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Knicks apparently are tearing it down to build it up

Their goal is to be a major player in the free-agent market.

Enes Kanter of the Knicks waits to enter

Enes Kanter of the Knicks waits to enter a game against the Suns at Madison Square Garden on Dec. 17, 2018. Photo Credit: Jim McIsaac

It has become increasingly clear in recent days that Enes Kanter and the Knicks will part ways soon, whether it is by trade, a buyout agreement or simply waiting out the clock for the end of the season.

But as the Feb. 7 trade deadline looms, Kanter certainly is not the only member of the roster whom the team is seeking to move.

At 10-37 with eight straight losses, 16 in their last 17 games and 21 in the last 23, the Knicks are in a free fall toward the NBA Draft Lottery, the place that was the goal all along in what the team readily admitted is a rebuilding season. But rebuilding might not be an accurate term, because the Knicks are in the teardown phase.

When The New York Times reported this past week that Tim Hardaway Jr. and Courtney Lee are being shopped, it hardly came as a surprise. With Joakim Noah already bought out earlier this season, Kanter, Hardaway and Lee have the top salaries on the payroll and, more important, Hardaway and Lee have deals that extend beyond this season.

The Knicks are intent on being players in the free- agent market in July. Moving Hardaway or Lee without taking back a contract that goes beyond this season would allow them to pay a veteran max contract to the likes of Kevin Durant . . . and maybe even move into the realm of chasing two top free agents.

In their dreams, adding a pair of stars to a returning Kristaps Porzingis, 2018 lottery pick Kevin Knox and — as long as they’re dreaming — the top pick in the 2019 draft is the next step of the rebuild.

So which Knicks are available? Well, almost everyone.

Kanter: Despite averaging a double-double, the center has not played a minute in the last two games, and his benching might make sense. As coach David Fizdale explained Friday, “We’re fighting for a certain style of play to start building for our future. I want to be able to play a very versatile style in the future and I don’t want to wait to start working at that and start building that out.” But it also has led to the first open mutiny in the locker room this season, with Kanter and Fizdale playing out a less-star-powered version of the recent Carmelo Anthony vs. Phil Jackson Knicks wars. The image- conscious Knicks would like Kanter to take his public persona elsewhere as soon as possible. He certainly can help a team with his scoring and offensive rebounding, even if he is an old-school center. However, because of a hefty salary that is hard to match, a buyout may be the way out.

Hardaway: The Knicks’ leading scorer didn’t exactly get a vote of confidence when Fizdale explained his 39 minutes on the floor and why he isn’t also being pushed aside to let the kids play. He pointed out, “Tim Hardaway is making $18 million for two more years with us. He’s a part of our future from that standpoint.” A streaky scorer who has endured too many nights like Friday, when he shot 2-for-14 as the primary threat, Hardaway has played hard throughout the mounting losses.

Lee: A classic “3 and D” player, able to shoot from the perimeter and defend on the wing, he also is a locker-room dream, well-liked at every one of his many stops in the NBA. A perfect bench piece for a contending team.

The kids: Of the young-and-under-control homegrown pieces, Frank Ntilikina is the mystery, a player who has never seemed to fit in the Knicks’ plans — even if he would be a nice complementary piece on an offensively potent group if the Knicks’ plans come to fruition. He still is well-regarded by many NBA teams with his defensive skills and length. Like Lee, Damyean Dotson is seen as a useful two-way player. Knox, the first lottery pick of the current front office, isn’t going anywhere.

The one-and-dones: During the last year, the Knicks have stocked the roster with reclamation projects Noah Vonleh, Mario Hezonja, Emmanuel Mudiay and Trey Burke. According to one Eastern Conference executive, all hold little value on the trade market. Vonleh, with a low cost and an expanding skill set, could be attractive to a team looking for an additional playoff piece.

In the meantime . . .

While the Knicks pile up losses, Fizdale insisted that the struggles are not going to destroy the locker-room culture.

“No. I think everybody likes Philly’s team right now. I think everybody likes Denver’s team right now,’’ he said. “All these young teams that went through hell for the last three years. I think everybody likes Brooklyn’s team right now. So no, the early losing just gets you hard. You got to get steeled up.

“You’re not just going to walk in here as a young team and come in and win. I think that’s where the misconception comes. Like oh, you say, ‘a winning culture.’ Most winning cultures start with getting your butt kicked first. Unless you’re walking into a gym full of stars.

“You got to go through the lumps. A lot of examples I can point at that are starting to rise out of that. And they’ve added a couple pieces here and there. But they really developed their young core and those guys are starting to play like veterans.”

Parting shots

The Rockets are firing up 44.36 attempts per game from beyond the arc, which would top the record set by last year’s Houston squad. Asked about his efforts to change the game, coach Mike D’Antoni insisted he has been working toward this for years and through his coaching stops.

“It’s evolved, like everything. Analytics has really helped me,” the former Knicks coach said.

“When I was in Phoenix, we’d come back and we’d lose taking 30 threes and everybody would be saying, ‘That’s too much, you can’t do that, it’s wrong.’ Then players would start believing it and you’d have problems. But it’s evolved, and probably my biggest mistake in Phoenix was not shooting enough.

“Definitely in New York, we didn’t shoot enough of them, although they’d have probably run me out of town earlier. But so be it. If you’re not as good as the other people, you have to play the odds even more. And you’ll get beat sometimes.

“In Phoenix, we had a saying: ‘You can’t out-Shaq Shaq, so we’ve got to figure out something else.’ That’s not going to work. We can trot people out and he’s going to kill us. We started shooting threes and spreading the floor.”

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