ORLANDO, Fla. — When Knicks coach David Fizdale put all three of his rookies in the starting lineup Friday, he made a statement. Then he made a stronger one when he inserted all three with the game on the line, saying he wanted to test them under fire.
But the bigger test might be how Fizdale can manage the veterans on the roster. Enes Kanter was left on the bench as the Pelicans dominated the Knicks’ young frontcourt that night. He left the locker room quickly with no comment and then went to social media, tweeting a line of periods. When asked about it Sunday, he didn’t reveal the meaning but said with a smile, “It’s only going to grow bigger.”
Kanter wasn’t happy, but he took his case to the floor Sunday night, scoring 21 points and grabbing 19 rebounds in 38 minutes against Orlando. But whether it is the rookies or the veterans, the common denominator is that the Knicks just don’t have enough talent. They completed a winless three-city road trip by dropping their fifth straight game, falling to the Magic, 131-117.
After piling up 14 points and 15 rebounds in 18 minutes in the first half, Kanter started the second half in place of Mitchell Robinson, who had four fouls in seven minutes. Noah Vonleh also was inserted in place of Allonzo Trier. But after cutting a 16-point deficit to one at halftime, the Knicks couldn’t pull even. Tim Hardaway Jr. had 32 points and Trey Burke added 31 in 29 minutes off the bench, but the three rookies totaled only 11.
The bigger problem was defense, as the Knicks gave up a season-worst 131 points and at least 128 for the fourth time in the last five games. Orlando’s Aaron Gordon had 31 points, including 20 in the first quarter, and Nikola Vucevic added 28 points, 10 rebounds and nine assists.
“It’s a quarter every game,” Fizdale said. “If you really go back through all of them, it’s one quarter where the doors get blown off right now. I can’t put my thumb on it. It’s a different guy every game. It’s different mistakes every game.”
“We gave up 44 first-quarter points,” Kanter said. “We cannot start the game like that, especially on the road. If you start like that, you’re not beating nobody. We need to start the game better. I don’t know what we should do — drink coffee, Red Bull, Gatorade, I don’t know. We just need to start the game better.”
Kanter may be the most pressing case, a player who has established himself as much as anyone on this lottery-bound development project. After opting in to the final season of his contract during the summer, he will be a free agent at season’s end, and although his minutes and numbers have for the most part remained steady, he was pulled from the starting lineup after five games. And on nights like Friday, when he played 15 minutes, there is clear frustration.
Asked about it Sunday morning he said, “Next question, please. You already know these answers. I don’t know why you’re asking me.” When asked if he had talked with Fizdale about his role, he said, “Nope. Nothing. Nothing. Zero.”
Knicks general manager Scott Perry sat down for a heart-to-heart talk with Kanter, but he is not the only player in this situation. Mario Hezonja didn’t play at all Friday. Trey Burke, who started the first five games, did not play at all in three of the previous four games before coming off the bench to total 55 points against the Pelicans and Magic. All three, along with Vonleh and Emmanuel Mudiay, will be free agents after the season.
"We know ultimately this season, the biggest, most important thing we do is development,” Fizdale said. “You can’t put anything above that. I try to have empathy for my veterans and make sure to give them ample time to get out there and produce and help our team and also for them. I take it to heart. They’re playing for their livelihood, their contracts. That means a lot to me. I understand that. I try to keep a good balance where I keep that in mind and I try to put them in position where they can still achieve to get a good contract.’’
The Knicks have made it clear what the intent of this season is, and the goal became more crystallized when the rookies were put together in the starting lineup for the first time Friday. The team is willing to absorb the losses — and inherit another lottery pick — while waiting for Kristaps Porzingis to heal from his torn ACL and making plans to chase free-agent stars in the summer.
But that doesn’t make it easier for the veterans who are seeing themselves placed in the background.
“I do try to respect all of the guys and the situation that they’re in,” Fizdale said. “But our No. 1 priority, I can’t put anything above it, is our player development.”