Late in the first half Monday afternoon, Frank Ntilikina raced upcourt on a fast break, and as a defender closed in, he put the ball behind his back, softly flicking it to Enes Kanter to finish off the break.
As the Garden crowd applauded, it came with a disclaimer. The Knicks were manhandled by the Oklahoma City Thunder, 127-109, and that one moment was a rare highlight in a game nearly devoid of reasons for the home crowd to cheer. It also came with the reminder that those two players could be potential trade chips before the Feb. 7 deadline.
The Knicks (10-35) never led as they lost their sixth straight, 14th in the last 15 and 19th in the last 21.
After a week in which Kanter remained home while the team went to London and he made more political news than basketball news, he was informed that he has been demoted to third- string center — actually the fourth option on this day — and both the team and player seem ready to part ways.
“Everybody knows I love it here, man,” Kanter said. “I just saw one more time tonight when I went out there. It’s like my home. I love it here, but in the end, I want to play basketball. I miss playing basketball, man. And I would let Scott [Perry, the Knicks’ general manager] and my agent handle that stuff.”
While Kanter’s departure has seemed written in stone as his role has been reduced and his contract expires at season’s end, Ntilikina is a trickier proposition.
Now in his second season after being selected with the No. 8 overall pick, he spent the time overseas being cheered on by the European crowd and questioned by the French media as to just why he hasn’t found his way in New York. He has maintained that the inconsistent role and minutes — including a number of DNPs — have not caused his confidence to waver.
“I know my ceiling,” Ntilikina said. “I know where I can go at the end of my career. I know what I can do and what is required to get there. It’s not going to be easy to get there, but I’m still confident in my abilities and what I can do in the future.”
Asked if Ntilikina’s role could change with the Knicks prioritizing the future — leading to Kanter’s place on the bench alongside Courtney Lee and Lance Thomas — coach David Fizdale wasn’t providing any encouragement.
“I’m going to keep him in that backup point guard spot for now,” he said. “I think he’s a team player. He’s one of those type of players, a lot of people want him to be this scorer or playmaker and all that stuff, but ultimately to win, you need guys that can do all the other little stuff. I think that is what he is.”
It was easy to see the potential even in this one-sided loss. Ntilikina, who had nine points and five assists in 30 minutes, made a defensive stand against Paul George (31 points) to end the first quarter, showing the skills on that end that are a rare commodity on the Knicks.
It isn’t his scoring or shooting that the Knicks need if he sticks around through the rebuild. They figure to have plenty of scorers with Kristaps Porzingis back next season, Kevin Knox developing and another lottery pick and potentially a free-agent star coming aboard. A pass-first point guard is actually a fit for the Knicks.
“I think you’ve got to have guys that are thinking pass-first sometimes,” Fizdale said. “If you’ve got enough guns, you’re going to need somebody to move that ball or those guns are going to go after each other’s throats. That’s just the balance that you have to find in your team and your roster as you build it. That’s what I see in Frank right now . . .
“We’re thinking big picture. Who’s a winner? Who’s going to be a guy that can help us win next year and into the future? That’s how we’re looking at Frank.”