MEMPHIS, Tenn. — The Knicks crossed out the sixth stop on their road trip Friday night, another hard-fought, close loss that at least got them on their way back to New York for one last road game, this one in Brooklyn on Sunday. So they at least could sleep in their own beds.
It’s a fitting final stop on a trip that included some signs of hope, but in the end just continued to push them to the reality that they face — a return to the NBA Draft Lottery.
And across the court at Barclays Center, they will get a view of what could have been for them. And in it, perhaps a lesson for their efforts to shift their fortunes.
The Knicks’ last bold rebuild came when they shipped out Kristaps Porzingis, Tim Hardaway Jr. and more for salary cap space and future picks, hopeful that the cap space would pay off with a chance to land Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. But that incarnation of the front office never even got a meeting with the two superstars, who instead headed across the East River to Brooklyn.
So what will the Knicks face on Sunday? Durant, still proving to be fragile at times but arguably the best player in the game when he is healthy. Irving will be an observer again, still refusing to be vaccinated and currently eligible to play in only four of the Nets’ final 15 games in the regular season. The fine young core they had developed was swapped out for James Harden, who — as he does — forced his way out and left the Nets with Ben Simmons, another "will he or won’t he’’ star.
With the Knicks crashing back to the lottery after last season’s surprising jump to the No. 4 seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs, the future already is being plotted.
Around the NBA, it’s an open secret that the Knicks are targeting Utah’s Donovan Mitchell, who has New York roots and connections to Knicks front-office executives through their time at CAA.
But just as the Nets went all in, imagine what it would take to entice the Jazz to deal Mitchell when he is under contract for three more seasons. It would mean stripping the Knicks of just about every useful asset they have right now. Start with RJ Barrett and start adding young pieces and draft picks and then wonder what they would be left with to build around Mitchell. Would it even be close to what he already has in Utah?
Same with Zion Williamson. Even if the Pelicans were willing to sell low, it would mean risking draft picks and pieces for a player who has played only 85 games in three seasons.
So going forward, what is the path for the Knicks?
Ideally, more games just like this road trip. Show signs of life, play hard and lose enough to add to the ping-pong ball tally for the lottery. Watch Barrett continue to grow. Give playing time to the young players around him and learn a few things. Can Jericho Sims fill Mitchell Robinson’s role if the Knicks find Robinson’s next contract too pricey? Is Quentin Grimes a solid rotation piece? Does Cam Reddish (who is out for the season) have a future with the team? What about Miles McBride?
The Knicks will enter Sunday afternoon’s game against the Nets 4 1/2 games out of the final play-in spot with 15 games to play. Could they leapfrog the Wizards and either the Hornets or Hawks to slip in? Maybe. But would it be worth it — losing a shot at winning the lottery for a chance to try to fight through two rounds of the play-in for a shot at getting blasted by one of the Eastern Conference powers?
The answer is easy. Continue on the current path, hope to find a star in the draft and push aside the voices in the front office promising a quick fix.
This year’s model
For further evidence, the Knicks need only look at the last team to beat them, the Grizzlies, and see a way to appease the fans and begin to ascend through the NBA standings.
Like the Knicks, the Grizzlies found themselves disappointed in the 2019 NBA Draft Lottery. They landed the No. 2 pick when everyone believed Williamson was the sure thing.
But the Grizzlies’ pick, Ja Morant, has emerged as the class of that draft, becoming a rising star in the league for his talent and for pushing Memphis (46-22) all the way up to the second-best record in the Western Conference.
There are no other superstars on the roster, but the Grizzlies compete in a way that New York fans would love. Aside from the high-flying acrobatics of Morant, they play stifling defense and are just a fun, hard-working team, shades of the Grit and Grind Memphis teams of Marc Gasol, Mike Conley and Zach Randolph mixed with a more athletic, fast-paced group.
"We got the blessing of everybody before to go ahead and turn this thing to the next level," Jaren Jackson Jr. said. "Grit and Grind was super-special and it was their thing. They know that we’ve got to have our thing so we can be special, too. We’re all on the same page."
"They got a really good team," Barrett said. "They really know their system. They share the ball. They’re happy for each other’s success, you know what I mean? They’re like a well-oiled machine."
That Robinson question
Robinson has played the best ball of his career lately, adding a 10-point, 16-rebound, four-block, four-assist, three-steal effort Friday to a solid run of games. An unrestricted free agent at season’s end, he has hesitated to sign an extension before free agency starts and figures to have suitors among the Pistons, the Thunder and, if they can work the cap space, the Mavericks.
The Knicks will have to decide just how valuable the rim-protecting center is, particularly with Barrett eligible for an expensive extension, on a roster that already has Sims and Nerlens Noel, similarly athletic defenders around the rim with similar limitations offensively.