NEW YORK — Trying to avoid another losing skid after guiding the New York Knicks to their first four-game winning streak in 26 months, interim head coach Mike Miller was searching for some catalysts while his team still had a chance to head into the NBA All-Star break with a win over Washington Wizards at Madison Square Garden on Wednesday night.
Yet, instead of seeking help from his younger players in need of seasoning — with the Knicks (17-38) seemingly well on their way toward the NBA lottery for a seventh straight season — Miller curiously chose to largely stick with older veterans who allowed the Wizards (20-33) to turn a four-point halftime deficit into a 114-96 win with a 68-46 second half.
The worst example of that was Miller playing a pair of North Carolina alums — small forward Reggie Bullock and shooting guard Wayne Ellington — to play unproductively for more than 39 combined minutes while shooting guard Damyean Dotson sat on the bench until it was basically too late for him to have any sort of meaningful impact.
At 6-7-foot, 205 pounds, the 28-year-old Bullock (the third-oldest Knick, with his fifth team in his seventh NBA season) started and shot just 2-for-12, including 1-for-5 from 3-point range, and was a game-worst minus-18 in 24½ minutes. Meanwhile, 32-year-old Ellington (New York’s second-oldest player), with his 10th team in his 11th-year (at 6-foot-5, 207 pounds), went an uninspiring 1-for-4, matching Bullock’s five points, in 15 minutes off the bench.
The similarly-sized Dotson (6-foot-6, 208 pound) might’ve done a lot better than that if given a real chance, rather than sitting on the bench as Bullock and Ellington bricked their ways to a bad night.
Dotson missed the Knicks’ three previous games due to an illness, but Miller confirmed that Dotson practiced on Tuesday and was well enough to play substantial minutes against the Wizards.
However, despite shooting 52.9 percent (36-for-68), including a sizzling 51.3 percent (20-for-39) from behind the arc, while playing between 16 and 27 minutes over his prior nine games, Dotson didn’t see the floor on Wednesday night until 8:53 was left, with New York trailing, 82-77. He was subbed out less than three minutes later, at the 6:09 mark, with the Knicks down, 91-82, and returned to play the final 3:38. By then, the game was already out of hand, with Washington ahead, 101-85.
The only thing that was stranger than Miller’s playing time allotment was his explanation of it afterward.
“We got in a situation where, we made the statement before, whatever the game calls for, we were trying everybody,” said Miller, who played 13 players. “We gave everybody a chance tonight to see if they could give us a quick spark, because we were still in the game even though we were struggling to score consistently, we were still in the game.
Against Washington, Miller’s “whatever the game calls for” theory should’ve included an attempt to sustain Dotson’s recent hot shooting on a night when New York suffered miserably from the perimeter.
“We had our chances going into the fourth (trailing by just four) to really cut into it and tie it up, [and] get a lead,” Miller said. “We saw an opportunity there. We went smaller a little bit, we tried some different lineups, we tried different people, we tried different things, looking for a little spark there.”
That all sounds fine, but when the 25-year-old, third-year Dotson (a Knicks second-round draft pick in 2017) had been playing as well as he had, and Bullock and Ellington — neither of whom figure to be part of New York’s longer-term plans — were doing very little to help the Knicks rally, why not try Dotson much sooner for the spark Miller was seeking?
That’s especially true after the NBA trade deadline came and went last week and thus, New York is no longer trying to quickly increase the trade value of veterans like Bullock and Ellington.
The argument to have played Dotson much earlier, when it mattered, was even more valid as the Knicks started 2-for-19 from 3-point range over the first three quarters before largely abandoning that shot in favor of trying to mostly unsuccessfully bulldoze their way through the paint for difficult close-range shots.
While Dotson was ignored for most of the game, back-to-back No. 8 overall draft picks, forward Kevin Knox (New York’s second-youngest player, at 20 years old, selected in 2018) and point guard Frank Ntilikina (the Knicks’ fourth-youngest player, at 21, taken in 2017) each had limited appearances against the Wizards.
Though Knox has been struggling this season, he could have taken some of Bullock’s minutes had New York chosen to play a bit bigger, if Dotson wasn’t going to play much. And, he certainly could’ve played more than the 10½ minutes he saw in place of fifth-year forward Bobby Portis, who only shot 2-for-6 and scored seven points (though he did grab seven rebounds) in 15 minutes, particularly when Knox seems to be the type of player the Knicks would rather build around over the long term far more than Portis.
Meanwhile, Ntilikina — who continues to make only a very minimal impact offensively, but who remains New York’s best defender — played just 11 minutes, seeing his most significant time when the Wizards were held to only 21 second-quarter points. Ntilikina played very sparingly in the next two periods when Washington regained the lead with 31 points in the third quarter and ran away with the game with a 37-point fourth quarter.
The best teams keep playing defense even when their offense struggles, but the Knicks are far from that.
Thus, one would think Miller would want to keep his best defender in the game at that point, to at least shore up one end of the floor.
Miller tried to explain, “Sometimes when you go through and you’re not making shots, you really have to dig in and give yourself a chance to stay in there. I think we let one end affect the other end a little bit, and that was probably the biggest thing.”
If it was, why wasn’t Ntilikina playing more at that point, especially when the Knicks needed his defense in the second half, before New York began fouling too much and before Washington put the game out of reach?
“We got some decent looks through the game,” Miller continued. “We didn’t make them and I think we finally got to a point [when] and we had some drops on the defensive side and allowed [the Wizards] to [score] some more.
“We felt pretty good early even though we weren’t making shots, we were able to keep that in check and stay in the game. As it went on, we continued to not make shots and we had too many turnovers. I think it affected the other end [of the floor] negatively.”
And yet, sixth-year starting point guard Elfrid Payton — the opposite of Ntilikina (strong offensively, yet weak defensively) — played almost 31 minutes, including 17:50 in the second half and 8:22 in the final quarter as Ntilikina could do nothing to help stop the Wizards’ offense from the Knicks’ bench.
Insisting that New York’s development of all of its young players is a priority, Miller said, “As we’re approaching this, this is all about development. That’ll never change. It’s about development, it’s about, ‘How do these guys get better?’ There’s a lot of things that go into the development to make these guys better and just having minutes isn’t the end-all. I think there’s other ways and other factors.”
Like learning by watching from the bench, or through practices and film sessions.
All true, but maybe not quite as helpful as playing in game situations, at least according to the newest Knick — ninth-year forward Maurice Harkless, who made his Knick debut on Wednesday night after being traded to New York last week — and apparently not to Miller, either, who contradicted himself on that thought.
Getting acclimated to his new team, Harkless said, “We kind of went through some stuff in practice, but it’s different when you are going live (in games).”
After saying development isn’t all about the games, Miller also said of his younger, developing players, “Certainly, they need experience. Experience is maybe the best teacher at times.”
As Harkless noted, there’s no experience as good as game experience.
Among Knicks fans and the media, there is some speculative debate about the degree to which Miller is too loyal on his own to the notion that a veteran like Bullock will get hot even after starting cold when a younger player like Dotson could be doing better if given a greater opportunity versus the idea that Miller’s hands could be tied with possible directives from general manager Scott Perry — who, particularly in the wake of last week’s firing of former team president Steve Mills — might be trying to keep his job by justifying last summer’s signings of players like Bullock, Ellington, Payton and others.
Miller added, “We’re going to continue every day to work on development and get guys better and move forward. As we do that, it puts us in a position where you have a chance to win games, too. So, if you say we’re focused on development, that doesn’t mean you’re not trying to win games and you’re not trying to improve your overall team.”
That would be justified if Bullock and Ellington had combined for 30 points on good shooting in a win instead of totaling 10 points while repeatedly misfiring, and if Payton played good enough defense, or if Portis played well enough overall to help beat the Wizards. But, that statement from Miller is difficult for Knicks fans to accept when a slim halftime lead with those players turned into a blowout loss while the younger players who might’ve given New York what Miller wanted — a better chance to win — watched helplessly from the Knicks’ bench as the game got away from New York.
Despite the contradictions in Miller’s actions against the Wizards compared to his reasoning for such afterward, the Knicks — who were 4-18 when Miller took over for fired former head coach David Fizdale — have shown significant improvement overall and have been more competitive under Miller, who is 13-20 in his first stint as an NBA head coach.
That wasn’t lost on Wizards head coach Scott Brooks, who said, “I’ve been in Coach Miller’s position. I’m impressed. I watched the [prior] four or five [Knick] games. [His] team plays hard.
“Twelve years ago, I was in that position when I took over a team that had a lot of moving parts. It’s not an easy position. I commend Coach Miller and their staff for giving great effort. One thing you know when you play the Knicks now, they’re going to play hard and give great effort, and you need to bring it.”
That part, Miller has down. But exactly which players opponents will bring it against should be strongly reconsidered the rest of the season.