NEW YORK — Depending on who you listen to or what you read, you might have a very different take on how New York Knicks fans feel about the overall direction of their team as this season’s NBA trade deadline quickly approaches, with the Knicks headed toward their seventh straight losing season.
On Twitter, knowledgeable, diehard Knicks fans complained about the lack of minutes to help further the development of New York’s younger players in favor of others who may not figure to remain part of the team’s long-term future plans.
Yet, at Madison Square Garden, where the Knicks (11-32) battled hard and lost, 90-87, to the Philadelphia 76ers (28-16) on Saturday night, one of the National Basketball Association’s most loyal fanbases created a playoff atmosphere despite the reality of New York ultimately losing its fourth straight game and eighth in nine contests during another lost season.
Knicks Nation on Twitter bemoaned the likes of promising, second-year center, 21-year-old center Mitchell Robinson merely playing 24 minutes off the bench, roughly the same time that 34-year-old veteran center Taj Gibson played as a starter.
The grumblings were even greater about starting guards Reggie Bullock (who played 35 minutes, at 28 years-old) and Elfrid Payton (31½ minutes, in his sixth year) in favor of third-year, 2017 Knicks lottery pick Frank Ntilikina (who played 16½ minutes), second-year guard Allonzo Trier (who played 13 minutes) and 2017 Knicks second-round pick Damyean Dotson (who didn’t play) — especially with New York’s third overall pick and usual starter, rookie R.J. Barrett sitting out with a sprained right ankle.
It was the same for 2018 lottery pick, forward Kevin Knox (who only played 11½ minutes off the bench), two-way G League forward Kenny Wooten (who was inactive) and Knicks second-round pick, rookie forward Ignas Brazdeikis (who did not play) while 30-year-old Marcus Morris (20 points in 36 minutes) led New York in scoring for a 15th time this season and sixth-year forward Julius Randle (14 points, 12 rebounds in 34 minutes) led the Knicks in rebounding for a 19th time this year.
In the bigger picture, the view among much of Knicks Twitter is understandable, particularly with New York dropping to the league’s third-worst record, eight games out of the final postseason spot in the Eastern Conference with 39 games remaining.
Though as of yet unfounded, some believe there is even a mandate from the Knicks’ two-headed front office — president Steve Mills and general manager Scott Perry — to play the team’s veterans in an attempt to accumulate as many wins as possible and thus prioritize their own records and job security over trying to develop the team’s younger players. Mills and Perry might also be pressuring Miller to play more veterans (for now) to determine if they want to retain interim head coach Mike Miller (who fell to 7-14 as an NBA head coach while taking over for fired head coach David Fizdale, after the Knicks started the season 4-18) beyond this season.
Fans taking those views were upset that 64.8 percent of New York’s 88 shots came from the quartet of Morris (8-for-17), Payton (5-for-14), Randle (5-for-13) and Bullock (6-for-13) while no other Knick attempted more than eight shots (Ntilikina went 2-for-8).
However, Knicks Twitter isn’t completely in agreement on the “Mills-Perry directive” conspiracy theory, and some even feel that New York should hold on to its best (and third-oldest) player, Morris, who is having a career year in his ninth season rather than seeing the Knicks take the seemingly more prudent action a young, struggling team should probably follow — that of trading an older veteran at peak value before he might decline, in order to acquire further assets (whether in the form of other young talent or draft picks) on which to build for the future.
Some also feel that the Knicks shouldn’t waste further time investing in some of New York’s younger players, whom they feel have been given enough of a chance to improve and have yet to show enough progress, and should instead abandon the youth movement entirely to restabilize the franchise through the acquisition of even more veterans (though that route would seem to put New York in NBA purgatory with a ceiling of no higher than a middle-of-the pack playoff seed in the Eastern Conference, and no real chance of ever becoming a legitimate contender down the road).
Other fans take a more pragmatic posture, pointing to the schedule, that if the Knicks are trying to shop players like Morris, they should take full advantage of allowing their tradeable veterans to play for a little while longer, with only nine games left before the Feb. 6 NBA trade deadline, before making a switch to play New York’s youth over the successive final 30 games of the season.
Then there was the mood at the Garden, where if you weren’t aware of the calendar, you might’ve thought New York and Philadelphia were playing a pivotal game in a latter-round playoff series. In an NBA age when defensive intensity has given way to focusing far more on offensive production, the Knicks and 76ers gave a brief reminder of when times were much better at MSG, with New York routinely fighting for key playoff wins in the 1990s buoyed by a hard-nosed style of play.
After spotting Philadelphia 28-25 lead at the end of the first quarter and a game-high 37-27 advantage early in the next period, then tying the game at 45-45 on a Randle right-corner 3-pointer, and allowing the 76ers to close the first half on a 7-1 run (to take a 52-46 lead into the locker room), the Knicks clamped down in the second half.
New York allowed just 38 second-half points, outscoring Philadelphia 23-18 in the third quarter (to get within 70-69), while holding the 76ers to just 38.8 percent shooting (7-for-19) — including only 2-for-9 from behind the arc – in the period.
Philadelphia’s offense had similar struggles in the final quarter, when the 76ers went just 8-for-21 (38.1 percent) from the floor, including 2-for-8 from 3-point range.
“I think we are heading in the right direction [defensively],” Morris said. “In the second half, we emphasized turning up our physicality and that’s what we did. We played well [but] that’s a good team over there (in the 76ers’ locker room).”
If there was any consternation about who was on the floor and getting the bulk of the minutes during the second half, you’d never have known it, as vocal 76ers fans earlier in the game and loud “Let’s go Sixers!” chants raining down almost halfway through the fourth quarter (when Philadelphia built an 84-77 lead), from just underneath the Knicks’ retired numbers, gave way to much louder “Defense!” chants and loud cheers from Knicks fans over the final five minutes.
Though the Knicks’ defense failed them when an open, right-wing 3-pointer from Long Island native Tobias Harris (15 points, 4-for-8 from 3-point range) put Philadelphia ahead to stay, 89-87, with 28.2 seconds left, it was New York’s lack of offensive execution that lost the game after that point.
On the Knicks’ prior possession, New York cleared out for Morris, who hit a pull-up 12-foot jumper from the right elbow to cap a 10-2 Knicks run and give his team its final lead, 87-86, with 31.3 seconds left.
However, New York had a spacing disaster, trying something similar on the Knicks’ next trip. Trying to set a pick for Morris, Robinson brought his defender too close to Morris on the left wing. Randle and his defender were also too close. Double-teamed, Morris was forced to give the ball up to Randle, who had the ball deflected off of him and out of bounds for a costly and very untimely turnover in front of the 76ers’ bench with 7.6 seconds remaining.
“We were doing something similar than we had before,” Miller said. “We were getting into a cleared side. We had plenty of time and our spacing just broke down a little bit there.”
Philadelphia also deserved credit for recognizing what New York was trying to do and playing it differently than the time before.
“We were trying to get Marcus the ball on the elbow and clear some room for him going to his right, and [the 76ers] just pushed everything left and trapped us on that side, and we got caught in a bad position,” Randle noted.
Helped by a missed free throw, the Knicks had yet another chance, down three points, with 4.2 seconds left and without a timeout remaining. However, New York could only get the ball to just over the mid-court line, where Morris hoisted a desperation, potential game-tying heave which clanged off the right side of the rim at the final buzzer.
While previously boisterous Knicks fans left the Garden disappointed, and another rare win would’ve been nice, the final outcome didn’t matter that much in the grand scheme of where New York is headed and the decisions the team will make on or off the court for the rest of the season and into the offseason. Those choices, however they play out over that time, will certainly be watched closely by all Knicks fans, and the debates will likely continue.