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SportsColumnistsSteve Popper

Knicks need victories, not a change in branding

Bobby Portis of the Knicks looks on during

Bobby Portis of the Knicks looks on during the second half against the Los Angeles Lakers at Madison Square Garden on Wednesday, Jan. 22, 2020. Credit: Jim McIsaac

When the game was over Wednesday night and LeBron James had been serenaded with chants of “M-V-P” from the Madison Square Garden crowd, he spoke about the feeling of playing in New York City, in the old arena that sits planted in midtown like some sort of historic preservation project.

“It is probably my favorite arena in the world to play as a visitor,” James said. “Coming here, understanding the history, the Mecca of basketball. Being here in the bright lights, being here in the Garden, it’s my favorite place to come play. It’s absolutely special.”

And it is, remaining a place that is on the to-do list of nearly every NBA player. Even as the NBA shuttles out alternate uniforms and now alternate courts, there always has been something special about the Garden and, yes, even about the Knicks. Like the other teams who never relocated, never really changed colors and only slightly tinkered with uniforms, making it hard to differentiate between a photo from 20 years ago and one from this week.

Actually, the best way to differentiate is to look closely at the player inside the jersey and the score on the scoreboard.

The Knicks’ history remains a part of New York City lore, and anyone who comes aboard does so with the belief that winning is all it takes to raise those echoes again.

And that made it puzzling to see Bloomberg break a story this past week that the Knicks had hired Steve Stoute’s Translation agency to oversee a branding makeover.

The story described Stoute as a lifelong Knicks fan. Given that he's a Queens native, it’s not surprising, and it's also not surprising that he would know the history of the team. But it’s also worth noting that he was born the year the Knicks won their first title and was barely walking when the second one was celebrated.

“We have a ways to go,” Stoute told Bloomberg. “People can say what they want, but the world knows when you get it right, when the New York team is winning, basketball is better. When the New York Knicks are right, the NBA is a better place. That is the opportunity.”

That’s all true. But while one of Translation’s other projects — the Brooklyn Nets — set out to make the team culturally hip, is that really the path that the Knicks need to take?

The Nets have been second-class citizens in the area whether they were playing on Long Island, in New Jersey or in Brooklyn. The uniform makeover from the red, white and blue to the black and gray, the odd court at Barclays Center and even the Bed-Stuy emblazoned across some jerseys are a worthwhile effort to find an audience for a team in desperate need of one.

But for the Knicks, the problem has never been the look of the court or the colors of the uniform. The Garden still is the place to be for stars who crowd the front row, at least when a player like James is arriving in town, and near-sellouts remain the norm.

The allure of the franchise has slowly leaked because of the constant losing and dysfunction. The Knicks are 12-34, and what made players pass on them in free agency was not the color of their uniforms. As Kevin Durant pointed out in a radio interview after opting not to join the Knicks in free agency, “I think a lot of fans look at the Knicks as a brand and these younger players in their lifetime don’t remember the Knicks being good. I’ve seen the Knicks in the Finals, but kids coming up after me didn’t see that. So that whole brand of the Knicks is not as cool as let’s say the Golden State Warriors, or even the Lakers or the Nets now.”

It wasn’t the court at Brooklyn that brought Durant there. It was the groundwork of franchise-building laid out by Sean Marks and Kenny Atkinson on the basketball side.

And on the basketball side, the Knicks’ brand is poison right now. Stars have been cast aside, coaches disposed of and players shuttled in and out with little sense of a plan. That is the Knicks’ brand right now, and until the front office and ownership can set a change in place for how the on-court product is conducted, no branding campaign is going to change the perception.

“Winning cures a lot of problems. Great marketing and exciting entertainment cure all problems,” Stoute said. “The brand has to be strong regardless of the final score. When people are hopeful that things are going to be better, and it brings excitement, all of a sudden, that becomes the brand.”

Whatever the campaign, whether it is making the Knicks seem hip or a throwback to better times, nothing changes until the way the team operates the basketball operation does.

No matter what kind of pretty face the branding agency can put on the Knicks, underneath it’s still running with a culture of fear and backstabbing, with executives and coaches worrying that speaking out puts them in the line of fire rather than making a change for good.

Pins and needles

The Feb. 6 trade deadline is approaching, another test of the flexibility the Knicks' front office has maintained as a plan. That has left players wondering and trying to ignore the possibility that a makeover in the locker room could be coming.

Julius Randle said this past week, “Honestly, I ain’t worried about it. [This is] my sixth year; you start to realize this is a business. You can’t worry about what you can’t control.”

Knicks interim coach Mike Miller said he treats this time like any other, even if the players seem as if they might be interim, too.

“Our approach, I say this and it is true, we talk about the same things every day,” Miller said. “How do we get a little bit better? And that’s individually how do we as a staff, as an organization, help each guy get a little bit better, and how does that make us better collectively, put us in a better position to win. We think that’s something that’s manageable. We think it’s something that works and it’ll keep us moving in the right direction. We’re always in the moment of what needs to be done.”

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