 free throws per game before the All-Star break to an improved 5.1 per game thereafter. In doing so, he wrapped up his award-winning season and shut up his critics.
For all of 10 minutes.
This year, JR devolved back into the shooter he has always been. He has not averaged more than 2.6 free-throw attempts per game in a single month this season. Classic post-contract regression.
Not to mention, there was this veiled but obvious shot at the Knicks brass for "backstabbing him" when the team cut his brother, Chris Smith. You know, that same brother who never should have made the team in the first place but was given a guaranteed check just to make JR happy. Right, right, that one. Probably not a backhanded comment worth making next time around.
Oh right, and the aforementioned shoelace-gate. What a season for JR!
Joe Namath before the Super Bowl. Mark Messier before Game 6. These are the guarantees New York sports fans remember. But who could forget when the front man from JD and the Straight Shot guaranteed—mid-concert, mind you—that the Knicks would beat the Atlanta Hawks back during the second week of the young season:
A lot of good comes from turning a ho-hum regular-season matchup into a "must win" game for a coach and a team that was struggling out the gate. Six games into the season. Six games. And Dolan thought it wise to make a completely unnecessary guarantee that accomplished nothing other than adding extra weight to his team's shoulders. In hindsight, maybe not the best course of action, James.
Amid his horrible play, and never-ending decision to duck under every pick and screen set his way (because that's never a bad idea), Raymond "Don't Call Me Fat, I'm Just Big Boned" Felton got himself arrested and may very well be playing his final games in a Knicks uniform this week.
This is no laughing matter, and Felton's play did not suffer much from this distraction—hard to play much worse than he had been before the arrest—but it is another example of the type of decision-makers the Knicks were banking on this season.
Felton's worst decision of the year came off the court, but his decision making on the floor was lacking as well.
A coach who seemed to have so much promise midway through last season came crashing back down to earth in the 18 months since.
Beginning in last year's playoff series against the Indiana Pacers, Woodson showed a remarkable inability to make decisions on the fly and be flexible within the context of a situation. He got out coached and out manuvered that entire series, playing checkers to Frank Vogel's chess. He refused to play then red-hot Chris Copeland over J.R. Smith, who, after his one game suspension for elbowing Jason Terry in the series prior, could not hit a shot to save his life. (Or, as it turned out, to save his value on the free agency market.)
Since that Game 6 loss, Woodson has continued to stumble over himself. His ongoing refusal to think outside the box in any way, or tweak his system to fit the players on the floor has been maddening to watch. His commitment to doing things his way, as the losses continued to mount, killed the Knicks' chances of rebounding from their lackluster start.
Oh, and switching on everything is not a scheme.
When your veteran defensive anchor is calling you out for getting out-schemed, you know something has gone terribly, terribly wrong.
Decision-making at its finest. Your bad indeed, Bargnani.
As the season comes to a close, the Knicks are going to have to answer a lot of questions—about Carmelo Anthony's future, about a new head coach, about how to revamp a roster without picks or cap space. In his inaugural offseason, Phil Jackson should also make sure to secure the services of some good decision-makers, both on and off the court, to help captain this sinking ship.
Otherwise, if the Knicks hope to avoid a repeat of this season, they are going to have to get very lucky to get even a little bit better.