Can we rewrite five years of Knicks misery?

Introducing a new fictional NBA universe

Basketball (and football and college basketball and probably all sports) conversations for me inevitably end up bemoaning the systemic failures of my preferred franchises. But, while I’m fully behind every word of my bitter argument to fire the Jets’ Adam Gase, I save the most venom for the New York Knicks. 

Somehow, the team gifted with the New York market, a devoted and masochistic fanbase, and an owner willing to spend big constantly trips over their own oversized knickerbockers. Since 2000, no team in the NBA has a worse winning percentage than the Knicks. In the past five years, they’ve been closer to relegation to the G League than playoff contention, and the gap is growing.

I complain all the time about the institutional rot of the Knicks, but, who am I to criticize? I’m just a guy hoping his team gives each season a straight shot, with a bank account a few commas away from trying to take control of the team.

Owning an NBA team, as a goal, might be as achievable as developing super powers or enjoying online political discourse. Barring eight consecutive lottery victories, founding some predatory company that you exit right before the legal issues, or inheriting the family business eight generations in, the path to this level will never appear for the vast majority of the world. 

Us peasants must turn to the simulations to experience this lifestyle. 

Inspired by the brilliant Jon Bois and Kofie Yeboah’s Fumble Dimension series for SB Nation, I booted up my trusty copy of NBA 2K16 for the Xbox One and put my VC money where my mouth is. NBA 2K16, while mostly a microtransaction hellscape where the ball costs $4 in DLC, does offer us a chance to travel back in time to 2015 and rewrite some of this brutal Knicks history. This time, with a different but equally unqualified man in charge.

I kept all of the rules standard for the league, included all previous trades, and left all but one slider untouched; I upped the quality of the average draft class to 75, hoping to replicate the influx of young stars that happened in real life from 2015 to 2020. 

In part one, we tackle the 2015 - 2016 season. All real data, transactions, and stats are thanks to the invaluable Basketball Reference.

Setting the stage

2015-16 represented a year of hope and promise for the Knicks. Their abysmal 2014-15 season produced 17 wins and a top draft pick, which they controversially used on Kristaps Porzingis, a giant from Latvia with unlimited range and question marks across the board; you may remember a certain crying child from the moment he was drafted by the Knicks, livid that Jahlil Okafor didn’t fall.

Under Phil Jackson, the team retained Derek Fisher as head coach, signed Robin Lopez, Arron Affalo, and Kyle O’Quinn as their marquee free agent signings, and entered the year with a 29.5 win over/under. 

Posting and Toasting’s 2015-16 season preview conveys what I’d call the reserved optimism of a fanbase not ready to love just yet:

"If you have built castles in the air...that is where they should be," Thoreau wrote. "Now put the foundations under them." Six months after Thoreau died, James Naismith, basketball's inventor, was born. Irony? No. Just coincidence. Irony would be the Knicks repeating last year's tanktastophe. This year's goal is simple mediocrity. You won't see that mantra on any training camp t-shirts, but it's a long road from foundations to sky.

We’re living in a simulation

Here is the canvas in which we paint a hopefully sunnier landscape. 2K loves this version of Carmelo Anthony, giving him one of the highest overall ratings in the game at 88; Porzingis at 80 overall at 19 years old should set us up for high growth.

The rest of the team, though? Borderline replacement players. Robin Lopez clogs up the paint and the cap at nearly $13 million a year for four future years, but is a 78 overall. Veteran journeyman Tony Wroten is the fifth best player on the team. 

My first order of business? Clearing up some of these ruinous contracts from the previous regime and replenishing the draft pick war chest and cap space. Like the real life Knicks, we need to make sure we’ve got room in case this guy decides to leave Cleveland.

I figure I should at least let the season play out for a bit before blowing the entire franchise up, and despite this idiotic roster construction, we enter the trade deadline in 7th place in the East.

I wasn’t hired by the computer generated Knicks owner to settle for mediocrity! We’re not interested in getting swept in the first round as a best case scenario. Activate the tank!

I start by rewriting one of the wrongs of a previous administration. The Knicks have no hope of real contention in this season but, thanks to the 2011 Carmelo trade, lack their own first round pick. I quickly remedy this by sacrificing a couple second round picks, as the Nuggets don’t yet realize the depths of my self-sabotage.

With our asses covered on a total collapse, we can start flipping even more of these veterans for relief. 

First, we flip the insane Jose Calderon contract for any sort of short term money. I take on two scrubs to lose that onerous cap hold.

Next, I try and do the same for Carmelo, but run into a huge blocker.

That image haunted the last decade of Knicks fandom.

Melo’s value exists, but the combination of a colossal contract and some glitchy no-trade clause nonsense render him essentially unmovable. 

Some quick research reveals that there’s no good way to get around this in 2K, so I remove trade logic in the settings with one key caveat; I’m confident that my fictional ownership team could alienate Melo into wanting to move—most likely by banning Kangol hats from the arena—but I can’t control any other team. I’ll force him to accept a deal, but would not do the same with a computer-controlled team.

Even with this caveat, I still cannot find a suitor in the preseason for Melo, and begrudgingly accept I’ll have to revisit in the offseason.

We let this hodgepodge of expiring contracts, young KP, and Iso-Melo run for the rest of the year, and they end the year 38-44, good for 9th place in the East and the 14th pick in the upcoming draft. 

A look around the Warm the Bench fictional universe

Oklahoma City wins the 2015-2016 title behind the league MVP, Kevin Durant. They defeat the resuscitated husk of the Miami Heat post-LeBron departure in six games–2K loves Chris Bosh. Instead of kicking off a Warriors dynasty in real life, this season grants the Thunder their illusive title under the Westbrook/Durant partnership.

Karl-Anthony Towns, as in real life, wins the Rookie of the Year handily. Kristaps joins him on the all-rookie team.

How’d I do compared to the real life Knicks?

In reality, the Knicks fired their hilariously overwhelmed head coach Derek Fisher after a bad losing streak and a worse Matt Barnes scandal. They installed the equally overwhelmed Kurt Rambis and limped into the offseason at 32-50, missing the playoffs by 11 games. 

Carmelo got to take nearly 19 shots a game in his favorite spots, Porzingis immediately enthralled a desperate fanbase, and the faint etchings of a plan forward began to form in the minds of New Yorkers; build around the new franchise cornerstone, maximize Melo, and try to compete in 2016. 

My version of the Knicks jettisoned some of the veteran albatross at the trade deadline, reacquired the lost first round draft pick, and managed to win six more games. We enter the offseason with more cap space, more draft assets, and a shot at quick contention; I don’t know if the actual Knicks have ever said that.

Next week, we blow it all up.

WTB Knicks: 38-44 Real Knicks: 32-50