The Knicks, Magic and Bucks are in the same elevator, anxious for different reasons

One of the best set plays in basketball is the “elevator doors play,” but this piece won’t be about that double-high screening action.

This is a piece whose thematic center is an actual elevator.


The elevator has been used to great effect in comedic ways. The Bob Newhart Show put an elevator into the set for Dr. Hartley’s office lobby, creating a renewable resource for jokes:


The show Mad Men used the elevator to create scenes in which characters — trapped in the little box that is an elevator room — either engaged in uncomfortable dialogue or silently absorbed the enormity of what was happening to them. Sometimes, characters would contemplate their latest crisis alone. Much more often, they’d wrestle with life in the presence of others.

The picture which is the cover image for this story is one of (left to right) Joan Harris, Peggy Olson, and Dr. Faye Miller. Three accomplished and ambitious women in the mid-1960s, they face the same searing tensions and pressures, but in different ways and from different directions. Markedly unique in terms of their personalities and skill sets, they are all caught in the crosscurrents of life in ways that bring them great anguish and the urgent need to confront their greatest fears. Joan, Peggy and Dr. Faye are pursuing many of the same goals, but they’re doing so by carving out three sharply distinct paths. Yet, from their divergent ways of understanding the world around them, they are — in the elevator — unified in their shared burdens. This is the case even if — or rather, precisely because — they don’t want to speak about those burdens.

They’re known and felt at a very deep level.

The elevator, used in works of art, can powerfully illustrate how different people are thrown in the same small boat amidst the stormy seas of life.

That’s an elaborate preamble, to be sure, and no, we’re not going to compare certain NBA teams to specific Mad Men characters. However, “the elevator” — specifically the scene with Joan, Peggy, and Dr. Faye — captures the life of three NBA teams on the morning of Tuesday, February 23.


The New York Knicks, Orlando Magic, and Milwaukee Bucks all greeted Tuesday morning with 24 wins. They are all stuck in a place where making the playoffs and falling into the top five of the draft lottery will be extremely difficult. This is not an automatically gloomy position — the Denver Nuggets show that one can have a bright future from this spot in the NBA pecking order — but it’s certainly a spot in the league which doesn’t often confer happiness upon its inhabitants.

The Knicks, Magic and Bucks are all ambitious, all trying to make their way an Eastern Conference which has such a soft and large underbelly. The idea of any of these organizations becoming a second-round playoff team in three seasons is not ludicrous, but it’s not exactly likely.

New York, Orlando, and Milwaukee have been thrown into the elevator. They must face facts and fears as they contemplate their futures. There’s plenty of internal anxiety in each organization, which has arrived at 24 wins in a very individualized fashion.

The Knicks and Magic have both improved from last season, but their portraits own richly contrasting colors. Phil Jackson abruptly parted with Derek Fisher, and the embarrassments surrounding Kurt Rambis have ensured (if there was any doubt in the first place) that he won’t be the permanent guy next season. The Knicks will look for a new coach. The Magic have their man in Scott Skiles. There’s a much greater sense of permanence in what Orlando is doing — the Magic are building, even though they foolishly traded Tobias Harris for very little in return.

New York’s future lies in the hands of Kristaps Porzingis, whose selection represents the best decision Phil Jackson has made during his tenure in the Big Apple. Porzingis should be given a team that he can grow with, but a high-odometer Carmelo Anthony — whose body has not held up well over the past few years — is not the teammate Porzingis ought to have in the next several seasons. The Knicks are also carrying two shooting guards — Sasha Vujacic and Arron Afflalo — who are in their early 30s. Point guard Jose Calderon is 34.

Phil has said he wants to make the playoffs, but a loss to the Brooklyn Nets and a blowout loss to the Toronto Raptors after the All-Star break have knocked the Knicks eight games out in the loss column for the No. 8 seed in the East. The postseason is a pipe dream. Other than James Dolan’s money, why would a free agent of considerable stature want to invest a crucial stage of his career in the Knicks? “Improvement” from a previous season never felt so hollow.

It’s a lot different with the Magic.

Orlando might have blundered in the Tobias Harris deal, but the organization has built itself young, much as Denver has. The Magic have only three players over the age of 26, none of them franchise anchors or centerpieces. Skiles is giving Nikola Vucevic, Victor Oladipo, and Elfrid Payton on-the-job training. The trajectory of this team should go steadily upward in the coming seasons.

Then there’s the team we haven’t discussed, the Milwaukee Bucks. Whereas the Knicks have improved relative to last season, the Bucks have regressed. You can read this account of Milwaukee from the beginning of this month, but what lingers in Wisconsin is this profound sense that while veteran acquisitions such as Greg Monroe have not provided a transformational boost to the lineup, the growth curve for this team’s prime players is achingly slow to the point of being negligible.

Whereas New York is lost and Orlando is hopeful (albeit going through growing pains), Milwaukee inhabits a true in-between space. The Bucks’ youthful components could hit their stride next season. The team’s abundance of defensive length and rim protection might once again emerge. Michael Carter-Williams could perhaps improve his jump shot (I know, a big ask, but still…), thereby spacing the floor for Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton. Everything could all work out.

Or it won’t.

If I’m a Knicks fan, my 24 wins make me thoroughly gloomy on the morning of February 23. If I’m an Orlando fan, 24 wins merely point the way to a brighter tomorrow. If I’m a Milwaukee fan, I’m not sure what to think at this point.

Three teams, all thrown into the elevator, face the shared burden of 24-win purgatory in late February. Yet, that same win total means different things for these teams — some are going up in the elevator, some down, and some don’t yet know.

It’s a pretty good metaphor for life — in the NBA or beyond it.


About Matt Zemek

Matt Zemek is the managing editor of The Student Section, covering college football and basketball with associate editors Terry Johnson and Bart Doan. Mr. Zemek is the editor of Crossover Chronicles, covering the NBA. He is also Bloguin's lead tennis writer, covering the major tournaments. He contributes to other Bloguin sites, such as The AP Party.