By John Schmeelk
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There is no better day than Super Bowl Sunday for an NBA team to suffer its worst loss of the season.
Why? Because in this case there were no back pages on Monday morning depicting an image of the Knicks blowing a four-point lead with possession and 1:07 to play at home to the worst team in the NBA.
For most of New York, the defeat is an afterthought. But it can’t be for the Knicks’ front office.
The game checked every box. An officiating mistake cost the Knicks a basket in the final minutes. The team’s poor defensive rotation allowed two wide-open 3-pointers on the Hawks’ final two possessions. Tim Hardaway Jr. tossed up an ill-advised shot after an offensive rebound off a missed free throw and then stepped out of bounds on an inbounds play during a possession that featured the Knicks down two with six seconds to play. He then missed an open 3 to tie the game as the clock expired. Kristaps Porzingis and Hardaway both missed free throws down the stretch.
A loss like that, however, may be a good thing because of the clarity it should bring. It was a calamity of errors that should leave no doubt in the Knicks’ front office that this team’s playoff hopes are all but extinguished. The Knicks are six games out in the loss column for the final spot with 28 to play and two teams sitting between them and the eighth-place Sixers. One of those teams, by the way, is the Pistons, who have a five-game loss column edge on the Knicks and just added Blake Griffin.
The playoffs are not happening. Here are the questions the Knicks’ front office must answer going forward.
What Should They Do At Trade Deadline?
Based on Ian Begley’s reporting, it sounds like the Knicks are going to be quiet at the deadline. They (rightly) aren’t willing to trade any future assets to move someone like Joakim Noah or acquire anyone that can help a playoff run this season.
Begley also reported the team will not trade any of its veterans without a good return. It is a sound strategy to have with someone like Courtney Lee, who has real value. You don’t give him away for nothing now when he might be able to get moved in the offseason for a better return.
But for someone like Kyle O’Quinn, who will likely opt out in the summer and is part of a logjam at center, receiving even a conditional second-round pick should be enough to move him. The poor roster construction makes his trade an addition by subtraction to get Willy Hernangomez on the court. The team’s attitude should be the same for Enes Kanter, who will be much harder to move because of his contract.
Michael Beasley or Jarrett Jack should be available to anyone who wants them, as long as the return doesn’t have a longer contract. Lance Thomas should also be available, not for nothing, but for a smaller return than Lee.
There’s no telling what offers the Knicks might get for these players. There’s a chance a good deal never develops for any of them, but New York needs to be aggressive for any future assets.
Lineup Changes? Play The Kids
The front office needs to go to head coach Jeff Hornacek and tell him it is time to sit the veterans. If team president Steve Mills or general manager Scott Perry want to wait until after the trade deadline on Thursday, that’s fine, but it needs to happen. No more Jack. Play Trey Burke and Frank Ntilikina. Play Hernangomez instead of O’Quinn. Play Damyean Dotson. Beasley shouldn’t see the light of day.
A loss like the one to Atlanta, as painful as it was, should be a good learning experience for young players. Hardaway hasn’t had the big responsibility to score at the end of games like he does now. He will also learn shortly how important it is to face the music with the media after a game like that, rather than bailing early. Burke played big crunch-time minutes. The other young guys on the team can get that experience, too, but only if they are on the court.
Hornacek was trying his best to make a playoff run for his sake and for the sake of his veteran players, which is understandable. But the sands in the hour glass are running out. Once the deadline passes, the kids need to play, or this season will be looked at as a waste of everyone’s time and an utter failure.
Is Hornacek’s Job Safe? Probably, For Now
Hornacek has done many odd things this season, primarily with his lineup decisions, but most of the mistakes on Sunday afternoon came from the players. His offensive set on the second-to-last possession left something to be desired, and led to an O’Quinn drive, but his final two looked effective. If Hardaway didn’t step out of bounds he could have had room to make a play, and Hornacek’s play got Hardaway a wide open 3 to tie.
It doesn’t erase the other mistakes the coach has made this season, but it would be an overreaction based off of one game. Hornacek has a decent big-picture view of the team, has instilled a philosophy, gotten the players to work hard and seems to understand (at least through his answers to questions) what good basketball should be. His micro-decisions with lineups and late-game management are another story and deserve inspection. He’s unlikely to be the coach when this team is ready to win, but making a move midseason probably is not necessary and might send a message to Porzingis the team is unstable.
At this point there really isn’t much of a point to letting Hornacek go. You aren’t trying to spark anything, and the Knicks’ next head coach isn’t going to come from whomever the interim coach would be on the staff.
If the Knicks choose to let Hornacek go after the season, they should take their time to get the right guy. Use the rest of the season to quietly gauge the temperature of several available candidates not currently under contract in the NBA.
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