NEW YORK — Freefalling out of the NBA’s Eastern Conference playoff chase with 15 losses in their past 18 games, the New York Knicks’ once-promising season, treading water at 22-22, three games past the mid-point, has sunk like a rock, at 25-37, with only 20 games to play.
While there are several reasons for the sharp drop-off, the most glaring has been New York’s insufficient play from it back court, which gets dominated on a regular basis.
As many of the league’s best go by the mantra of “In Guards We Trust,” the Knicks are stuck in a (Bermuda-like) triangle offense with an aging and quickly declining starting point guard (Jose Calderon); a streaky and inconsistent starting shooting guard (Arron Afflalo); a pleasant surprise from the Development League last season, who since hasn’t grown much this year (Langston Galloway); a ninth-year, reserve shooting guard (Sasha Vujacic) who offers little in while getting more minutes than he deserves; a first-round draft pick whom New York traded for last June, but who plays infrequently Jerian Grant); and a one-dimensional former Developmental League star (Jimmer Fredette) who plays even less as he finishes out a 10-day contract with his fourth NBA team in five years.
Particularly when it comes to starting back courts, the chasm that exists between the teams with the most talent in that area relative to what the Knicks trot out each game was as evident as ever, during New York’s 104-85 loss to the Portland Trailblazers at Madison Square Garden on Tuesday night.
And so are the vastly different directions the Trailblazers and Knicks are headed in as each team tries to rebuild toward brighter futures.
As has been the case so often this season, New York’s starting back court of the 34-year-old point Calderon (in his 11th season) and Afflalo (in his ninth year) were badly outscored by their rising, young counterparts — fourth-year star point guard, Damian Lillard (from Weber State) and the pride of Lehigh, third-year shooting guard C.J. McCollum — by a whopping 55-18.
This was one game in which the erratic Afflalo shot the ball well (making six of nine field goal attempts) in 36 minutes. But McCollum still outscored him by nearly double, 25-13, while making eight of 18 shots, in three fewer minutes.
An even bigger issue for the Knicks has been at Calderon’s position, where as so many other of the NBA’s top point guards have in the past, Lillard had his way with New York’s starting point guard, outscoring him, 30-5, after scoring 24 first-half points. He also had six assists (four more than Calderon) and only one turnover (to Calderon’s three).
Additionally, Lillard and McCollum made as many free throws (13) — with Lillard accounting for 10 — without missing a free throw, as the Knicks’ entire team (which went 13-for-18 at the foul line), while Calderon (who played 25 minutes) and Afflalo failed to get the charity stripe a single time.
After scoring 10 points in the opening quarter, Lillard rested for the first 7:35 of the second period, before replacing McCollum with his team holding a slim 42-41 lead. He needed only 3:04 to score 14 of Portland’s next 16 points, to give the Trailblazers a 58-50 halftime lead, from which New York would never recover.
McCollum then scored 13 points over the final 9:59 of the third quarter to push the margin to 85-72, as the Knicks’ 13-point fourth quarter dropped them to 0-14 when scoring under 90 points this season (sure, the rules and styles of play have changed a lot, but remember when the home team at the Garden often won throughout the 1990s, with grit and all-out hustle, while scoring under 90 points?).
The huge scoring disparity for Portland’s starting back court over New York’s was merely a continuation of how the Knicks’ starting back court has been unable to compete against some of the better starting back courts the NBA has to offer:
- In the contest that started New York’s poor stretch of play (in the Knicks’ 45th game of the season), Calderon and Afflalo (in 53 combined minutes) were outscored by Chris Paul and J.J. Redick (in 52 combined minutes), 23-9, even with off-games from Paul and Reddick, during a 28-point home loss to the Los Angeles Clippers on Jan. 22.
- One night later, on the road, Kemba Walker and ex-Knick Jeremy Lin each scored 26 points as that combination torched Calderon and Afflalo, 52-16, in a 13-point Charlotte win.
- In the next game — an overtime home loss to Oklahoma City — Russell Westbrook and Dion Waiters beat up on Calderon and Afflalo, 44-23, with Westbrook outscoring Calderon, 30-6.
- A game later, with Calderon out, Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan gave New York flashbacks of Lin and Walker with 26 points each, as Afflalo and Galloway combined for 32 during a 10-point loss in Toronto.
- Two games after that, the Knicks held the league’s reining Most Valuable Player and the NBA’s highest scorer, Stephen Curry, to just 13 points, on his worst shooting game (5-for-17) of the season. Yet that was still good enough to keep pace with Afflalo and Galloway, who combined for just 14 points, on 5-for-25 shooting, in 70 minutes together — as Curry’s fellow Splash Brother, Klay Thompson, lit New York up for a game-high 34 points, on 14-of-18 shooting, in a 21-point Golden State rout.
- Five games later, the Knicks wasted 67 points (on efficient 26-for-45 shooting) from their front court of star forward Carmelo Anthony, rookie forward Kristaps Porzingis and center Robin Lopez as John Wall and Bradley Beal embarrassed Calderon and Afflalo, 54-11, with Calderon going scoreless on four shots.
- More recently, Calderon again went scoreless as Lowry and DeRozan scored 22 points each to humiliate Calderon and Afflalo, 44-7, in a Toronto’s 27-point win at the Garden on Feb. 22.
- And three games later, Dwyane Wade and point guard Goran Dragic — whom the Knicks targeted, but were unable to land — blew past Calderon and Galloway, 39-14, with New York’s starting guards managing just seven points each.
Of all of those different instances, the Trailblazers should seem like the vision of the team the Knicks would have hoped to be, while currently falling well short of that level.
After all, it was New York which over the summer, signed both Afflalo and Lopez (who has mostly played well for the Knicks), each of whom played key roles in helping Portland to its second consecutive 50-win season, its fourth 50-win season in seven years and the Trailblazers’ first division title in 16 years last season.
Afflalo and Lopez were Portland’s fifth and sixth-leading scorers, respectively, last year. But the Trailblazers also took further tremendous hits in losing their second (star forward LaMarcus Aldridge), third (Wesley Matthews), fourth (Nicolas Batum) and seventh-leading (Steve Blake) scorers from last year.
Still, Portland had enough foresight to build around what was left, starting with Lillard (currently the NBA’s fifth-leading scorer, with 25.4 points per game) and McCollum (only 11 spots back, at 20.9 points per game), who are the presently the league’s third-highest scoring, trailing only Golden State’s Curry and Thompson, and Oklahoma City’s Kevin Durant and Westbrook.
McCollum has become such a great complement to Lillard, that he’s widely considered the favorite to win the NBA’s Most Improved Player Award this season.
While many thought 11 rings worth of coaching master would automatically translate into Knicks team president Phil Jackson pulling shrewd moves to make New York better, Jackson’s team tanked to a franchise-worst 17-65 last year (after Jackson began the year by saying the Knicks were a playoff team), and are currently on pace to finish 33-49, which would be four games worse than the 37-45 club Jackson took over as a rookie executive two years ago.
Meanwhile, Portland general manager Neil Olshey, a New York native from Flushing, Queens, has the Trailblazers – who after being so heavily depleted in the offseason, were thought to have had a ceiling of about only 30 wins this year — tied with Dallas for the sixth playoff spot in the Western Conference, just three games behind Memphis for the fifth position.
And that’s with the Trailblazers ranking last in the league, with a team payroll of $53 million, while paying bargain prices for Lillard ($ 4.24 million this season) and McCollum ($ 2.5 million) relative to the Knicks’ spending the 20th most in the NBA ($72.4 million) with more than one-fifth of that sum going to Calderon ($7.4 million) and Afflalo ($8 million).
Olshey hired also head coach Terry Stotts, who after guiding Portland to those consecutive 50-win seasons the past two years, after taking over as head coach the year prior, was named the Western Conference Coach of the Month for February, hours before coaching against the Knicks on Tuesday night.
In contrast, Jackson, stuck with a much older, slower and inadequate point guard going against the likes of young, dynamic point guards like Lillard — after needlessly trading Tyson Chandler’s expiring contract for Calderon — is already onto interim head coach Kurt Rambis, after he fired his first head coaching hire in New York, Derek Fisher, earlier this season, a little over 1½ seasons into Fisher’s tenure.
When the teams last met, on Dec. 12, in Portland, the Knicks — even with Porzingis going scoreless (on 0-for-6 shooting) for the only time in his rookie season — ended a four-game losing streak with a solid 112-110 win, even though Calderon went scoreless and New York’s starting back court (including Afflalo that night) was manhandled by Lillard and McCollum, 51-15.
At that point, the Knicks were 11-14, and a game better than the 10-15 Trailblazers.
But as New York improved slightly, the Knicks eventually saw reality set in, following the misguided decisions of Jackson to rely too heavily on bolstering the front court and bench around Anthony and Porzingis, while neglecting the back court in a guard-driven, especially point-guard dominated league, as Portland — whose underwhelming starting front court was outscored by that of the Knicks’, 41-10, on Tuesday night — continued to develop the lethal combination of Lillard and McCollum, a pair that figures to be dangerous for several years to come.
As a result, New York is playing out the string in what is fast becoming Anthony’s third straight season without playoff basketball after he reached the playoffs in each of his first 10 NBA seasons.
“It’s tougher now,” Anthony admitted. “At least last year, we was in a situation where we had to start from the bottom, from the ground up. This year, we got off to a good start, we had spurts where we was playing very well and we had spurts where we wasn’t playing well. Everything just shifted all of a sudden for us.”
Conversely, the Trailblazers, after their earlier loss to the Knicks, bottomed out six games later, at 11-20, and have since become one of the league’s better stories following an impressive 22-8 resurgence that included handing NBA-best Golden State its worst loss of the season, 137-105, on Feb. 19, as Lillard outscored Curry, 51-31.
After the loss, Rambis lamented the same problems he’s repeated before since taking the reins from Fisher.
“We had trouble containing the guards most of the night,” he said. “We’ve been working on getting [our bigs] up higher so they can give a better presentation on screen-and-roll defense… but it’s something that we’re not conditioned to do and we haven’t worked on it enough where we can get efficient at it.”
Being good teammates while taking the heat off of the issues with New York’s guards, Porzingis said, “It’s not individual defense, it’s team defense. We’ve all got to be connected. We’ve all got to help each other. A lot of it is on us, the big guys. We should have played better defense. It’s a team effort.”
Accepting some fault himself, Lopez said, “I know there were a couple of possessions that were on me, especially in the pick-and-roll. They were just trying to pick off whoever was guarding up top and letting Damian and C.J. come off for wide open jumpers. I have to be a little higher up on those.
“We’re just not consistent. We’re not consistent in a lot of areas… we all have the mindset that we can beat any team that we play against. That happened earlier in the season. We were all playing together, we were playing very well, we were beating great teams… I think we have some faults that are reoccurring.”
As the losing continues, Knicks fans at MSG, which booed in the second half, are becoming as impatient as the players, to the point where one man dressed in a suit, sitting in a high-priced seat behind the bench, directed his opinions directly at Anthony in the final minutes.
“Nobody wants to lose,” Anthony said. “I hate being in that situation. The losing gets frustrating… at that point, I think my head was in towel. I was just trying to breathe and just trying to relax, and kind of gather myself a little bit at that point.
“He just kept calling my name, calling my name, and just saying, ‘You guys suck, you guy suck.’ At that point, like I said, I was trying to gather myself and I just turned around, and… I pointed to [team owner James] Dolan, and told him, ‘Look, the owner’s right there. Ask for your money back.
“[He’s telling] me that he’s never coming to another game, and ‘You suck,’ and I mean, you just don’t want to hear that, so I pointed to the owner and told him, ‘Look, you deal with that, with [Dolan]. Maybe you can get your money back.”
Two years into Jackson’s five-year plan, Dolan — who is paying Jackson $12 million per year to turn his team around — might be wishing the same, as New York looks at Portland and sees the Trailblazers’ ahead-of-schedule rebuild as being everything the Knicks had hoped for themselves, but which they are so far falling significantly short of achieving.