CLEVELAND — It wasn’t that long ago that LeBron James was ruling Cleveland and there were parades with fans happily throwing powder into the air.
The mood was far different Monday night as the Knicks and Cavaliers convened at Quicken Loans Arena for a battle to the bottom.
The Knicks entered the night with the worst record in the league and the Cavs were just a half-game better, a fitting opponent as the Knicks chased a humbling bit of history.
This game not only provided a glimpse of who is the worst team in basketball, but the Knicks’ 107-104 loss was their 17th straight defeat, the longest stretch of futility in the 73 years of the franchise.
The Knicks topped the 16-game losing streak set in January 2015, when the Derek Fisher-led Knicks were on their way to a franchise-worst 17-65 season. On that day it was Carmelo Anthony who led the way with 25 points. This time it was Kadeem Allen, recently promoted from the G League, leading the way with 25.
The Knicks have not won since they beat the LeBron-less Lakers on Jan. 4. They have lost 25 of 26 and 30 of 32 to settle in with an NBA-worst 10-46 record.
The Knicks had been down by 17, never leading for a second, but with Luke Kornet hitting a pair of late three-pointers, they cut the gap to one. But Kornet missed a wide-open three with 21.8 seconds left and Cavs rookie Collin Sexton (20 points) hit two free throws with 17.3 seconds left to push the lead back to three.
In the final seconds, John Jenkins, signed to a 10-day contract earlier in the day, missed a three-pointer and Dennis Smith Jr. misfired on a desperation shot at the buzzer.
“It’s incredibly hard,” Smith said. “Nobody likes to lose, especially when it gets to 17 in a row. I haven’t been here for most of it, but I dealt with it last year [in Dallas], kind of the same thing. I know how everybody in here feels and I know how major a win would be, like tonight would have been major for us.”
The Knicks point steadily to a future built around salary-cap space and draft picks. But the present is dismal. And if the plan set in place was bound for this outcome, they want you to know that they — the players, the coaches — are not tanking. If the losses come steadily, they still are enduring it with a hope of better days coming from it.
“Yeah, a lot of fans, they always say some dumb stuff,” Kevin Knox said after the morning shootaround. “You see it all the time with the tanking and want us to lose, stuff like that. It’s kind of stupid. They’re not really true New Yorkers. Real Knicks fans know that we’re trying to just take this year to kind of just develop us young guys and then next year hopefully make a push.
“Every night we’re going to go out and just play hard. We’re going to compete at the highest level. We might make some mistakes towards the end of the game which costs us the loss. We’re in a lot of close games with a lot of great teams, playoff teams. That just shows you how close we are from winning those games. We’re just missing a couple of pieces.
“It’s really good for us young guys to go out there and play against some of those playoff teams and be able to be in games. We lose to the Raptors by five, it’s a playoff team. It’s good to see us — we’re getting better every single game.”
It is that hope that they cling to and keeps them going when none of them ever has gone through anything like this. The Knicks knew this would be a difficult season when it began with Kristaps Porzingis expected to miss most or all of it. Even that distant hope that he would be back to change things abruptly ended when he was traded ahead of the deadline on Jan. 31.
The Knicks sat veterans much of the season, and depending on your perspective, it was either to allow the young players to develop or to continue the chase to the bottom of the standings and a shot at the top pick in the NBA Draft.
“I think there’s actually been teams that have come into games trying to lose a game,” coach David Fizdale said. “That’s just not in our vocabulary. Do we play well every night? Do we do enough to win the game every night? Maybe not. But at the end of the day, I know these guys are coming out to compete to win.
“[When people say tanking] I don’t read it and listen to it, so I don’t get caught up in it. I just think there’s a difference between losing games and trying to lose games. That’s why I think a lot of people have cracked down on just the idea of, you’re just coming in to try to lose a game. You’re cheating the game. I won’t let our players do that.”
The Knicks may have set a franchise record for consecutive losses Monday night, but they still have a long way to go to make their mark in the NBA record book. The longest losing streaks in league history:
28 games (1 team): 76ers spanning 2014-15 and 2015-16 seasons
17 (10, including 2018-19 Knicks)