By John Schmeelk
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On Sunday night, the Knicks beat the Dallas Mavericks. It was a big victory during a small stretch of winnable games before the team departs on a five game West Coast trip.
If the Knicks want to stay afloat in the race for a playoff spot, beating teams like the Mavericks is a must.
Yet watching the game Sunday, with the team close to the halfway point of the season, it was hard not to think about whether the Knicks are heading toward the worst-case scenario in their long-term development. Right now the Knicks sit in 10th place in the Eastern Conference, two games in the loss column out of a playoff spot. If the draft took place today, the Knicks would slide into the 13th spot in the lottery.
The Knicks might be just good enough to make the playoffs, but if they don’t they likely won’t get enough ping pong balls in the lottery to eventually snag a true impact player. Before the season started this was always the thing they wanted to avoid, and something the front office needed to do its best to avoid at all costs.
What makes this scenario worse is that the Knicks are in this position while playing most of their veterans fairly significant minutes. Jarrett Jack is still the starting point guard and most nights he is playing more minutes than rookie Frank Ntilikina. Courtney Lee plays 30-plus minutes a game. Kyle O’Quinn and Enes Kanter split the center minutes despite the fact that both will soon be free agents. Doug McDermott is the first or second player off the bench, but will likely not be tendered this offseason. Lance Thomas and Michael Beasley (before his injury) were also splitting fairly major minutes.
The only young players playing any sort of consistent minutes are Kristaps Porzingis and Ntilikina. That will change when Tim Hardaway Jr. returns, and it will also send another youngster, Ron Baker, to the bench. Willy Hernangomez and Damyean Dotson, despite each having a lot of promise, are not in the rotation. Ramon Sessions still has a roster spot despite 25-year-old Trey Burke tearing it up at Westchester in the G-League.
All of this is not head coach Jeff Hornacek’s fault, of course. He is playing the guys he believes will win the team the most games. That’s his job as head coach. It is the job of the front office to put the team in the right place to maximize its long-term success. The Knicks were never about this season. Is there some value to getting the eighth seed and getting whacked by the Cavaliers or Celtics in the first round of the playoffs? Maybe. But the chance of getting that small value should be dwarfed by the opportunity to get another good player alongside Porzingis to build around.
It’s the job of the front office to recognize this and make the appropriate moves before the Feb. 8 trade deadline. Between now and then the Knicks play 15 games, including 10 on the road. Over their last nine games, which featured seven away from Madison Square Garden, the Knicks have won just twice. If they continue on that pace, they’ll win three or four of their next 15, which would put them somewhere in the neighborhood of 10 games below .500.
If they sit in that kind of dangerous vicinity (I would argue the red flags should come out five games under .500 or worse) and continue to struggle the way they have, Scott Perry needs to sell. Kanter, O’Quinn, Lee, Thomas, and Beasley would all need to be on the block.
Lee has legitimate value when you take his skill and contract into consideration. Thomas might be a useful bench player to give a playoff team 10 minutes a night. Kanter would help teams in need of a big to play 20 minutes a game, but his contract makes trading him prohibitive. O’Quinn could possibly net a conditional second-round pick. Beasley would be a virtual giveaway.
The Knicks are far better off playing their young players and finding out what they have. If New York continues to win and makes a playoff run because the young players are good enough that portends well for the future. If the Knicks lose a lot of games and improve their draft position, that’s fine, too.
What isn’t fine is keeping young players glued to the bench, finishing just out of the playoffs and having a draft pick in the early teens. That is the ultimate nightmare scenario. It’s Perry’s and Steve Mills’ job to make sure that doesn’t happen.
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