HOUSTON — Through the final steps of the Knicks' march into ignominious history, likely the worst season in franchise history, coach David Fizdale has tried to focus on development of the young core that figures to be around in whatever direction the rebuild takes on. But he also has tried to hand out rewards, a night of recognition or thanks for the veterans who have willingly and quietly accepted their reduced roles.
On Wednesday, he did it with Mario Hezonja, dusting him off and moving him from the end of the bench into the starting lineup and handing him the ball for a career-high 29-point effort as he returned to Orlando, where he spent the first three years of his career. And Friday in Houston, DeAndre Jordan, who has perhaps sacrificed more than anyone else on the roster, returns to his hometown with family and friends nearby.
But Jordan eschewed the notion of stepping back into the lineup for a showcase.
“Nah, I played in Houston a lot of times,” he said. “I don’t go back there now [thinking], ‘Damn, I’ve got to play.’ That was definitely something I thought about when this came up. But my family, we’re at peace with it. We’re cool with it.”
The reality for Jordan is that after spending nearly his entire career with the Los Angeles Clippers — and having a big day against that team at Madison Square Garden last month — he has accepted a role that is strange to him at this point in his career.
After joining the Knicks on Jan. 31 in the trade that sent Kristaps Porzingis to Dallas, unlike some veterans in the middle of their careers, the 30-year-old center decided not to ask for a release and a chance to hook on with a playoff contender. Instead, he is a part of the Knicks' descent toward the NBA Draft lottery.
For most of that time, at least he still was a starter, but last week, after talking with Fizdale, he ceded his starting job to rookie Mitchell Robinson. In uniform with no injury, he essentially has become a highly paid assistant coach. He has not played at all in the last three games and won’t unless the need is drastic.
“I don’t have any more suits to dress out, so I definitely wanted to wear my uniform,” Jordan joked. “When I’m wearing my uniform, I’m still locked into the game. It was a very tough back-and-forth conversation because I love to play basketball, love to compete. But obviously the development of these guys is very important.”
That has meant serving as a mentor to Robinson, who just turned 21 and is a raw project. Jordan talks to him in timeouts and sits with him much of the time, trying to impart whatever wisdom he can.
“This is very strange for me,” he said. “I’ve never done this before … At the same time, I know the development of these guys is very important. That’s something that I’m down for.
“We had a few conversations,'' he said of Fizdale. "There was definitely some back-and-forth. He knows how much I love to play and how much I want to compete. Overall, we came to the decision together. Everybody thought it was best for the young guys to, like I keep saying, see these guys play and play in bulk minutes.”
“I can’t speak highly enough of DJ,” Fizdale said last week. “The pro that he is, it’s exactly what he’s been since he’s got here. He sacrificed going to another team to stay here with the Knicks to play for us and to help Mitchell. Every single thing I’ve asked up to this point, he’s done it. and even when I asked this, he said, ‘Coach, let’s get that kid in there, let’s see what he can do, and I’ll be ready for you.’
''I didn’t know DJ that well before he got here. I knew him more personally. But now that he’s been here, I can say he’s one of the most professional veterans I’ve ever been around. He’s been a great leader and mentor in this thing.”
Jordan will be a free agent at season’s end and, in the changing NBA landscape, perhaps not as valuable as he was when he signed a $22 million deal with the Mavericks last summer. He is in a tricky spot with the Knicks, sacrificing for a future that he likely can’t be a part of, still demanding a larger deal than the team will be able to offer if it lands the two max-salary-slot free agents it hopes to acquire.
“This is my 11th year,” Jordan said. “But any time you go out there, it’s an opportunity to prove yourself and compete. I’ve been in this league for 11 years and I feel like I’ve gotten better, so just taking it a year at a time, a day at a time.
“I love it here. I love what Fiz is doing here. Obviously, there’s a lot of things that these guys want to do to get better, to better the organization. We’ll see what happens.”