With 17 seconds left to play at the Garden, the Knicks trailed the Philadelphia 76ers by four points. They’d just secured a rebound off a Joel Embiid miss, and a made basket would’ve made the final seconds spicy. A competitive game against a top-tier team like the Sixers is what every Knicks fan had hoped to see coming into the year. Just not like this.
With the game on the line, Frank Ntilikina, a third-year guard auditioning for a long-term role as the Knicks ball-handler, marched downcourt. Joining him were two players destined for free agency, a past-his-prime role player and Julius Randle. R.J. Barrett, Kevin Knox and Dennis Smith Jr., three game-eligible pieces to the team’s rebuild, sat on the bench. Knox, given some “tough love” by head coach David Fizdale, hadn’t played a minute all game. (Mitchell Robinson fouled out.)
Before the possession even began, the Knicks were setting themselves up for failure. What does a comeback win mean for a 4-14 franchise if it comes at the hands of guys who aren’t going to be with the team eight months from now, anyway?
They may never find out. Ntilikina hit top speed off a Randle handoff, and kicked weakside. A Morris screen freed 32-year-old wing Wayne Ellington to launch a corner three, which he air-balled. The Knicks went on to lose, 101-95.
Fast forward two more losses by a combined 53 points, the Knicks are 4-17, and have no idea what they’re doing. They’re suffering through another losing season without developing their young talent the right way. At the moment, the Knicks are losing big with little to gain.
This year’s failure was a long time coming
The 2019-20 Knicks could be as bad as they are without so much criticism if they had a plan in action. The Hawks absolutely stink, but they’re letting Trae Young, one of the most exciting prospects in the world, reinvent their offense — and they’re drafting building blocks around him. The Cavaliers are bad, but start Darius Garland and Collin Sexton, first- and second-year guards who’ve shown they can play well together. The Grizzlies are bad too, but Ja Morant, Brandon Clarke and Jaren Jackson Jr. incite hope.
Those teams are failing in the wins column but succeeding in their overall vision because unlike NY: 1) they have a vision and 2) they set expectations in the realm of reality.
In April, Knicks president Steve Mills and GM Scott Perry authored a letter to season ticket holders following the team’s slump after dealing its most promising player, Kristaps Porzingis. “We have created a tremendous amount of financial flexibility, which has put us in a position to potentially sign up to two max free agents,” they wrote. That inspired months worth of false hopes as the Knicks spent the remainder of the year linked to Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant, among other superstars who never dropped an inkling of interest in signing with the franchise.
Things got worse from there.
The Knicks’ Plan B was a bad idea from the start
It wasn’t merely bad that the Knicks lost out on Irving and Durant. It wasn’t merely hilarious that Irving and Durant never seriously considered signing with the Knicks, or that Durant said the Knicks “weren’t even cool.” It was a colossal nightmare when the two opted to sign with the crosstown, formerly irrelevant Brooklyn Nets.
That embarrassment coupled with another year of unfulfilled free agent promises led the Knicks to lose sight of what they had yet again. Barrett, Knox, Robinson, Smith Jr. and Ntilikina could’ve led a Knicks tank for another top pick. Instead, New York tried to sell its fans on Bobby Portis, Randle, Morris, Elfrid Payton and Taj Gibson as viable substitutes for max free agents.
What New York was left with to start the season in October was a complicated roster with pieces that didn’t fit. There was no vision. The talent made no sense. Was this team supposed to win or lose? Why were so many in-their-prime players on short-term deals? These weren’t aging veterans looking to help a younger contingent. They were competitors looking for their next paycheck.
This roster never stood a chance. The mess has produced the worst team in the league by net rating, featuring the worst offense and eighth-worst defense. They’re even worse than the Warriors, who have been without Stephen Curry, D’Angelo Russell and Draymond Green for most of the season, and Klay Thompson for the entire season. Not to mention they lost Durant, Shaun Livingston and Andre Iguodala over the summer.
Head coach David Fizdale is lost, and some of it isn’t his fault
As always, management is at the center of the blame for everything going so poorly. Fizdale’s been in the NBA for 16 years as an assistant, associate and now head coach. He’s most known for his time with the Grizzlies, taking the Spurs to a competitive opening-round six-game series in the 2017 playoffs in his first year as head coach, and shouting “take that for data.” He has an old-school brain. He doesn’t buy into load management. He’s tempted to bench struggling players in development like Knox this year and Ntilikina last. His beliefs aren’t ideal for a team that needs to rebuild. But are the Knicks even rebuilding? What the Knicks are doing is confusing, and Fizdale’s decision to start Morris while benching Knox in the loss to Philly was a product of it all.
The Knicks have opted to get beaten up using veteran players instead of losing gracefully on nights Barrett and Knox might develop chemistry. Fizdale is, on some nights, coaching for his livelihood. That means benching a 20-year-old for a 30-year-old if that means losing by seven points instead of 17.
The Knicks are managing themselves into a circle and coaching their way into mediocrity purgatory. Fans shouldn’t have a drop of hope that things will improve in the short or long term with exception of lottery ball luck.
What should the Knicks do?
The Knicks should be big-time sellers over the next two months. A wide-open NBA free of superteams means more teams believe they can win in June. The buyer market should be busy, and Morris, Gibson, Portis and Ellington can all contribute on competitive teams.
The absence of any combination of those guys can free space for players who need it, and the Knicks should get funky with who they have left. What does Barrett look like as the primary point guard? Can Knox play the five in some stretches? It’s time to get weird, experiment with what talent is left, and determine a course of action for a future that doesn’t involve swinging and faceplanting on a free agency signing.
Will the Knicks do anything to help themselves?
There’s no reason to believe so. At least they didn’t sign anyone to a long-term Joakim Noah- or Tim Hardaway Jr.-style contract.
But the Knicks will never know what they have until they put their prospects in position to succeed. And that can’t happen with veterans on short-term contracts playing in their place. The Knicks only have themselves to blame. Again.