The Knicks keep finding new ways to lose. And judging by the recent roster maneuvers, perhaps team president Phil Jackson is ready to wave the white flag on the season.
And if that’s true, it’s also time for head coach Jeff Hornacek to start taking a longer look at the inexperienced – yet promising – prospects. One prospect, forward Willy Hernangomez, is already playing out of necessity while big men Joakim Noah (arthroscopic knee surgery) and second-year phenom Kristaps Porzingis (ankle) nurse injuries. Noah, still in the first year of his infamous $72-million deal, is likely out for the season and will be re-evaluated in three to four weeks, while many think Porzingis, who’s missed the last the last two games, should be shut down for the season, to protect the Knicks’ most-valued commodity going forward.
Monday night’s last-second defeat to the Toronto Raptors proved the Knicks are still unable to close out wins. Courtney Lee gave New York (24-36) a 91-90 lead with 10.6 seconds remaining, as it appeared the home team would get a rare win over an elite team. But DeMar DeRozan ruined the faithful’s night with a tough mid-range jumper over Derrick Rose with 1.9 seconds. DeRozan finished with 37 points, even though everyone in the Garden knew he was taking the last shot from his patented sweet spot. And with no Kyle Lowry (wrist surgery, out several weeks), it was evident even more who was going to try and be the Raptors’ hero.
It was New York’s 13th defeat of the season in the final possession, a striking reminder that the team isn’t going anywhere and maybe needs to begin thinking about playing more of its youth. The Knicks are currently four-and-a-half games out of the eighth and final playoff seed, and are beginning to have the look of a team ready for tanking.
With a rare first-round pick at the ready for the June draft – just the team’s third since 2013 -- Jackson and Hornacek may begin to formulate a plan that’ll give the youngsters valuable experience, and in turn raise their draft stock.
The youth movement took an incremental step forward when Jackson released backup point guard Brandon Jennings on Monday. The 27-year-old Jennings was in his first season with the Knicks and averaged 8.6 points, 2.6 rebounds, and 4.9 assists per game as the primary backup to Rose. Undrafted rookie Ron Baker, 23, is now the primary backup, with former NBA D-League star Chasson Randle, 24, now also in the mix to backup Rose after he was signed by the Knicks on Monday.
Randle was a fan favorite of Westchester Knicks fans who saw the point guard average 21 points, four rebounds, three assists, and one steal in 32 minutes, while shooting 40 percent in 3s during his 19-game stint for the Knicks’ affiliate. Randle was soon picked up by the Philadelphia 76ers when he signed a 10-day contract in early January. He averaged 5.3 points in eight games for the Sixers before getting waived in the wake of Nerlens Noel trade to the Dallas Mavericks during last week’s trade deadline. Randle is a 6-foot-1 guard who went undrafted in 2015 out of Stanford. He’ll try to eat into some of Baker’s minutes as Rose’s backup.
Hornacek, however, reasoned that he’s not even thinking about tanking, and neither are his players.
“As a team, we’re not thinking about losing. If that’s what it comes down to, and we get a different draft pick, we’ll worry about it then. But we’re still trying to win,” he noted. “Just because we waived Brandon, doesn’t mean we’re not trying to win these games. We feel Ron Baker can fill right in. It’s a different dynamic.”
A different dynamic should change within the regular rotation, as it’s time to see what the rookie underdog point guards have to offer, as well as seeing if Jackson actually worked a heist in garnering the rights to guys like Hernangomez (6.8 points and 6.1 rebounds per game in 16.4 minutes per night) and Mindaugas Kuzminskas (5.7 points per game in just 14.7 minutes).
- Full tanking may really commence if the rumors are true about the Knicks thinking about releasing Rose. It’d be a curious move, considering Jackson traded center Robin Lopez and young guard Jerian Grant to get him last summer. While Rose has performed fairly well for the Knicks, averaging 17.6 points, 4.6 assists and 3.9 rebounds per game, it’s been his lack of defense that’s really been the bane of Knicks’ fans, as his 111.6 defensive rating is the worse among any of his teammates.
- Add former Knicks head coach Larry Brown to the list of NBA lifers who’s questioning Jackson’s tenure as team president. During a Tuesday radio session on Sirius XM NBA Radio, Brown openly questioned Jackson’s apparent meddling and obsession with the Triangle offense: “I can’t figure out how you can hire a coach and tell him how to coach. If he [Jackson] wants to do the Triangle then [he should] coach.”