Doc Rivers stood outside the visitors’ locker room early Sunday morning — even earlier if, like Rivers, you were tracking the clock on West Coast time — and bemoaned his team having to take the court so early at Madison Square Garden.
Then his team took the court and scored the first eight points.
That two-minute span painted a pretty clear picture of the difference between the Knicks and Clippers, not just on the court on this day but in the more important matchup: free agency this summer.
While the Knicks’ rebuilding plans will hinge on their success in luring free-agent talent with the salary-cap space they created with the Kristaps Porzingis trade and the hope of lottery luck in the NBA Draft, the price they have paid in the rebuild is another dismal season on the floor. They fell to 14-60 with a 124-113 loss to the Clippers.
The Clippers also parted ways with their star core, trading away Blake Griffin last season and Tobias Harris this season and even letting DeAndre Jordan leave in free agency. And they figure to be one of the most active teams in the free-agent market, able to create space for two max players if they choose. But their rebuild, which includes two rookies in the starting lineup, has gone far differently from the Knicks’ path. They are 14-4 since the trade deadline passed and are fifth in the Western Conference.
The Knicks have preached a developmental year that could be the worst season in franchise history. They need to win three games in the final eight to tie the 17-win season of four years ago. And the development took another hit Sunday when Frank Ntilikina, who returned Friday from a 24-game absence with a strained groin, aggravated the injury and sat out the second half.
Kevin Knox, last summer’s lottery pick, suffered a sprained right ankle with 20 seconds remaining in the first half when he attempted a three-pointer and came down on Patrick Beverley’s ankle. He did not return.
“I know it got really sore on him in the last time he went out there,” David Fizdale said of Ntilikina. “So we’re just going to wait to hear from the doctors here. We just wanted to be cautious because that’s such a delicate injury that we don’t want to push it to a point where it can get worse. So we’ll find out. I’ve got to go back and meet with the doctors now. Kevin is going to be day-to-day.”
Whether the player development is done for the remaining eight games or not, the Knicks will have their sales pitch for the summer — and the Clippers will have theirs, which they aren’t about to reveal.
“I’m not going to give you my spiel, man,” Rivers said. “Come on. Other than the weather, we’re going to stop there. No, I don’t talk about free agency a lot. Right now I’m focused on our guys and developing our guys. We’re starting three young guys ourselves. We have three guys in the starting lineup under 22. We’re focused on that. We’re focused on trying to win as many games and see if we can get into the playoffs and see where we can go. And then the rest of the stuff will happen. That’s about it for us.”
It’s hard to see progress in the Knicks’ youth unless you consider rookie Mitchell Robinson’s shot-blocking — and even that was a skill he brought with him. Knox has been thrown in the fire and has struggled, and Ntilikina has had a lost season between injuries and shifting roles. The young players who still could be around have had their lessons in a constant muddle of losses.
“Our guys are really focused on getting better every single game,” Fizdale said. “Despite the losing, this has been one of the most professional groups that I’ve been around. To say that about the youngest team in the league, I’m really proud of that.”
“We don’t give them the excuse of youth,” Rivers said of his young players. “That’s something we talk about every day, no excuse. Playing hard has nothing to do with you being young. Not knowing the game plan, there’s no excuse. Getting fooled by a veteran, well, that’s going to happen and we’ll live with that. But the other stuff we won’t live with. That’s where our veterans come in. They don’t allow them to use youth as an excuse. They don’t. They’ll tell them. They make a mistake, that’s the last time you make that mistake.”
The real changes for the Clippers have come not just from trades but from a drastic makeover at the top. Since Steve Ballmer came on as owner, replacing Donald Sterling, they have gone from a stingy organization to a first-class operation.
"Oh, it’s been huge. It’s been the biggest savior for me," Rivers said. "I [was] recalling things in my first year and when I first came here I realized the situation that I’d gotten in that I didn’t know that I was getting in. You look at now — look at our front office, we have like 50 people in the front office. I think we had what, four? Just the changes and the things that Steve has allowed us to do, everything’s first-class. We do things right. We treat everybody right. It’s nice. It’s been great.”
Notes & quotes: Emmanuel Mudiay had 26 points and seven assists and Jordan added 20 points and 13 rebounds for the NBA-worst Knicks, who are three games behind the Suns. Lou Williams had 29 points, former Knick Danilo Gallinari added 26 and Montrezl Harrell had 24 for the Clippers.