NEW ORLEANS — As Kevin Durant argued with Draymond Green in full view of the Staples Center crowd, with television cameras catching every gesture and trying to guess the words being mouthed, there is little doubt that Knicks executives watched it as carefully as any fight ever held at Madison Square Garden.
The dispute clearly put into view a reason for Durant to leave the Golden State Warriors, a notion that seemed unlikely even as billboards went up in New York pleading for him to come to the Knicks. Until that moment, every suggestion of Durant leaving was met with common sense. Why would he leave the two-time defending champions, a team still the odds-on favorites to win again this season? Why would he leave millions of dollars on the table to do it?
And then the volatile Green mouthed all of the reasons out loud. Reports say that after he called Durant names on the court, it continued in the locker room, with Green pointing out that the team had won without him and will win again if he leaves. The Warriors, not surprisingly, came down on Durant’s side, suspended Green for a game and fined him.
“I’ve read a lot about oh, oh, is this the end of the run? Or is it over? Or did I ruin it? Or did I force Kevin to leave?” Green told reporters Thursday when he returned to the team. “You know, at the end of the day, as I’ve said before, whatever Kevin decides to do, whatever Klay [Thompson] decides to do, whatever who decides to do, we had great years together. I support everybody wholeheartedly, 100 percent, because as a man, as a human being, you got the right to do what you want to do with your life. I’d never question that.
“But what you must know, nobody in this organization — from a player, not myself, not Kevin, not anybody else — is going to beat us. So if you one of them other 29 teams in this league, you gotta beat us. We not going to beat us. We’re going to continue to do what we do. I’m sorry if that ruins everybody’s stories.
“I know everybody got a job to do,” he added. “I apologize for ruining y’all stories, if it did. But if this only makes Kevin, myself, the rest of my teammates stronger, that’s what it’s going to do. You think you saw something before, good luck with us now. We’re not going to crumble off an argument. We’re going to move forward. That’s all I got to say. Anyone want to talk about basketball, I’m here. If not, it’s been real.”
Okay, reasonable. The media chronicled every moment that Green and Durant were on the same side of the floor at the morning shootaround, the two walking into the arena together and then on the court as they acted like old friends. And then Durant was asked afterward about his relationship with Green.
“Don’t ask me that again,” Durant said.
Durant is at the top of every franchise’s free-agent chase next summer, and the Knicks have their reasons to believe he could come here. It is New York, and somehow, despite nearly two decades of inept performances, it still is regarded as the Mecca for many players. There are the rumors that sift out, family preferences and his own admitted love for the Garden.
“It’s like a playground with walls,” Durant said when he arrived in New York with the Warriors earlier in the month. “You walk outside and you’re right on the street. It feels like you’re playing at Rucker Park, just indoors. And that energy, I remember my first game as a rookie. I can remember I played pretty well, I had 30 that night. My family came up and we stayed after the game, so we celebrated a little bit. But that energy – it’s just pure, pure love for the game at the Garden.”
Knicks president Steve Mills has been around for most of the failures in New York, and those failures have included futile chases of the top free agents on the market. Now they have David Fizdale as a salesman, assistant coach Royal Ivey as a connection to Durant from their days in Oklahoma City and a young -- and so far struggling -- core of former lottery picks. Is that enough to make Durant consider the Knicks?
While the Knicks are plotting to have enough cap space to offer a max contract, nearly half of the league will be able to do the same -- and some, such as the Nets, the Mavericks and perhaps most enticing, the Clippers, could have room for two max contracts. The Knicks' miserable start this season and the continuing soap opera of just how committed Kristaps Porzingis is to the plan makes the free-agent market the best chance for this current iteration of the franchise to prove that it really can change.
Asked about the long history of struggles for the Knicks, Durant took the high road.
“I don’t know. I never really looked at this organization or any organization as being a bad one,” he said. “Never really focused on that. But a lot of stuff has happened in every organization like that where players are uncomfortable, guys force a trade and coaches and GMs don’t get along. That’s just the nature of the business. It’s just a part of the NBA.”
With the constant change in the starting lineup for the Knicks this season, 16 games in, the only player who has played every game and not started is Mario Hezonja. The only other players not to start are Ron Baker and Luke Kornet. Friday’s game marked the first time that all three rookies on the roster started together.
When Mitchell Robinson blocked nine shots Monday against Orlando, it set a franchise rookie record - coming within one of the Knicks' all-time mark of 10 in a game set by Joe C. Meriweather in 1979 and matched by Dikembe Mutombo in 2004.
David Fizdale likes not only the blocked shots, but that the rookie keeps the ball in play.
“It’s fun, man. And the way he does it is so dynamic,” Fizdale said. “There’s not many times you see 7-footers cover that much ground. The kid was laying on the ground on the one and ran all the way to the opposite corner and blocked it. A lot of his blocks — I know Alonzo Mourning would be happy about it — he keeps them in play. Most young bigs, they like blocking that ball and seeing the fans cheer for them that way. But Mitchell actually has the awareness of ‘I’m blocking it and I’m keeping it in play as a possession for us.’ ”