DENVER — As the Knicks contend with growing tension between the franchise and Enes Kanter, one of the veterans being pushed aside by the youth movement, another veteran sits quietly and contentedly waiting his turn.
Courtney Lee is in his 11th NBA season, his defensive prowess and versatile skill set suited for a role on a contending team. Instead, he finds himself sitting mostly on the bench for a team spiraling toward the NBA Draft lottery. But unlike Kanter, he is taking his role in stride.
“You’ve got to stay professional,” Lee said after the Knicks morning shootaround, preparing for Tuesday night’s game against the Nuggets. “I’ve been in the league 11 years. Over those years from my rookie year on up I’ve had vets that have been in this situation.
“I watched the ones that stayed positive and continued to work and stay ready. Because you never know what can happen, whether it be, God forbid, anybody goes down and they need a player to step up and be ready, or you never know, you can get traded at any moment.”
The Knicks are planning for next season, spending this year on player development with a roster filled with young players and reclamation projects. While they may be handling their situation far differently, both Lee and Kanter know that they could be sent someplace else as the Knicks seek to clear contract space for next summer.
Kanter’s contract is expiring so if the team is able to move him it almost certainly will only come if they don’t take a contract back that extends beyond this season. Lee has another season after this one on his four-year deal, a contract that the Knicks would benefit from unloading in their efforts to reach that maximum salary slot to try to woo a star.
“So you’ve got to make sure you’re taking care of yourself as far as being in shape, keeping your rhythm, keeping a positive outlook on everything,” Lee said. “I believe in karma, man. Not going to come in here and be negative. Not going to pout. Not going to be a distraction because you never know when something could happen, then I get out there and I just play miserable and that’s all because I wasn’t being a professional. Just stay positive and stay ready for whatever happens.”
Lee missed the first 24 games of the season while nursing a neck injury suffered in preseason. He has played sparingly since and did not play at all in the blowout loss at Utah Saturday. Knicks coach David Fizdale spoke to the team as a group before Monday’s practice, reiterating the plan to focus on player development and that the players need to understand and that he will try to be conscious of their feelings. He said Tuesday that he has not had to worry about Lee.
“Courtney has been an incredible pro,” Fizdale said. “I mean, he’s been like a big brother to all of these guys. They love him. They love being around him. He doesn’t do things like, you see times when veterans aren’t playing they take young guys down in certain ways. Courtney’s been the guy that’s like, no, go, play. And like he tells me every day, ‘Coach you need me, I’m here. I’m ready.’ So that’s a great thing to have a veteran like that.”
While Fizdale said he still hasn’t spoken to Kanter about his grievances one-on-one, he hoped that Kanter, like Lee, would buy in.
"We’ve talked about all of this stuff,” Fizdale said. “We understand what we’ve got to do. I understand his frustrations. I’m not blowing that off at all. But you know, I’m looking at the big picture of this thing. That’s how I have to coach it. I value Enes. I don’t want him ever to feel he’s not valued. I really value him. So hopefully we can get it far behind us and move forward.”