Sometimes in basketball, as in life, the more things change, the more they stay the same.
That’s especially true for this year’s New York Knicks compared to last year’s version of the team.
After a 22-22 start last season, the Knicks dropped nine of their next 10 games to fall to 23-31. That’s when team president Phil Jackson fired his first head coaching hire (and second choice, behind Golden State’s Steve Kerr), Derek Fisher. Going 9-19 from that point, to finish a dismal 32-50, New York proved that its problems went far beyond its old head coach.
So last summer, Jackson very nearly started from scratch, with cornerstones Carmelo Anthony and Kristaps Porzingis anchoring a mostly new roster that included five new pieces in the front court and just as many in the backcourt at the start of this season.
Yet despite all of that change and having much higher hopes, the Knicks’ 119-115 loss to the Los Angeles Clippers (32-21) at Madison Square Garden on Wednesday night left New York (22-32) one game worse on the one-year anniversary of Fisher’s firing (and coincidentally after playing the same amount of games this year as the Knicks played under Fisher before his abrupt departure).
Of course, New York can’t simply lose like most struggling teams. No, there always has to be some drama, whether it’s Jackson tweaking his best player — Anthony — through subtle jabs in interviews or cryptic tweets, or something crazy and unexpected happening, like what took place during the first quarter against the Clippers, when former Knick Charles Oakley, seated behind team owner James Dolan, had a confrontation with MSG security before being dragged into the tunnel and taken to a Manhattan police station, where he was charged with four misdemeanors, three related to assault and one for criminal trespassing (despite holding a valid game ticket).
As the crowd’s focus shifted back to the game, Knicks fans saw New York lack the type of defense that were a hallmark of Oakley’s far more successful Knicks teams from 1988-98.
Although New York posted 36 first-quarter points, the Knicks were tied after one period. And while they matched their season-high for first-half points, with 67, they still trailed by one at intermission.
Temporarily committing to defense in the third quarter — holding Los Angeles to 20 points on 39.1 percent shooting (9-for-23), including just 1-for-7 from 3-point range — New York built a game-high 10-point lead at the start of the final quarter on a Porzingis trey.
But while the Clippers reversed the third-quarter trend on the Knicks — limiting them to 20 fourth-quarter points — they scored 31 over the final 9:37 as New York went back to its old ways, even with starting point guard Chris Paul missing the game for Los Angeles.
Following a pair of crowd-pleasing dunks by Porzingis, which gave the Knicks their last least, 111-109, with 1:56 left, the Clippers closed the game on a 10-4 run.
While there have been some bright spots — like head coach Jeff Hornacek’s ability to mix and match rotations well earlier in the season, and the valuable offensive contributions (added last summer) from starting point guard Derrick Rose, as well as from reserve forwards Willy Hernangomez and Mindaugas Kuzminskas, reserve guard Justin Holiday, and backup point guard Brandon Jennings — they’ve been overshadowed by New York’s other failings, primarily at the defensive end.
Once 11-4 at home this season, the Knicks have since gone 2-10 at MSG while falling below .500 (13-14) at the Garden. They also haven’t won consecutive contests over their past 25 games, dating back to home wins on December 20 and 22, and have gone just 8-22 (second-worst in the NBA) since a once-promising 14-10 start.
To further illustrate how New York’s defense has let down its offense, the Knicks, who should win the vast majority of games when posting at least 110 points, fell to 11-8 when scoring that many, and to only 1-4 when they’re top three scorers — Anthony (who scored 28 points), Porzingis (27) and Rose (20) — have each scored at least 20 points this season.
Even with center Kyle O’Quinn (filling in for offseason signee-turned-disappointment Joakim Noah) nearly giving New York a fourth player reaching that amount on Wednesday (with 18 points), it still wasn’t enough.
He’s one Knick who let his frustrations show when asked about New York being able to do no more than spin its wheels even after all of the changes since Jackson let Fisher go.
“This is a new year,” a testy O’Quinn said, before asking rhetorically, “Who’s thinking about last year?”
He then sarcastically answered his own question to me, “Apparently, you,” before adding, “Last year was last year. This is a different team, this a different coach, it’s a whole different thing going on and I think that this year is more important than last year.”
If that’s the case, Q’Quinn’s words make little sense, as does the degree to which Jackson is willing to accept a state in which the team he’s tasked Hornacek to coach is showing no growth from the one under Fisher.
While it’s true that as O’Quinn declared, “it’s a whole different thing going on,” the results remain very much the same. And if this year is truly “more important than last year,” then a defiant O’Quinn shouldn’t have so easily shrugged off the fact that at least record-wise, the myriad of Jackson’s changes have thus far yielded no progress whatsoever since Fisher was dumped.
Taking a more positive and far less defensive stance than O’Quinn, Anthony similarly chooses to leave the past where it is in relation to this season.
“I don’t even look at it, I just don’t,” he said. “It’s kind of hard to look at last year and try to compare it. I try to stay away from that.”
Divulging more about his thinking last year, Porzingis added, “It’s different this year, definitely. It was a big shock last year, when Fisher got fired. We felt like we were working towards something. Even though we were losing, we were moving forward and we had a structure. So it was a shock for me.
“This year, obviously it’s a similar situation with our record and where we stand right now, but we can’t be worrying about what’s going to happen. As a player, I have to be focused on what I need to do on the court every game — just keep going day by day, game by game and not worry about the outside noise.”
But maybe that noise isn’t such a bad thing to have to deal with, because it steal means the Knicks — even with all of their struggles and at a season-low 10 games under .500 — are still at least somewhat relevant, if only because they’re in the weak Eastern Conference and just 3½ games out of a playoff spot.
It’s when the noise might be replaced by the silence of indifference — because New York may have dropped too far and has run out of time to salvage its season, and maybe even its future while Jackson and Anthony are still around — that it’s time to worry.
And maybe that time is now, with the lack of progress from Fisher’s era to Hornacek’s being the biggest sign that perhaps the Knicks are still much further away from turning their franchise around than Jackson or even the most optimistic Knicks fan believes.