Rock Bottom

This has to be the low point...right? RIght??

Saturday morning, following the Knicks loss to the Sixers - one which dropped them to 4-15, a game behind last year’s tanktastic pace that they are now three games behind following Sunday’s home loss to Boston and Monday’s Thanos snap in Milwaukee - a buddy of mine sent me the following text:

He was in good company.

The Sixers game, despite being a close loss, produced what felt like a palpable sea change among the fan base, or at least the part of it that makes time to voice their displeasure on Twitter. Festivus had come 25 days early, and boy, were there grievances.

The noise got louder after the loss to Boston, one that confirmed they’d finish their second ten games with the same record as their first.

After last night, any stragglers left who still had faith that this team could make something meaningful of this season, well…

(the lesson, as always: wear your helmet and padding when riding a tank, kiddies)

You could kind of see this coming. Human beings are only designed to take so much, and if you track the emotional roller coaster of Knick fans over the last two (20?) years, it makes sense. From the moment KP crumpled down in a heap, there has been a slow build up to this season. Even after the failure of June 30, this crop had to bear some fruit, even if it was a few lone grapes.

What we’ve gotten is a box of raisins. That’s fine on occasion, but when it’s Halloween and every house you hit for three straight blocks yields the same result, you get Knicks fandom.

Therein lies the irony, of course. Frustration boils over for many reasons, but at its core, it happens when we don’t get something we not only want, but also feel like we deserve. Knick fans came into this year feeling like they deserved a normal, competent (if not outright decent) team.

But that’s not how the NBA works. Bad basketball usually yields more bad basketball. Bad seasons perpetuate. Vicious cycles continue. Sometimes Anthony Davis is the pot of gold at the end of the gray rainbow, but far more often, it’s MKG. And even when it’s Davis, it doesn’t guarantee you a damn thing.

That was the hump the Knicks were trying to get over this summer, and perhaps knowing how hard a slow and steady climb to respectability would be, they were more than happy to read the tea leaves and go all in on Plan A, which included KD, Kyrie, maybe AD and maybe Zion.

That, you may have heard, didn’t happen. What we were left with was what some (including myself) were convinced was a carefully executed Plan B, made with all the foresight it deserved. That was the beauty of going All-In on Plan A though; if it didn’t work out, you still had $70 million worth of chips to bet with, even if the resulting pot was meager in comparison.

What we hoped we got was a team that, as ill-fitting as it seemed on paper, was conceived with a greater goal in mind. This season was never about wins. It was about continuation of a plan that included fortifying a culture with veterans, and not just any vets - ones who both amplified the basketball strengths of the young core and brought a respectability to how they went about their business off of it.

Last night, against what is quite clearly the best team in the league this year, was an opportunity to show that that plan was not yet dead in the water. Toughness, fight, keeping hold of the rope…it’s possible to be bad and do these things. Through 20 games, this sad Knicks team had done very little right, but they had at least done that.

Instead, Milwaukee eviscerated their spirit by the time the first quarter was over.

Do the Bucks do this to teams on the regular? Sure, and things are never as bad as they seem when you’re playing a league powerhouse on their home floor, especially one that is firing on all cylinders and currently employs the best player in the NBA.

But this game felt like a moment when the Knicks needed to show up - for the coach that’s probably going to lose his job over their futility, for the front office that assembled them, and most of all, for themselves. As Taj Gibson mentioned on Sunday night, the Knicks know the bandwagon is empty, and all they have is each other. Last night was 12 separate guys looking for answers. None appeared.

Is it hopeless? It never is, really. The playoffs were never a realistic goal, but it appears that even staying in the chase and playing meaningful games into March - hell, January - appears cooked. It feels like last night was the final nail in that coffin, and the experience of being in the chase that we hoped would turn us into a downmarket version of last years Clippers or Nets seems to have gone up in smoke.

Perhaps that’s for the best. It will change the tenor of this season in a hurry, tank GIF’s will reign, and fans will start to get upset with every additional win (although if they’re achieved on the backs of the young players, perhaps that foolishness will subside).

What won’t change anytime soon is the tenor of the conversation around those that built this team and have been tasked with guiding it. $70 million may not buy what it used to, but it should still be good for something. There’s a reason I’ve been saying since early July that I didn’t envy the job David Fizdale had before him. Aside from the problem of having too many pieces, there was no obvious solution to making them all fit.

Fiz critics have been quick to point out that what he lacks as a play caller and rotation setter isn’t made up for by whatever positive vibes he’s able to maintain in the locker room, and last night will only deepen their resolve. It’s all fair game, because really, how can anyone involved with this team be fully absolved of anything at this point?

But for a much as those folks may have a point, it’s perhaps time for a very simple reality check: nothing about the 19-20 Knicks was ever going to be easy, and expecting them to be better always involved counting on the unlikely.

To wit: in my opinion at least, how much you win in the NBA today is based on answers to three questions:

  • How good is your best player?

  • How much penetration & shooting does your lead ball-handler bring?

  • How much shooting can you get on the floor at one end without giving up anything at the other?

Consider, for a moment, the answers:

  • The Knicks were always going to have the worst “best” player in the league (and no, it doesn’t matter who you think their best player is. This remains true regardless).

  • Going into Sunday night, Knick point guards were shooting a collective 37 percent from the field. For all of the benefits he brings, Frank Ntilikina is still either unable or unwilling to consistently get into the lane, averaging just 4.1 drives per contest, easily the lowest among starters, the best of which top 20 a night. Dennis Smith Jr., meanwhile, has yet to be a consistent threat with the ball. Elfrid Payton hasn’t played in six weeks.

  • Last, but certainly not least, the Knicks have the worst true shooting percentage in the league. While more advanced play-calling would probably improve these numbers, it’s tough to argue that a team even capable of shooting this poorly is some sleeping giant with easy buckets galore just waiting to be unearthed (although in fairness, they take fewer wide open threes than all but three teams, but are 11th in converting such looks. They’re also deadly from the corners, second only to Detroit in terms of accuracy, and yet take fewer corner threes than all but six teams. If you want Fiz ousted, things like this, and the utter dearth of smart cutting, are probably your best argument.)

In short, the Knicks went out this summer and purchased bigger, better, shinier puzzle pieces, but ones that needed a stroke of luck to fit together. DSJ needed to learn how to shoot (and not begin the season resembling a beer league player). Randle needed to rise to the challenge of being a poor man’s Blake Griffin. Kevin Knox needed to take a step up on defense.

The more of these things that happened, the closer we might get to something that resembled a real team. None of them have come true.

Anger has thus overtaken disappointment. The bright spots many of us have taken to reciting over the last year plus (We have all our picks! No bad contracts!) suddenly seem distant and inconsequential. There is only the ugly present, and any context to that reality quickly fades into a sea of despair. Good will has an expiration date after all.

Now whatever culture they claim to have been building over the last year and half will be put to the test. Bad teams almost always crumble after games like last night, which is the kicker about trying to get good in this league in the absence of a transcendent talent that single-handedly changes your fortunes: every moment you try to instill good habits, there’s some better team waiting to kick you in the face during your lesson.

But it can happen. What last night hammers home is that this might not be the group of players best suited to lead that charge. I mean, c’mon:

David Fizdale talked after the game about how the one-pass and no-pass possessions were the death knell last night. He actually went so far as to praise the young group who finished the game for playing the right way.

It’s far too easy to blame everything that has gone wrong with this season on Julius Randle, especially when we don’t know whether Fiz is empowering him or actively trying to get him to change and simply can’t (or, option three, his hands are tied). His comments last night would seem to indicate the former isn’t the case.

What we do know is that rosters take their cues from the “best” (read: often the highest-paid) player. This was true for years with Duncan, and was on full display last night:

Last night, after Randle’s one-on-oneathon in the first quarter, Fiz put him right back in there in the second, and of course he started the third. Was he the “best” player last night, and the only guy seemingly capable of hitting a shot at times? Absolutely. Is that what this particular Knicks team should be selling its soul for right now? If you believe that, I don’t know what to tell you.

I hate to end on an even lower note, but here goes: the most impactful players on this team thus far - the ones whose presence has perhaps avoided more nights like last - have been Frank Ntilikina and Marcus Morris. If you don’t believe that after yesterday, just check the numbers.

That both of them are even on this roster and playing might generously be described as happy accidents; Morris because he woke up one morning and decided he was underpaid, and Frank because no other team had the foresight to give up what it took to swipe him away.

That means that the team we saw last night might be much closer to the one that was conceived of after the initial free agency dust settled. What a harrowing thought.

What happens now, and how quickly the powers that be are able to recognize the error of their ways, is all that matters. There is a way out of this, because there always is. After last night though, it feels like it will take something drastic to get this ship back on whatever course passes for the right one given the parameters – a benching or rotation shake-up at least, a firing or two at most.

Or maybe the culture of the team is stronger than any of us realize, and we’ll look back on yesterday as rock bottom – the wake-up call needed by all parties involved that turned the tide. Nothing would surprise me, because little about this team ever does.

What can’t happen is the one thing I was desperately hoping to avoid this season, which is that the young players on this team spend the rest of the year in an environment where efforts like that are deemed acceptable. That’s really all that matters at this point.

This is the reality of the 2019 New York Knicks. What was once thought of as a return to the path of respectability has morphed into flashlights in the woods just looking for the road.

The night is dark and full of terrors. We saw that yesterday. Here’s hoping it doesn’t get any darker.

News & Notes

compiled by Michael Schatz (@mschatz99)
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That’s it! Due to life happening around me, tomorrow’ newsletter won’t hit until the afternoon, so if any big shake out occurs before then, you’ll have to be patient for the response. Be well everyone.