Eventually, something has to take root.
Three more players were introduced on Sunday, three more Knicks debuts. Dennis Smith Jr., DeAndre Jordan and Wesley Matthews, the three players acquired — but arguably not the most important assets acquired — in the Kristaps Porzingis trade, were in uniform and on the court at Madison Square Garden.
Over the last decade, there’s been a lot of these type of introductions late in the season. From guys we’ve heard of, such as Al Harrington, Tracy McGrady and Jimmer Fredette, to guys we really haven’t, like Alexey Shved and Earl Barron. Expiring contracts, diminishing skills and reclamation projects.
“Our job is to come out and compete every night . . .” Wesley Matthews said with an effort to give an appealing answer in an otherwise awkward situation.
DeAndre Jordan is the most recognized name of the group. He was the defensive foundation of the greatest era in Clippers history. He was also the main character in one of the craziest stories ever told involving free agency when his Clippers teammates took him hostage in his own home after he verbally committed to the Mavericks and convinced him to return to LA. He seems like he may still have some value because of the “voice” he has on defense.
That voice, which several Knicks players referenced, was present during this game against a Memphis offense that sputters to the lowest scoring output in the NBA (100.3 points per game) and plays the slowest pace (95.6) in the league. But it couldn’t overcome the typical issues that impact winning each night: one bad quarter. This one was the third quarter, which saw Memphis put up 32 points after opening the second half on a 12-3 run.
(But did you see Zion Williamson against St. John’s on Saturday?)
Jordan is an interesting piece in this trade because David Fizdale talks about how he wants to “build a top-5 defense.” Jordan, despite looking beyond his prime, can in various ways help him achieve that. Fizdale even said he was more willing to play the 30-year-old Jordan over Enes Kanter — even in this time of developing young players — because “I can build a defense with DeAndre Jordan.” He also is hoping Jordan can be somewhat of a mentor to Mitchell Robinson, who possesses a similar skill-set that DJ had when he was a second-round pick in 2008.
And Jordan seemed to be all-in on that plan when asked if he prefers to ask for a buy-out to join a playoff team.
“I’m happy here, so . . .” he said with a shrug.
Jordan’s debut was, perhaps, the easiest. He put up 12 points and 12 rebounds along with a block and a steal in 30 minutes. It drove Kanter crazy to see a guy four years older than him getting all that burn while he sat at the end of the bench waving to sections of fans who engaged in “We Want Kanter” chants.
At one point, Kanter leaped from his seat and sprinted toward the scorer’s table only to be cut off by assistant coach Keith Smart and sent back to the bench. Kanter dropped his head and the crowd groaned.
Fizdale, who has tried to avoid perpetuating a public feud with Kanter, explained that he was calling for Smith Jr. to go back into the game.
“Yeah, I said, ‘Dennis!’ and I guess it sounded like ‘Enes’,” he said. “So there you go. Just my luck.”
Smart’s quick reaction showed just how aware the coaching staff has become of Kanter’s penchant for making his benching a show that has grown tiresome.
“Coach took a charge on him,” Fizdale said. “He didn’t want him running all the way to the scorer’s table and make it a bigger spectacle.”
Dennis, meanwhile, was already at the scorer’s table ready to check back into the game after picking up two early fouls. A few days after he put up a triple-double at The Garden while wearing a different jersey, Smith struggled to find a rhythm in his Knicks debut. He had 8 points and 6 assists in 25:30 and was 3 for 9 from the field. But Fizdale is looking forward to seeing what they can get out of him for at least these final 30 games.
“He definitely has a gear, a serious speed gear,” Fizdale said. “He sees the floor well. I see a kid that definitely has something that we can develop.”
Smith Jr. seemed to be very uncomfortable in his first meeting with the media. He did a lot of looking down and chuckled nervously a few times, which accentuated the fact that he was 21 years old in the midst of his second NBA season, with just one year of college under his belt and went AWOL from his previous team because he struggled to handle the coaching of one of the game’s best, Rick Carlisle.
Smith Jr. said he was “thankful to be here” and that a change of scenery “was important to me, with everything that was going on.” Fizdale will bring a different approach to Smith Jr., but there are no reason to think the kid should get complacent. Along with the first round picks and cap space, Smith Jr. could wind up being more valuable as a tradeable asset in the offseason.
Emmanuel Mudiay, who is out with a shoulder injury, could see this as a threat. But it didn’t show in the huddles on Sunday, as he and Frank Ntilikina were giving Smith Jr. some tips on the Knicks offense. Smith Jr. said he basically only knew three plays.
This could be just what the former N.C. State star and All-Rookie selection needs to find his game at the NBA level.
“I’ve got guys around my age now,” he said of the young Knicks locker room. “They’re in the same position as me, trying to prove themselves in the league . . . It’s a big opportunity for me. I just got to make the most of it.”
Otherwise, he’ll be another one of the names we try to remember that once put on a Knicks jersey during another period where nothing ever seemed to take root.
– Team president Steve Mills joined MSG Networks’ Rebecca Haarlow for an in-game interview about the Porzingis trade. Mills reiterated that the team “started to get a feel that everything as not going as well as we would have liked with Kristaps” and had put out feelers for what could be available to them in a potential trade. Mills said the Knicks outlined three parameters that had to be met in any deal involving Porzingis: 1. get back a player on a rookie contract, 2. add additional draft picks and 3. “get ourselves financial flexibility so we could become a player in free agency.” Mills said the team had “eight potential suitors” in place, so when Porzingis and his brother called the meeting last Thursday, the team was prepared for the worst and when Porzingis told the team he wanted to move on and did not plan to re-sign this summer, they were able to act quickly.
– It’s worth adding here that among the options, the Knicks did talk to the New Orleans Pelicans about Anthony Davis, but were told a deal involving Porzingis — who is a pending restricted free agent — would not be competitive with other offers they were getting. It’s also worth mentioning that Mavs owner Mark Cuban already said Porzingis will not play this season (the Knicks were hoping he would) and reports have also said Porzingis has told Dallas he was not ready to commit to signing with them after this season. Porzingis is eligible for a five-year, $157 million max contract from the Mavericks, but will they offer it to him? Will another team sign him to an offer sheet for four years?
– Rookie Kevin Knox led the team with 17 points but shot 5 of 18 from the field in 35:03. Luke Kornet had 11 points at the half and didn’t score in the second half. Mario Hezonja had 14 points and 8 rebounds off the bench.
– Mike Conley, who is reportedly on the trading block, had 25 points, 8 rebounds and 7 assists along with 3 steals. He went right at Smith Jr. and exploited his defensive issues and obvious lack of comfort in his first game with a new team.
– The Knicks have lost 13 straight games and extended their franchise-worst home losing streak to 14. They have now gone six straight games without scoring 100 points.
[Coverage Of Knicks-Pistons Begins Tuesday At 7 PM On MSG & MSG GO.]