D’Antoni and Walsh are smart, capable men, proven professionals who have turned around other franchises and knew what they were getting into here. The job made sense for both of them, and not just because of the money. Coming to the Knicks after Isiah’s reign of terror meant basement-level expectations: They earned a year of latitude by simply not being Isiah. That they even had a plan at all was refreshing.
You can see how appealing this plan must have looked in theory. Now that they’re living it, though, you have to wonder how long it will be before they crack. (Particularly D’Antoni: His chuckles are not of resignation. They sound more like the losing has driven him batty.) This is a truly wretched basketball team, worse than even Walsh and D’Antoni could have anticipated. The Knicks lost eight of their first nine games with essentially the same cast as last season, plus two first-round draft picks who were supposed to help. The defense has been porous even for a D’Antoni “Seven Seconds or Less” team—the Knicks seem incapable of guarding the backdoor, a play so ancient it was quaint in Hoosiers—and no one can hit a jump-shot. Gallinari, the team’s most prized youngster, whom D’Antoni has called “the best shooter I’ve ever seen,” is gimpy, slow, and maddeningly inconsistent. Veterans Larry Hughes, Al Harrington, Jared Jeffries, and (especially) Chris Duhon look sluggish and uninterested. Jordan Hill, the eighth overall pick in the draft, has barely played. (D’Antoni said, “He has a ways to go. He looked a bit like a deer in the headlights,” and Walsh is kicking himself for drafting Hill over electric Bucks point guard Brandon Jennings.)
You have to feel for Walsh and D’Antoni, who are going to be inhaling the stink of failure every day until the season mercifully ends in April. But this was the plan, the only plan they had. In theory, the team is stripped down, cleared out for the big free agents they can throw money at this summer. Maybe it’ll work, maybe it won’t, but it’s all they have. In practice, though, it’s just one endless slog, which has to be gnawing them from the inside no matter how much they mentally prepared themselves for it. The Knicks have some of the best fans, executives, and coaches in the NBA, and this is what they have to show for it every night. Isiah Thomas’s ghost might still be haunting this franchise—remember, he traded the Knicks’ first-round pick next June for Stephon Marbury—but Isiah Thomas the human being doesn’t have to watch this team anymore. We do.
S o what is a fan to do? You can try to find hope in the young guys: Gallinari, Hill, Wilson Chandler, the promising rookie Toney Douglas, a late first-round pick whose spirited play partially redeems Walsh for not picking Jennings. The Garden still has its charm and grandeur even with this team of zombies on the court. True fans persevere through times like these. We might bitch, we might moan, but we keep watching. We don’t avert our eyes. We don’t find better things to do with our time. Because the good times will return eventually, and when they do, who wants to be accused of being a fair-weather fan? Losing makes the eventual victories that much more earned; ask any Red Sox fan. So when the Knicks finally start winning someday, and the sun is shining, and the Garden is shaking again, we can say with pride that we were there back in 2009–10, when all was lost, when Al Harrington drove recklessly into double teams, when Chris Duhon took naps on the court, when the franchise just ran out the clock on two whole seasons. Until then, we need patience. We need endurance. We need a high threshold for pain. And we need $411.17 a game for four average-price tickets, two small draft beers, four small soft drinks, four regular-size hot dogs, parking for one car, two game programs, and two least-expensive, adult-size adjustable caps.