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Knicks face a playing time conundrum: Try to win now with veterans or develop youngsters?

Knicks small forward Marcus Morris Sr. reacts after

Knicks small forward Marcus Morris Sr. reacts after missing a game-tying three-point shot at the buzzer during the fourth quarter against the 76ers at Madison Square Garden on Saturday. Credit: Brad Penner

GREENBURGH, N.Y. — It’s the conundrum that affects all teams at one time or another but seems to be perpetually suited to the Knicks in recent years: When do you decide to mortgage the present to set up a better future?

It’s something that dominated the conversation about the Knicks last season, when social media and sports pundits rivaled only the U.S. Army in their constant talk of tanks. In what increasingly appears to be a lost season, the question has resurfaced, if in a different form.

It was highlighted on Saturday when the bulk of the playing time went to the veterans and the young, developing talent took a backseat in a 90-87 loss to the 76ers, the eighth in nine games for the Knicks (11-32). In a recurring theme, Marcus Morris, Julius Randle and Reggie Bullock played at least 34 minutes each and Frank Ntilikina, Allonzo Trier and Kevin Knox played a combined 41 minutes.

Bullock, Morris, Taj Gibson (24 minutes Saturday) and Elfrid Payton (31 minutes) all are either free agents after the season or face a non-guaranteed contract.

One could argue that Mitchell Robinson should be starting over Gibson and that Ntilikina should be getting the minutes that Payton is getting.

“I think that’s probably the balance for every team,” Mike Miller said, referring to the need to win today while still developing younger talent. “But I really do believe they go hand-in-hand because as the players are growing and developing and playing better, then you’re going to see the success as it comes to team stuff . . . Sometimes it’s through the lessons, the different lessons that we learn and get better.”

The scales, though, tipped in the second half of last season when David Fizdale and company saw the need to focus on developing young players, eventually benching Enes Kanter for Luke Kornet, for example.

Asked if the Knicks will do it again if they fall further out of contention, Miller said, “Our focus is just how do we get better every day and how is that going to translate to our team having success on a daily basis. It hasn’t even been a full week [since] we had maybe our best game of the season against Miami. The most complete game is the way I should say that. We played our most complete game less than a week ago. I see us doing a lot of good things . . .  We’re in a tough stretch right now. We knew this month, what the schedule looked like, and there are no excuses and no looking around. We’ve just got to dig a little bit deeper and make a few more plays.”

Knox is averaging 19.4 minutes during what decidedly has become a sophomore slump. Trier has gotten into only 20 games and is averaging 12.3 minutes. Each is averaging about 10 minutes less than last season.

“Every team is made up of roles,” Miller said. “If Kevin is playing alongside Marcus and Marcus is rolling and having a really good day [in] some games, it’s a little tougher for Kevin to get the minutes to get going. We’re very conscious of making sure we do [get him playing time] because he’s been productive with his minutes.”

 Notes & quotes: Dennis Smith Jr. (oblique) won’t play Monday in Cleveland but will be re-evaluated Tuesday, Miller said. Smith is “progressing well” and has been taking part in practices, although with limited contact. He has not played since Dec. 23.


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