By John Schmeelk
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The Knicks last played on Friday night. They don’t play again until they host the Nets on Tuesday. One would hope they’d use the time to come together and make some tough decisions and necessary changes.
The powers that be need to be brutally honest. If they are, the only conclusion they should come to is that it is time to prioritize the future and player development over any slim hope of making a postseason run.
The Knicks are still within striking distance of the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, as they sit in 10th and are just four games behind the Philadelphia 76ers. But they have lost 14 of its last 19 games.
Tim Hardaway Jr.’s return has helped some, but the Knicks’ cratering defense is obvious for all to see and will prove difficult to overcome. One improved performance off a players-only meeting doesn’t move the needle.
Even if the Knicks defy the odds and somehow nab the seventh or eighth seed, is there more value to getting dominated in a first-round playoff series than acquiring future assets at the trade deadline and getting a better draft position? The answer is no.
At the start of the season, team president Steve Mills penned a blog saying he wanted to build a team around tenacious defense. The defensive rating of 111.6 over the last 10 games would make the Knicks the worst defensive team in the league over the course of an entire season. You wonder what Mills thinks when head coach Jeff Hornacek continues to prioritize the minutes of poor defensive players like Jarrett Jack, Michael Beasley and Enes Kanter.
General manager Scott Perry wrote before the season about being patient as the team’s young core of Kristaps Porzingis, Tim Hardaway Jr., Willy Hernangomez, Frank Ntilikina and Ron Baker mature. You wonder what he is thinking as Hornacek refuses to give consistent minutes to three-fifths of that quintet. Talented second-round pick Damyean Dotson has gotten more run in the G-league than in the NBA.
The season is falling apart and the Knicks are not accomplishing the goals initially set out by the front office. If Mills and Perry really believe what they wrote they need to tell Hornacek that his priorities need to change. Older players and those unlikely to be here for more than a year or two need to take a backseat to players that could be long-term answers, even if it means a couple more losses along the way.
Hornacek is trying to win games to save his job, but the front office needs to be clear that benching young players will do more to hurt his job security than losing games. At this point, a loss that features progress from Ntilikina, Hernangomez and the other youngsters is more valuable than a win with guys like Jack and Beasley playing major roles.
The Knicks beat the Suns on Friday with Ntilikina playing less than 10 minutes and Hernangomez and Baker both playing under five. Jack and Beasley, individually, played more minutes that those three players combined. Was that really a good win considering that type of minutes distribution? How does that help the franchise achieve its long-term objectives? It doesn’t.
Right now, Courtney Lee leads the Knicks in minutes. He is 32 and highly sought after by other teams on the trade market. Jack is third in minutes and a 34-year-old on a one-year deal. Kanter has played the fourth most and can opt out of his deal after this season, or play for the Knicks one more year. Doug McDermott is fifth and is a free agent this summer. Lance Thomas is eighth and is 29. Beasley is ninth, is also 29 and is in the midst of a one-year deal. Kyle O’Quinn is 10th and will likely opt out after this season.
Perry and Mills need to do their part and start making phone calls before the Feb. 8 trade deadline. They need to be willing to pull the trigger on good offers for all of the players in the previous paragraph. Cleaning out the roster glut at certain position might even be more important than the return.
Removing someone like O’Quinn to get Hernangomez playing tim is just as important as a second-round pick they may get for him. If the organization wants to make sure there’s some veteran leadership remaining on the roster, then only trade one of Lee and Thomas. The priority in any trade should be young, controllable players and draft picks. Reducing future salary commitments should be high on the list as well.
Regardless of what the roster ends up looking like after the deadline, Hornacek’s decisions should be easy ones. The new rotation should include Porzingis, Hernangomez, Hardaway, Dotson, Ntilikina, Trey Burke and Baker. There will be a need for minutes from another big man or two and at least one more wing that Hornacek can dole out among the veterans. If the older players don’t like it, too bad. Most of them won’t be here for too long anyway.
Anyone being honest with themselves at the start of the season knew that his was a long-term building process. The Knicks admitted as much. It isn’t about 2017-18 and it never was. It’s about building the roster so that it can compete in future years. That needs to be the priority and it needs to start now. If Hornacek refuses to do that, the front office needs to find someone who will.
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