The New York Knicks and the Savior Complex
Fans of New York’s basketball team are craving a big trade to jump-start their contention for titles, but is this thirst for a messiah misguided?
The New York Knicks in the last 40 years can be categorized as a team that strived for an A-grade but has perpetually lived in B+ territory. In 1985, the team won the draft lottery and drafted Patrick Ewing. But as great as Patrick was, he was not Michael Jordan. In the 2000s, the team made deep playoff runs with Larry Johnson and Allan Houston. And as talented as they were, they were not good enough to compete with the last years of Jordan and eventually the budding dynasty in Los Angeles with Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal. And when the team got another superstar after the Ewing era in Carmelo Anthony, he ultimately was not LeBron James and the team was just not good enough yet again.
On top of this, the Knicks are often linked with superstar trades since they play in such a large market. When they miss out on these players the narrative that New York cannot obtain the big-name player intensifies. This constant sense of failure in obtaining high-level talent has created a dynamic within the Knicks fan base with built-in pressures on anyone that runs the organization. The Knicks are now a team and fan base that feels it needs a savior, seeking a trade for a player that can transform the franchise from a cellar-dweller to competing for a championship overnight. But is the mentality the right approach or is it one that is destined for disappointment year after year?
What is the Savior Trade?
A classic example of a savior trade is when the Knicks acquired Carmelo Anthony from the Denver Nuggets. In that deal, the Knicks traded away Raymond Felton (the team's starting point guard who was averaging 17 points and 9 assists per game), wing player Danilo Gallinari (who was averaging 16 points per game that year as a Knick), and Wilson Chandler (another promising young wing player that was averaging 16 points and 6 rebounds per game for the team). That is a lot of production to replace on both the offensive and defensive end of the floor. Before the Carmelo trade, the team was 28-26, and a fun team to watch with Amare Stoudemire and a bunch of young players. But they were not championship contenders, and Carmelo Anthony was the type of player that was supposed to make them that.
The NBA is a league that is defined by star power. Except for the 2004 Detroit Pistons and 1979 Seattle Supersonics, it is always a team with a transcendent superstar player that wins the title. As a result, teams like the Knicks are always in pursuit of the player that will take them over the top. But as with many things, there is a failure to recognize nuance. Many fans look at the superstar player, the shiny object, but ignore all of the complimentary pieces around him.
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When the Milwaukee Bucks broke through in 2021 and won their first NBA championship since the days of Oscar Robertson, the focus was on their star and leader Giannis Antetokounmpo. But many people ignore the team around him with Jrue Holiday, Khris Middleton, and Brook Lopez that helped lead to the Bucks winning that title. That is the true issue with the idea of the savior trade, it accounts for the first piece but not the second and third one that is needed to build a winner in this league.
Gutting a roster is perfectly fine if there is a plan in place to replace the players lost with new pieces that can contribute to winning basketball. We saw this happen when LeBron James returned to Cleveland in 2015, with only 5 players from the 21-man roster from the year before making the team. These young players were replaced by veterans that worked with LeBron James, which resulted in a roster that could compete for championships. The opposite of this can be true when a team does not account for proper team building. The Brooklyn Nets over the last couple of years have been an example of this. Since signing Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving in 2019, the Nets have failed to properly surround their superstar duo with role players that complemented them. And the result of this has been early exits from the playoffs when the fans and media were expecting championships.
Wishing Upon a Star
Perhaps no off-season better describes why Knick fans feel snakebit when it comes to talent acquisition than the off-season of 2019. The previous year the Knicks were truly awful, the worst team in the NBA. But the idea was to clear cap space and put themselves in a position to draft Zion Williamson from Duke and acquire Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving in free agency. This of course did not go according to plan as the Knicks did not win the lottery, selecting RJ Barrett with the third pick and saw Durant and Irving sign across the river. Instead, the Knicks signed Julius Randle, who has been productive as a Knick but not the player that fans were hoping for.
Ever since this moment, Knick fans have been clamoring for a player that will transform their fortunes, a savior. Since LeBron James entered the league in 2003, the Knicks have a record of 606-910 (winning percentage of 39%) with only 5 playoff appearances and only three seasons with a winning record. This team has been in misery, it is easy to understand why fans feel that their franchise needs to be saved.
The result of this mentality is the notion that the entire roster needs to be scraped and sacrificed to make way for the player that will save basketball in New York City. This season we have seen names like Zach LaVine, Trae Young, Bradley Beal, and others thrown into the ether as potential players that can save this franchise from a reality of mediocrity and misery. There is a sense of desperation that this team needs to take home run swings, to borrow a baseball term. So as a result, there are pressures for a player to come into Madison Square Garden and restore the great times of Patrick Ewing and Clyde Frazier.
This pressure has evolved into the notion that most star players are not “built for the pressure” of New York City and its fans. That if you want to save New York basketball you have to accept the responsibility and operate under the blinding light of the microscope of New York media and a crazed fan base that craves success. The reason that many Knick fans have ardently supported and prophesized Carmelo Anthony despite a lack of long-term team success in New York is that he embraced the challenge and wanted to be the savior for this team. The reality for most of the league, however, is that they have no interest in being any franchise’s golden ticket.
No Gods, No Salvation
In the past, there was a notion that the Knicks should be involved in star trades and be a destination simply because of the size of New York as a media market. But in this age of social media and brand promotions, the market size has not meant all that much. The two smallest media markets in the league are Memphis and New Orleans. These two teams have two of the most recognizable and marketable stars in the league: Ja Morant and Zion Williamson. These players are already on top of the marketability scale in the league without needing the visibility that a large market like New York or Los Angeles provides.
So from the perspective of the player, there is very little advantage to coming to a team that has expectations so high that you are destined to fail. Especially in a league of duos and trios, not having the plan to also add a second high-caliber talent means that the experience for any star player in New York is not going to end well from a win-loss viewpoint. And because this city and this fan base are so desperate for a winner, this player will be so heavily maligned because they have not brought the team to the promised land that was expected of him.
We have never seen as much raw talent across all teams in the league as we do today. The league is filled with specialists and do-it-all wing players in a way that we did not see in previous generations. This is why teams that are contending for championships often have two high-level players that can perform in the playoffs as opposed to simply relying on one great player. So when it comes to acquiring talent in today’s league it is not only about how you will get the first-star player, but also who is the second one and how will you acquire him.
And this inherently is what is wrong with seeking a player that is supposed to save the franchise. Because if you were to trade all of your young players to get one player, then you are only slightly better off than before, but still not good enough to compete for titles which is the ultimate goal of any organization. And for this demanding fan base that has been craving a championship since the 70s, no one player will ever be good enough.
So where does this leave the Knicks? As it currently stands they are a middle-of-the-pack NBA team with good but not great players, and their record is an indication of this. The team needs star power but it should not come at the expense of every draft pick for the next half decade and half of their young core. What the Knicks have attempted to do is build a foundation of competency. And this is the most important aspect of their teambuilding journey. The pressure from the media and fans to make “the trade” will always be there but we must consider what young players this roster has at its disposal.
Currently, this is a young team with its oldest rotation player being 28 years old (Julius Randle). They have intriguing young players like Quentin Grimes, RJ Barrett, Immanuel Quickley, and Obi Toppin. A couple of these players will need to be moved to accommodate the next star. But the key is that all of them cannot be sacrificed. And Knick fans as a whole need to get out of the habit of hoping for the nuclear option. In today’s NBA, building a competitive environment and team to complement the star player is a must. There truly is no ultimate savior, but rather high-level pieces to the championship puzzle, let’s hope that the Knicks front office sees this as well.