Before the first practice of the preseason, Knicks executives Steve Mills and Scott Perry, along with coach David Fizdale, held court and insisted that a plan was in place and there would be no temptation to speed up the process. Mills insisted, “We’re committed to not missing any steps.”
But of course in those hopeful days before a game had been played, before the losses began piling up, it is easy to talk about process and plans. It is another to slog through the never-ending march through the muck.
When the Knicks reached the midpoint of the season Tuesday night, it came in the form of another lesson of just how far they still have to go. Midway through the schedule, the reality was on display that the Knicks are nowhere near the midpoint of their rebuild.
"We've got a long ways to go,” Fizdale said after the latest one-sided loss. “We've got a lot of work to do. We've got to learn to play complete games. Hopefully, over the second half of the season, which I expect us to continue to get better. I expect the second half for the young guys to be a little more familiar and hopefully we're going to get a little more trust between us."
From those first days of training camp the Knicks have repeated a mantra of player development out loud and in quieter voices, admitted that this season is a placeholder, just killing time until the summer when the Knicks can begin to dream of better days. For now, Fizdale shuffles the lineup regularly, pushing players in and out of the starting five with results that are similar no matter what combination he tries -- resulting in a 10-31 record.
What they won’t say in public or private is that they are tanking.
“Firstly, we have a responsibility to the fans,” Madison Square Garden chairman James Dolan told reporters last week. “Fans pay for tickets, and they deserve to see the best game you can give them. So, that’s probably Number 1. Number 2 is, I don’t believe – when you go in and you tell a team, even if you’re only telling the coach, to lose the game, you’re de-spiriting the team. And that hurts more than getting a better draft pick helps. It’s hard to reignite, you know, the spirit of a team.”
The balance for Fizdale is adhering to the promise of those first days that the Knicks would play to win every night, even if the roster wasn’t constructed to compete with much of the NBA. For a brief moment - three games early in the year - he put all three of the team’s rookies in the starting lineup but quickly shifted gears.
Now, with Kristaps Porzingis still uncertain about a return this season from the torn anterior cruciate ligament that has sidelined him for the entire season, and an eye on clearing cap space in the summer, veterans have been relegated to reduced roles. Courtney Lee and Lance Thomas have virtually disappeared from the rotation. Enes Kanter has been moved out of the starting lineup and now is being shopped in an effort to move the frustrated center to a team focused more on the present.
The problem for the Knicks is that in this player development season there hasn’t been the hoped-for development on the whole. The Knicks have three rookies - Kevin Knox, Mitchell Robinson and Allonzo Trier - and two second-year players in Frank Ntilikina and Damyean Dotson under team control at low cost.
Knox has shown a steady ascension, starting and earning Eastern Conference Rookie of the Month honors for December. But Robinson has been sidelined by nagging injuries and after a quick start mostly struggled with foul problems. Trier earned a guaranteed contract, but has not grown from his early success. Ntilikina has been the most divisive player among the fan base, but all can agree it’s puzzling to see him placed on the bench in favor of a player such as Emmanuel Mudiay, who is playing on an expiring contract.
Mudiay has certainly improved, but he carries a $12.8 million cap hold for next season. If the Knicks wind up paying Mudiay rather than a potential free-agent star such as Kevin Durant or Kyrie Irving, this plan is certainly going to be a harder sell. But for now the Knicks are heading toward the bottom of the standings - and a spot near the top of the upcoming NBA Draft.
“There’s always going to be friction,” Fizdale said. “That’s the NBA. That’s what it’s going to be. You’re always going to have these dynamics that happen on the team. Very rarely do you put together a 15 to 17-man roster counting flex guys where there’s not going to be moments where the two things rub against each other. And that’s the part of this league. That’s the juggling act I have to handle. Am I always going to be right? No. But will I always be honest and upfront about what we’re doing? Yes.”