Garden of Misfit Toys

American sports are famous for producing dynasties; teams, franchises, and programs that dominate year after year, winning championship after championship. A few that come to mind are Nick Saban’s Crimson Tide, the New York Yankees of late 90s, the Chicago Bulls during Michael Jordan’s prime, and whatever team Kevin Durant decides to play for each year. Dynasties are both baffling and unbearable. Achieving excellence over multiple seasons is something that garners incredible respect, but nobody watches sports to see the same team win year after year.


But what do we call the opposite of a dynasty? Is there a name for that? What do we call a team that performs at the highest level when it comes to finding a new rock bottom each season?


Well, there’s no need to waste time guessing, that team already exists—my New York Knicks—and there is no one better at being the worst. Since before I could walk, the New York Knickerbockers have been in constant competition for the worst team in the NBA, and they can’t even be lucky enough to draw first pick in the lottery. The days when The Garden was Eden feel more like a fairytale for Knicks fans than illustrious history.


The last time the Knicks won an NBA Championship, my Nonna was still perfecting her English, my father was preparing for his first day of school in the Bronx, and Tricky Dick was loitering around the Oval Office. The only scent of a championship since the glorious seasons of ’70 and ’73 came in the 1990s, strictly during the seasons that Michael Jordan decided to spare the league from his dominance. But even then, the Knicks managed to be on the embarrassing end of historical NBA moments. To this day, my father scoffs at the sight of Reggie Miller, “I drove all the way to The Garden hours before tipoff just to see that scrawny b*****d embarrass us as Spike Lee egged him on.” Despite two NBA Finals appearances in ’94 and ’99, the Knicks of the 90s are mostly remembered for blowing leads to Miller and the Pacers in historic fashion.


Although recently named the 3rd most valuable sports team in the world, the Knicks have become the laughingstock of sports since the turn of the century. The franchise has become the lowest hanging fruit for hungry, talentless sports writers in need of a generating a few clicks. It might even be considered an accomplishment by some for a team to be so historically bad that they end up being made fun of in Disney-Pixar’s film, Soul. However, when looking at the Knicks performances and accompanying blunders over the years, it is hard to blame anyone for cracking a joke. From 2001 to 2020, the Knicks made the playoffs only five times, with just one series win. In that same time span, there was no team with a worse winning percentage than Madison Square Garden’s very own. The last decade, in particular, has seen the historic “mecca of basketball” resemble more of a circus than the world’s most famous arena. The MSG circus truly began when the infamous James Dolan—widely believed to be one of the worst owners in sports history—took over in 1999. A brief skim of the extensive controversies involving Dolan on his Wikipedia page give a good enough idea as to why the Knicks have been in ruin for so long. But it was the decision to hire NBA legend, Phil Jackson, as president of basketball operations in 2014 that ended up cementing Dolan’s embarrassing legacy in sports history. Despite his unmatched resume, a 2x champion as a Knick and 11x champion as a head coach, Jackson brought the franchise to new depths with an unforgettable series of atrocious moves. After Jackson was fired in 2017, the state of the once storied franchise was somehow worse than ever. A total of 38 wins from 2018 to 2020 indicated the Knicks were hellbent on continuing the long tradition of dumpster-diving in Madison Square Garden for the foreseeable future.


All things considered, the 2020-21 season was expected to be just another season of the Knicks traveling comedy club. The preseason predictions by ESPN and Bleacher Report gave the team a 2% chance to make the playoffs (24.7 wins) and a 0% chance to make the playoffs (13 wins) respectively. A new front office, led by Leon Rose, and a new head coach in Tom Thibodeau brought little fanfare, but attracted much criticism over Thibodeau’s workhorse coaching style. The running theme with the Knicks was any coach who dared to take the job was doomed to fail as the roster was believed to be utterly hopeless. The immense criticism and low expectations set the stage for one of the most surprising regular season teams in the last 15 years.


Perhaps ‘surprising’ is an understatement. ‘Shocking’ may be a better word as the usual ESPN personalities almost choked at the realization that they couldn’t kill airtime by joking about the Knicks that season. The NBA writers, TV personalities, and fans struggled to wrap their heads around how the Knicks clawed their way to the 4th seed in the eastern conference playoffs. In all fairness, it was hard to hold the confusion against them. Every single player on the roster was  doubted, written off, counted out, or flat out disrespected by the media, fans, or other NBA figures.


Doubt can be tough for players, especially players that have yet to play their first NBA game. Few rookies were as doubted and disrespected as Immanuel Quickley, New York’s late first round pick. Even fewer would let that spark a season-long revenge tour. The night he was drafted, Gary Parrish of CBS Sports slapped a D+ grade on the 25th overall pick being used for Quickley—who Parrish claimed was drafted about 30 spots higher than he was worth. By the end of the season, CBS Sports actually apologized to Quickley after he dazzled his way to All-Rookie honors. The young sharpshooter out of Kentucky proved he was the gem of the draft and fit perfectly with the team, especially with another rising, young star on the roster.


If I told you to think of a current young player putting himself in the company of Hall of Fame legends, I guarantee you were not thinking of RJ Barrett. To this day, critics mock the Knicks, saying Barrett is the sad consolation prize for losing out on Zion Williamson. This is wildly untrue. Despite being labeled as the 3rd player taken in a 2-player draft, Barrett is well on his way to NBA stardom. In fact, he has posted more than 2,000 points, grabbed 500 boards, and dished 300 assists before turning 21. Before Barrett, there were only eight players in NBA history to do so: Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett, LeBron James, Tracy McGrady, Carmelo Anthony, Kevin Durant, and Luka Doncic. It might be time to take notice of Barrett, especially after the incredible improvements in his sophomore season. He improved in almost every statistical category. With the influence and leadership of veterans on the team, Barrett is only going to get better.


Effective veteran leadership is one of the most important factors to any great team. That is what made Julius Randle and Derrick Rose so valuable, and what earned each a contract extension this offseason. Just think, what would the 2020-21 New York Knicks have been without Randle and Rose? The answer is simple—the usual Knicks I love and loathe, a young core with no direction. These two are the heart and soul of this brazen band of misfits, and up until last season, they were both believed to be on the steep decline of their careers.


I myself wanted Randle boxed up and shipped out of New York overnight before last season. He was clearly a gifted scorer, he just seemed like an awful fit in the Garden. The overused spin-move and inefficient play drove all New York fans halfway up the Empire State Building. But over the offseason, Randle worked on his scoring abilities and then some. He became the leader and the star. He was not only the best scorer, but he has an incredible ability to create open looks for the rest of his team. This put him in complete control of the game. Randle turned himself into “King Randle.”. He was voted the Most Improved Player, but Randle didn’t stop there as he and another Knick finished in the top 10 in MVP voting.


Derrick Rose was acquired by the Knicks via a trade with the Detroit Pistons on February 7th of 2021. At the time, the Knicks showed potential, but were still 11-14. Although the trade generated buzz, it was not expected to make much of an impact. Rose was on his fourth team in less than five years, well removed from his MVP days, and his first stint with the Knicks in 2016 did not live up to expectations. All that uncertainty faded as Rose took the floor for his first game. The impact was instantaneous, the leadership was monumental, and Derrick Martell Rose took the Knicks from borderline good to great. After the trade, the Knicks went 30-17 on the rest of the season, and Rose was an instant spark whenever needed. He never failed to deliver in big moments, and he fearlessly stepped up in the playoffs as the team struggled. Having spent his prime days under coach Thibodeau, Rose was playing with a confidence and ease we haven’t seen in years. After years of injuries, most men would have called it a career, but that isn’t Derrick Rose. He gave the big apple another shot, and became beloved by coaches, teammates, and fans. It seems the Rose Garden has finally bloomed in New York, and the former award winner once again found himself receiving a first-place vote for league MVP.


Restoring the feeling of hope in the Garden is something that deserves a round of applause. There is no denying that the NBA itself is much better off when its most valuable team is competing in the postseason. However, as much as I want to, I can’t call it a comeback yet. There is still a lot to be done, and one season of success and making the playoffs does not mean the comeback is complete. After all, the Hawks did handle the Knicks in five games. The stellar additions of Kemba Walker and Evan Fournier can definitely take this team to the next level, but you truly never know in New York. Yes, last season felt like a dream come true, but this season the Knicks need to prove their return is a reality.