Carmelo Anthony will be on the court when the Knicks open the regular season Thursday in Oklahoma City, but he’ll be wearing the home white. Life without Melo will be about the same as life with him the last several years minus a lot of the drama.
Anthony and Phil Jackson are gone. Derrick Rose is too. The headlines for the Knicks this season should be mostly about basketball. But it may not be very good basketball.
If you’re looking for a silver lining, the Knicks have their own first-round pick in the 2018 NBA Draft.
This is a rebuilding year. The Knicks haven’t made the playoffs the past four seasons, but they were projected to at least three of those seasons. Last year’s veteran-laden group believed they could have a long playoff run. They went 31-51.
President Steve Mills and GM Scott Perry have made it abundantly clear they want to develop the young players and build around Kristaps Porzingis, Tim Hardaway Jr., Willy Hernangomez, rookie point guard Frank Ntilikina and undrafted second-year guard Ron Baker.
The East may be watered-down, but no one outside of the Knicks locker room is projecting them to make the postseason.
“We’re expecting big things,” Hardaway Jr. said. “I don’t care what the outsiders or anybody’s talking about. We know what we believe in and we feel that we’re a really good team. As long as we come out on the floor and play our hardest and compete, that’s all that we ask.”
There could be some long nights for the Knicks and their fans.
Everything depends on the health of their key players — Porzingis and Ntilikina played 56 minutes combined in five preseason games — and how quickly the young guys grow up and grow into their new roles. It’s Porzingis’ team now but he and Hardaway Jr. will be go-to guys for the first times in their young careers.
Other factors are how the veterans perform and handle this shift in philosophy, and whether everyone buys into playing defense consistently.
“We’re building something,” Porzingis said. “We want to move forward as a team. We’re far from a championship right now. There are other teams that are much closer to that. For us as a team, we need to have a progression, we need to move forward as a team, as an organization and get better as a team every year.
“I don’t know how long but I believe that if we do all the right things and make the right moves and grow, then we will be there one day.”
If the preseason is any indication — the Knicks were 0-5, gave up 112.6 points, and lost by an average of 15 points — they’re going to need patience, and plenty of it.
“We’re young, immature in some areas,” Baker said. “We’re just trying to mature each day.”
The Knicks added well-traveled veterans Ramon Sessions, Michael Beasley and Jarrett Jack and acquired Enes Kanter and Doug McDermott for Anthony.
They’ll join returning veterans Courtney Lee, Lance Thomas, Joakim Noah and Kyle O’Quinn. None of their futures with the Knicks is secure. Second-year player Mindaugas Kuzminskas and second-round pick Damyean Dotson round out the roster.
Injuries prevented Jeff Hornacek from playing his regular rotation in the preseason, so that could just add to the growing pains the Knicks likely will experience.
“Am I patient?” Hornacek said with a smile. “Sometimes it’s tough and it’s taxing to be patient because everybody wants to win. I’ll always repeat Jerry Sloan’s line, ‘If they lay it all out there and they can look at themselves in the mirror and say they put it all out there and we don’t win, so be it.’ That’s step one. If they do that they’ll win a good amount of games.”
If the Knicks don’t play hard, they may not only lose games. They could lose their coach too.
Jackson hired Hornacek. The new regime may want to bring in their own coach if the young guys aren’t growing and developing and playing every game with a supreme sense of urgency.
That’s been a recurring issue over the years, and Anthony was conveniently blamed when the Knicks played with a lack of effort. It falls Porzingis and Hardaway Jr. to change that.
Hardaway Jr., the Knicks’ 2013 first-round pick who was with Atlanta the last two years, returned on a four-year, $71 million contract. He was easily their best player in the preseason.
“When you’re trying to build with young guys, how do you find an established guy who’s played three, four years that’s 24, 25 years old that you can get a hold of?” Hornacek said. “It’s very difficult. He was a great piece. He fits right in with what we’re trying to do.”
The Knicks want to play faster, but they can’t if they’re not defending — another recurring issue. They’re stressing defense, even though they added mostly offensive players. Hornacek can turn to Lee, Thomas and Noah, who is suspended the first 12 games for violating the league’s anti-drug policy, to add balance to some lineups.
“We have to continue to work and get better,” Hornacek said. “It’s not going to be where it’s going straight up. We may get better for a little bit, then we might level out, then we might get better again. All you can do is lay it out there.”