When the ship is sinking, every man is fighting to get a hand on the life raft.
That in essence was the message that coach David Fizdale delivered before the Knicks' 102-94 loss to the Sacramento Kings in a rare Saturday matinee game.
With the Knicks looking to reconfigure their team through the draft and free agency this summer, it’s pretty hard for a player to have a team-first mentality. For many of the Knicks' young players who are in the final year of their contracts, every minute on the floor can be seen as a mini-audition of sorts, a chance to show other teams out there what they can do.
"When you’re dealing with guys fighting for their contractual life, you’re always going to have an element of where a guy can be more focused on trying to get his,'' Fizdale said. "Not that we’ve had a lot of that, but it’s just a natural thing when you’re fighting for your life.”
Fizdale stopped short of calling his team selfish, though some Knicks stats certainly would back that up. The Knicks entered Saturday's game averaging a league-worst 14.9 assists. They have nine players in the final year of their contracts.
“I just know that the human condition creeps in . . . This is your job, and your livelihood a lot of times is based on your statistics and how well you’re playing,” Fizdale said. “Like I’ve always told them, although we’ve gone through a tough season, it’s not necessarily that you’re losing games. It’s how you lose games that’s going to be important.”
The players didn’t seem terribly upset to hear that Fizdale had intimated that individual agendas are eclipsing the team mentality.
Said Emmanuel Mudiay: “I don’t think it’s coming from a bad place. I think people are out there trying to survive … It’s just human nature.”
The Knicks took a 24-9 lead but had only six assists in the first half against the Kings and finished with 16 in their fifth straight loss. Their 13-53 record is the worst in the league.
It wasn’t the assists, however, that killed the Knicks against the Kings; it was the fact that they had no answer for De’Aaron Fox. He finished with 30 points, eight assists and five rebounds.
“He is a big-time talent,” Fizdale said. “He has such a court presence. He has that true point guard court presence. He knows how to get his guys shots and at the same time turn it on and go and get his own. For a young guy to have the kind of feel for the game, that is fairly special.”
After Fox scored nine straight Kings points, Dennis Smith Jr.'s driving layup brought the Knicks within 96-94 with 2:12 left, but he immediately picked up a technical foul for bumping Nemanja Bjelica. Buddy Hield hit the free throw to begin a game-ending 6-0 run by the Kings.
Fox, who was the fifth overall pick in the 2017 draft, is a major reason the Kings (33-32) could post their first winning season since 2005-06.
Smith, one of four players on the Knicks not in the final year of his contract, had 18 points, five assists and five rebounds. DeAndre Jordan added 14 points and 15 rebounds.
By finishing at the bottom of the league, the Knicks might have a chance to find a game-changer like Fox. The three worst teams will have an equal chance of getting the No. 1 draft pick and the worst team will pick no lower than fifth.
For a little more than a month, however, Knicks fans are going to have to deal with the team that was on the floor Saturday.