There comes a point in every struggling team’s season when the handwriting is on the wall. That despite the noblest of intentions to keep fighting for a playoff spot that might seem out of reach, with a misguided, desperate hope that a magical and unlikely postseason run could eventually be on the horizon, it’s better to change course and make some honest assessments based on next year and for seasons to come.
Although they’ve often battled, the New York Knicks (25-38) — losers of an NBA-high nine games by three points or less this year — have seemed to reach that moment following another valiant effort which resulted in a 112-105 loss to the far more talented, defending Western Conference champion Golden State Warriors (51-11) at Madison Square Garden on Sunday.
Head coach Jeff Hornacek, however, isn’t quite there yet. But maybe he should be.
Asked if the Knicks should start sacrificing some of their veterans’ minutes in favor of their younger, developing players down the stretch of the season, Horancek answered defiantly, “I think we’ll look at it when that time comes. I don’t think anybody thinks now’s the time.
“Our guys are still playing as hard as they can and if it gets to a point when we look at it and say, ‘You know what, let’s start getting these young guys more looks and more opportunities,’ then we’ll do that. But for now, we’re still trying to win any game we can.”
While that’s an attitude that’s easy to respect, it may not be the most prudent course of action, particularly after Hornacek himself noted the ability of his team’s second unit to get New York back in the game following a rough opening quarter from most of the Knicks’ starters.
After shooting just 27.3 percent (6-for-22) from the floor in the first period, and trailing 29-18 as the quarter expired, the Knicks’ reserves — along with 21-year-old, second-year starting forward Kristpas Porzingis — sparked a second stanza in which New York shot 63.2 percent (12-for-19) and outscored Golden State 32-20, to take a 50-49 halftime lead.
“They pushed the ball and had a lot of energy,” Hornacek said. “They got up and down the court and got after it defensively… they got out and ran… we got it going with that group. The second group kept us in there.”
Yet Hornacek refuses to take a further look at those types of players right now.
While Hornacek, in that regard, is saying what team owner James Dolan (who’d love additional revenue from securing at least a couple of first-round home playoff games) wants to hear, the reality is that the Knicks — who have gone 34 straight games without a winning streak (last winning consecutive game on Dec. 20 and 22) – very likely won’t sniff the playoffs this season no matter how hard they continue to fight.
That’s not to suggest that New York should intentionally tank and give up on the remainder of its season to try on purpose for a better draft pick this June. But sitting six games in the loss column behind Detroit (30-32) for the final playoff spot in the East with only 19 regular season games to play, the Knicks, in their decision making, should keep what’s to come far more in mind over making an unrealistic playoff push.
Hornacek’s insistence aside, New York (whose playoff chase will become even tougher with eight of its next 10 games on the road, for a team that’s 10-21 away from the Garden this year) would be wise to further see what it has in some of its younger bench players against other teams that are either in better shape to secure a postseason berth or are competing for a better playoff seed.
Sure, the Knicks could determine that in other ways later on. But they could learn better about players like rookies Ron Baker, Mindaugas Kuzminskas and Chasson Randle, or Willy Hernangomez, Justin Holiday and Kyle O’Quinn — all of whom range in age from 22 to 27 — over the rest of the current season than in practices, or via next season’s training camp and meaningless preseason games.
And if a byproduct of that happens to cause New York to lose more than it otherwise would have, that might prove to be very helpful come draft time for a club which is currently tied with Orlando for the NBA’s sixth-worst record.
After all, falling as far as they did two years ago is what brought the Knicks Porzingis with the fourth overall pick in 2015.
As for someone like him, who appears certain to stick around for many years as a possible perennial all-star and a main future cornerstone of the Knicks’ franchise, New York should also use the rest of the season to keep Porzingis where he belongs and where he should ultimately stay for good — at the center position.
It’s no coincidence that Porzingis, who recorded only his 10th double-digit rebounding effort in 52 games this season (while scoring 24 points against the Warriors), grabbed a season-high and career-high-tying 15 rebounds while playing the 5.
“Playing at the 5 was a little bit different,” said Porzingis, who is getting more time at the center spot of late with ineffective starting center Joakim Noah injured. “Usually, I play the 4 (power forward position). I was being aggressive throughout the game and being ready with [the Warriors’] switches.”
Although Porzingis, at a fairly lanky 7-foot-3, 240 pounds, isn’t quite ready to battle other centers in the paint at either end of the floor, he leads the NBA with 3.8 fouls per game — a foul more than the 2.8 per contest he averaged as a rookie last year — mainly because he’s been forced too often to play out of position, on the wing, against smaller forwards instead of the opposing centers he should be guarding.
With the Knicks’ chances at reaching the playoffs at less than one percent, there’s no time like the present to play Porzingis exclusively at the 5 and star forward Carmelo Anthony at the 4, where he’s clearly been his most effective going back three head coaches, to Mike Woodson (who coached the Knicks from 2012-14), rather than sliding Anthony back to the 3 (small forward) spot.
All the way around, whether it’s for the duo of Porzingis and Anthony next season (should Anthony continue to hold onto his no-trade clause and wish to remain in New York) or whether it’s to take a deeper look at which younger players the Knicks should hang onto alongside Porzingis as he gets closer to entering his prime in New York’s post-Anthony era down the road, the Knicks shouldn’t wait to come to grips with where they are right now.
At a season-high 13 games under .500, and nearing two-and-a-half months since their last winning streak, with time quickly running out the Knicks’ season, the time is now for New York to focus less on trying to reach the playoffs and to use the rest of this season for helping future ones.