Melo-Madness and Ontology: A Knick Fan in Crisis

“On those who enter the same rivers, ever different waters flow.” -Heraclitus
As the dust settles from the blockbuster Melo trade, as a Knick fan I find myself wondering, who is this team? And for that matter, who am I?

The mereological theory of identity posits that identity of a whole is defined by the identity of its parts. A strict mereological view of this trade would hold that when the Knicks shipped 4/5 of their starting lineup to Denver for Anthony, then they ceased to exist. What is left in its place is some new entity, bearing little resemblance to the former entity that we as Knick fans came to identify with. And as fans we bear little resemblance to ourselves, now cheering on Anthony and Billups as if they had been here all along. Have we, too ceased to exist?

Another view would be that the Knicks continue to exist, only now they exist as the Denver Nuggets. Or perhaps they exist as both the Nuggets and the Knicks at the same time, both entities in a state of flux. Consider the Hobbesian paradox of the Ship of Theseus. A ship sets sail for a long voyage. Along the way the crew is forced to replace planks as they fall into disrepair. The voyage goes on for so long, by the end of the voyage every single plank of wood on the ship had been replaced. Is it the same ship, or something completely new?

Before you answer, consider that someone was following this ship the entire time, picking up the planks as they were discarded and replaced. This mysterious actor then assembled all of those cast-off planks into a ship that was the exact replica of the original ship. Now we have two identical ships, the latter of which is of totally different material but with the original crew. The former is composed of the original materials. Are they both Theseus’ ship? Only one, and which? Neither?

Soon we will see a new lineup on the floor of Madison Square Garden, short on original planks. Is a Stoudemire/Fields/Anthony/Billups/Turiaf starting five the same Knicks that got us to the All Star break? Are we to believe that they are the 2010-11 Knicks? Meanwhile we see Felton, Chandler, Gallo and Moz wearing new uniforms, but still standing together (unless Gallo gets traded). Is this team the Nuggets? Are they more Knick than Nugget?

This isn't the ontology the NBA prefers. It understands itself as a taxonomical structure. Teams are entities unto themselves. Players are just the components of these sets. Like Heraclitus's rivers, the players are just water flowing from team to team. But in this river we as fans have no comfortable place to stand.

One way to resolve the paradox is to consider spatio-temporal continuity. Identity is preserved through time by persistence. If the parts are replaced, the thing in itself persists so long as there is some continuity to its shape, its purpose, its intentions and agency.

Do the Knicks persist in a spatio-temporal continuum? Without a doubt. There is still a thread that ties the second half of the season to the first half. Coach D’Antoni, Donnie Walsh, even Andy Rautins all remain in New York. The push to make the playoffs has evolved into a desire to compete for the Eastern Conference title. And we as fans, if we were able to survive seeing Ewing in a Supersonics jersey, then we would surely handle losing Timofey Mozgov.

But there is also Isiah, a plank in disrepair but for some reason not yet cast overboard. It isn’t at all clear why Zeke is still around, still holding some kind of dark-arts mind-control over the Knick’s front office. Already at the All Star break the Knicks have more wins than their season average for the last five. Since Isiah Thomas left New York, the team has done nothing but prosper. Here they sit, on the verge of a winning record for the first time in ten seasons. They have two of the biggest superstars in the NBA, and even more saying they want to come play there. Its enough good news to send any Knick fan into a mereological identity crisis. Who is this team? But hearing Zeke’s name in conjunction with this trade, with all of the front office turmoil, the feeling that at any minute the other shoe may drop, it gives me a strange sense of peace.

Yes, we are still the New York Knickerbockers.

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