Tonight isn’t just about two games on national TV, because that happens every Thursday. Tonight, and specifically New York vs. San Antonio, is something in the making for much, much longer. The Knicks and the Spurs’ matchup feels like a big game because it finally is nearly a decade and a half after they met in the 1999 Finals. Since the Spurs’ 4-1 series win to end the lockout-shortened season, the teams have drifted about as far apart as two NBA franchises could get. The Spurs won three more NBA titles; the Knicks have had eight different head coaches. Tonight then is a kind of convergence, where both teams are peers instead of a wild mismatch.
It isn’t the first time they’ve played this season (the Knicks won on Nov. 14 by four) but a third of the season is a much more reliable measuring stick than nine games in. And the time between that win and now shows these Knicks are capable of sustaining a playoff pace. The Knicks’ .677 winning percentage through 31 games is easily its highest in the past 15 seasons, a table (see below) that shows the years of false hope in the seasons after the Finals, and how the team bottomed out for much of the 2000s. Reading it is like watching the flight of a boomerang, a long, looping route that’s only now turning the corner.
Meanwhile, the Spurs are 17-9 against New York since 2000 and have torn through the league, as well. This is all you need to know for how different these franchises have been after the ’99 Finals: The .677 winning percentage the Knicks are so (justifiably) proud of this season would be tied for just the fifth-best Spurs start in that span.
It’s not hard to see one reason why the gap created. Since then, the Spurs have drafted extremely well, even if the player didn’t stick with San Antonio because of trades — Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker, Tiago Splitter, Kawhi Leonard and George Hill are easy but Luis Scola, Goran Dragic, Nando de Colo, John Salmons and Leandro Barbosa also were taken by San Antonio. The Knicks’ picks are littered with good players such as Nene and David Lee, but mostly tangential ones such as Wilson Chandler, Landry Fields and Jordan Hill (and never forget about Renaldo Balkman or his welcoming from Knicks fans).
Spurs selections were sensible picks to build around Tim Duncan, whose superstar status allowed his teammates time to learn around him. Whenever the Knicks picked the unstable vision of owner James Dolan and his desire to turn the team into a winner immediately rarely gave a team the time to mesh or a coach to build. Having a team bereft of stars is fine if you just understand it’s called “rebuilding” — Dolan believed his teams of natural understudies were the front row at the Oscars. When his coaches didn’t deliver, he canned them. When Gregg Popovich started 3-17 as Spurs head coach in 1996, owner Peter Holt stuck with him. A title arrived three years later in Game 5 on the Knicks’ home floor, Madison Square Garden.
Dolan has his star now in Carmelo Anthony, an elite post in Tyson Chandler (Duncan is both of these in one person), point guards in Ray Felton and Jason Kidd who deliver close to what Parker does for San Antonio, and a bench star in J.R. Smith who is a terror much like Manu Ginobili. And finally, there’s defense. Coach Mike Woodson‘s Knicks ranked in the top half of the league in defensive efficiency until only recently, are fifth-best in turnovers forced and are sixth-stingiest in allowing opponents’ free throws. Defense created the Spurs’ elite run. Since 2000, the Spurs hold opponents to the lowest field-goal percentage and the second-lowest three-point percentage — while the Knicks were in the bottom third in both those categories.
The level playing field that exists between these two teams might not likely to be this way for a while. Most of the key Knicks are under contract for the next two seasons but San Antonio has to decide on contracts of Splitter, Stephen Jackson and Ginobili this offseason. Age, too, of key Knicks contributors Kidd Rasheed Wallace and the Spurs’ Duncan would suggest these teams won’t sustain their run together for much longer. Which is kind of a shame, because it’s been so long in the making.
What do you think?
Follow Andrew on Twitter at @AndrewGreif.
Follow Dime on Twitter at @DimeMag.
Become a fan of Dime Magazine on Facebook HERE.