WASHINGTON — It was a positive sign for the Knicks when they put general manager Scott Perry and team president Steve Mills on the court at Madison Square Garden on Saturday, mic’d up and with the video magnified onto the huge scoreboard above the floor. The positive was that the season-ticket holders who had filled much of the lower bowl of the arena cheered along with the optimistic take put forth by Knicks management.
As the Knicks embark on an admitted patient approach, taking the season as a rebuilding project— a process to trust, if you will — the fans seem willing to join them on the journey as long as there is a plan and perhaps a timetable that doesn’t extend too far into the future.
The test of that patience began Monday night at Capital One Arena, where the Knicks opened the preseason with a 124-121 overtime win over the Wizards after a week of training camp, banging with each other and trying to absorb the lessons of new coach David Fizdale.
As the plan calls for, Kristaps Porzingis was not with the Knicks as they traveled for the game. He stayed home rehabilitating his ACL tear, an injury that could keep him out either a few more months or maybe the entire season. So while Fizdale preaches toughness and hustle and belief, he lacks the weapons he needs to actually make anyone outside the locker room — such as the season-ticket holders — believe that this season’s team is more than just something to pass the time.
The Knicks have made it clear that this is a player development season. So seeing Kevin Knox in the starting lineup Monday was an encouraging beginning, and watching second-round pick Mitchell Robinson throwing down lobs for dunks and getting under the skin of Markieff Morris enough to incite the veteran forward into a pair of technicals and an ejection was fun for fans.
“This stupid [expletive] rookie talking too much,” Morris said. “Obviously, I didn’t like what he said and the refs overplayed it, threw me out.”
For his part, Robinson said he didn’t say anything at all. “I wasn’t even paying attention, to be honest,” he said. “I just wanted to play. I didn’t really care what he had to say.”
That is music to Fizdale’s ears right now. “Yeah, that was awesome,” he said. “You don’t instigate it but you don’t back down . . . The kid’s tough. Don’t let his slim frame fool you. He’s not going to back away. The kid grew up in some tough surroundings. I’m sure he got in some scuffles down there in the bayou. That’s who we are. That’s the Knicks’ DNA. We’re going to keep holding on to that. We may not necessarily totally instigate stuff, but we’re definitely not shying away from stuff.”
Fizdale is preaching culture, a commandment given from the front office, too. So if that meant Patrick Ewing getting an invite to address the team Monday morning or a rookie going nose-to-nose with Morris, that’s all part of a positive start.
Knox finished with 13 points and 10 rebounds, with the most impressive aspect of the game being how the 19-year-old grabbed defensive rebounds and kick-started the offense by pushing the ball upcourt.
The youth movement, at least what is in place now, is the placeholder for the fans. The Knicks have plenty of veterans—an eight-year vet in Enes Kanter at center and a five-year veteran in Tim Hardaway Jr. who will be tasked with carrying the scoring load with Porzingis sidelined. Lance Thomas and Courtney Lee are at the point in their careers where they might be better served as role players on a contender rather than mentoring the youngsters.
When Fizdale rolled out his starting lineup for this opening night, it included Knox but also had Frank Ntilikina coming off the bench in favor of Trey Burke -- who, for context, was cut loose by the Wizards after the 2016-17 season. Mario Hezonja also came off the bench, with Thomas starting. “Literally it’s a blank slate,” Fizdale said. “We’re going to throw different guys out there, different combinations out there, and see what comes out of it.”
But the hope, the one that keeps the fans cheering for now, is in the future. Porzingis is that future, once he gets healthy and then when he signs a contract extension. Knox is that future and maybe Robinson is, too. The Knicks still hope that Ntilikina, last year’s lottery pick, the last vestige of the Phil Jackson era, will become a part of that future. During the last year, they have collected low-risk reclamation projects in former lottery picks Burke, Hezonja, Emmanuel Mudiay and Noah Vonleh.
If this season turns out the way that most outside of the Knicks' organization believe it will, there will be another lottery pick on the way next summer. It is that, along with the salary-cap space that management hopes will lure a star to join the growing cast, that has buoyed the fan base through the rebuilding process.
When the Philadelphia 76ers embarked on their rebuild, far more drastic as they shed any semblance of talent to collect lottery picks, they asked fans to trust the process. In New York, they seem to trust it right now. But the fans, burdened by years — decades, really— of losing with little hint of a process, now will be tested.