The signs were there right from the start Friday night on what life will be like for the Knicks as they embark on the rest of their season. The loudest ovation from the Madison Square Garden crowd during player introductions was reserved for Boston point guard Kyrie Irving, a recruiting call from the desperate fan base.
It was a solid strategy the day after the franchise-shifting trade that sent Kristaps Porzingis, Tim Hardaway Jr., Courtney Lee and Trey Burke to Dallas in a deal that won’t show its real return until the summer free-agent chase, when the Knicks hope the salary-cap space can turn into stars . . . perhaps even Irving.
Right now, the most valuable player for the Knicks is the player to be named — whomever they can land in the free-agent market with their newly created salary-cap space. Those thoughts will help them endure nights like this, when they fell to the Celtics, 113-99.
“All I do is look forward,” coach David Fizdale said. “I’m really excited about our future, I like where we sit, I like our talent and I like our flexibility.”
Where the Knicks sit right now is at 10-41 — the worst record in the NBA — and with 12 straight losses, 20 in their last 21 games and 25 in their last 27. They have not won at the Garden since Dec. 1 (13 consecutive home losses), which might explain why the cheers often are for the best players on the opposing squads these days.
The Knicks took the floor Friday still waiting for the trade to be finalized, which meant they were without Dennis Smith Jr., DeAndre Jordan and Wes Matthews Jr. Their starters: Kadeem Allen (who arrived from the G League on Monday), Damyean Dotson, Luke Kornet, Noah Vonleh and Kevin Knox. (Dotson finished with 22 points and Knox had 21.)
It’s easy to see why the Knicks are looking to the $70-plus million in cap space they have created and the two future first-round picks acquired in the trade. In a season that has seemed like a long nightmare, the hints of hope lie in the unknown — the possibility of landing a player such as Irving in free agency and pairing him with another star. The Knicks can’t put names to it now, but with two max contract slots available, you can be sure that Irving, Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard, Jimmy Butler and Kemba Walker will be hearing from them in July.
In the morning, Irving, when asked if his mindset had shifted since his October promise to remain in Boston, said, “Ask me July 1.” But now he heard the “We want Kyrie!” chants loudly echoing through the Garden.
“I’m appreciative of the fan support I get in any arena, but of course, coming back home, obviously, what’s going on in terms of that noise and commentary is a bunch of nonsense right now,” said Irving, who grew up in West Orange, New Jersey. “You can’t do anything about it. You just accept it. I’m appreciative, but at the same time, I’ve got a game to focus on.”
Irving finished with 23 points, 10 rebounds and six assists.
For now, the Knicks still were saying their goodbyes to Porzingis, explaining where things went wrong. Fizdale steadily had maintained that Porzingis was in sync with the team, engaged during practice and games. He had spent a week in the summer in Latvia while trying to ensure that Porzingis didn’t have the rift with him that existed in previous regimes.
Fizdale was asked if he had exaggerated where Porzingis was with the team. “I wouldn’t say exaggerated,” he said. “I’d say, 10 days, a lot of stuff can happen. You can’t really put a thumb on when it starts, when the disengagement starts. But you can feel it. This is a people’s league. This isn’t a — we’re not robots. And so there’s days where a guy could be overly engaged and in a film session, just into it and all of that, and then two days later, he can feel out of it. Or maybe absent.
“And so, that can — spot here, spot there — you just start to feel that vibe. I just like that it was clean. Both parties came together and talked it out face-to-face, expressed how they felt. It wasn’t a messy deal. I just thought that was class on both parties’ part.”
Porzingis might disagree with that. The Knicks said the deal was made because he told them he wanted out Thursday afternoon, and somehow they had a deal ready to go within hours.
Fizdale did his part in Latvia but never got a chance to coach Porzingis, who even at his most engaged was not a part of the active roster. He practiced mostly by himself, doing conditioning work to try to rehab from the ACL tear he suffered last February that has sidelined him all season long. So Fizdale said he didn’t believe he could have done anything more to keep Porzingis happy.
“We had a great conversation last night,” Fizdale said. “And obviously both of us wished each other well, kind of laughed about it, like we never even got to get on the court together like we wanted to. But at the end of the day, this league is funny how it works, how things come back around in certain ways, and we left it in a great place. The whole time we were together here, I really felt like we had a good relationship. So I leave with no regrets with that.”