From here on in, we count down.
The Knicks ended their longest road trip of the season while also hitting the mid-point of the schedule. Game 41 leaves the Knicks at 10-31, which is the third-worst record in the league on the same night the projected No. 1 pick in the upcoming NBA Draft, Duke’s Zion Williamson, put up a career-high 30 points in a win at Wake Forest.
There is still a half of a season left to play, but with Williamson’s dominance combined with seeing Kevin Durant for the last time this season, it’s a challenge to not look forward to the coming offseason. Fans can do that, but David Fizdale can’t. He still has a lot of work to do and there are no guarantees a lottery pick and cap space will return Zion and KD.
Which is why the upcoming second half, which favorably keeps the Knicks home for 25 of the final 41 games, still carries a great deal of importance. The further development of the young players and the anticipated return of Kristaps Porzingis — the next medical update is expected in about a month — could play a major role in attracting a star free agent.
As for the pick, there is even less control of that than in the past.
The NBA revamped the lottery odds format starting this season, which is designed to curb the temptation to tank for the worst record. Instead, the bottom three teams each have an equal 14% chance to win, but all three also run the risk of falling as many as five spots. According to analytics website FiveThirtyEight, being in the bottom five of the league is now less valuable than before and, in fact, being in the next five — especially slots eight and nine — has increased value.
And the Warriors will quickly remind you that they build the foundation of their championship era on three lottery picks — Steph Curry, Klay Thompson and the free-agency departed Harrison Barnes — that were not in the top-5 and a second round pick, Draymond Green. Their success and culture attracted an MVP in Durant.
If you’re looking for a slice of optimism, take heed: this may be the healthiest the Knicks have been as a franchise in 20 years. They have another lottery pick and potential for a max contract salary slot awaiting this offseason, which too often in the past have been mutually exclusive. But there’s a long road ahead.
One of their recent lottery picks, Frank Ntilikina, missed his second game with an ankle injury while last year’s lottery pick, Kevin Knox, finished with 12 points on 4 of 11 shooting while being matched up with one of his idols, Durant. Rookie Allonzo Trier, whom Durant called “a great friend” scored 11 points off the bench. The team’s third rookie, Mitchell Robinson, missed his 11th straight game due to injury.
Despite being road-weary and on a back-to-back, the Knicks did their best to keep the pace with Golden State for most of the first half. They held a 49-48 lead with 3:02 left in the second quarter. A 13-0 run to close the half suddenly made it a 61-49 deficit and then came the 33-19 third quarter that is often a trademark of the Warriors dynasty era.
Thompson, who, it should be noted, will also be a free agent this summer, led Golden State with 43 points on 7 of 16 from three-point range. Thompson lit up the fourth quarter with a barrage of threes that had the Oracle Arena crowd screaming with pure delight.
They’re going to miss this team in Oakland. The Warriors next season will move to their billion-dollar home in downtown San Francisco, which means Madison Square Garden will become the NBA’s oldest building. Coincidentally, the Knicks played their first game here on Jan. 12, 1967, when it was called the Oakland-Alameda Coliseum. The Knicks lost their first game, too, in a 127-123 final. A year later, they opened the current version of the Garden.
Former Garden executive Stephen Collins is the COO of the Warriors’ new arena, Chase Center. He said at the start of the project that it “has the opportunity to be the Madison Square Garden of the West.”
Meanwhile, the Knicks are aspiring to one day be the Golden State Warriors of the East.
– Durant finished with 24 points and six assists and filled the notebooks of the traveling New York reporters with candid observations of the Knicks. A well-known basketball junkie, Durant said he has watched a lot of the young players around the NBA and considered Knox “one of the [young] guys having a good year . . . He’s really starting to get a feel for the game. He has a bright future ahead of him.” He talked in polite generalities about Porzingis’ anticipated return and also about Trier’s early season success. As for the rampant speculation that Durant will give the Knicks full consideration as a free agent this summer, Durant was coy. “I have no clue where that stuff comes from,” he said. He also added that he was answering all of the reporters’ questions because he had to and was “trying to be as honest as I can, but also give you what you need for your job. But also not say anything that’ll . . .” He didn’t finish the thought, but instead laughed and excused himself. You knew what he was getting at, but there is no avoiding headlines. There is a belief that Durant will, at least, give the Knicks an opportunity to make a pitch come July 1. He seems to already be well-versed on the team and he has already expressed his appreciation for New York as a basketball city. What’s left is to give him a reason to believe in the direction of the franchise.
– One potential attraction for Durant could be Fizdale. Warriors coach Steve Kerr is certainly a fan. He told MSG’s Rebecca Haarlow that Fizdale “is a star” when he talked about encouraging his former teammate, Jud Buechler, to leave the Lakers to become a front-of-the-bench assistant under Fizdale in New York. Kerr called Fizdale “someone I’d want to work with.” Mike Breen explained that Kerr and Fizdale hit it off when Kerr was broadcasting games for TNT and he’d talk to Fizdale when he was an assistant with the Miami Heat.
– Some numbers as we hit the halfway point of the season: The issues are fairly obvious, the Knicks don’t shoot it well (30th in the league at 43.1%), don’t pass well (19.9 assists is 30th in the league) and don’t defend well (113.2 Defensive Rating is 29th in the league). They also have issues with interior defense (53.0 Opponent Points in the Paint is 30th in the league). So what do they do well? For a young team, they don’t really turn it over much (13.8 turnovers is 6th fewest in the league) and they get back on defense (12.0 opponent fast break points is 8th lowest in the league).
– Over the last two weeks, there have been two reports citing sources suggesting two NBA teams may have an interest in signing Porzingis to an offer sheet this summer. Shocking, I know, that teams may have an interest in a 23-year-old all-star. The Knicks, remember, can match any offer sheet but keep in mind only they can offer him a five-year deal. Everyone else is limited to a four-year offer.
– Hall of Famer Walt “Clyde” Frazier said something on the broadcast that really puts the passage of time in perspective: Oracle was the last road arena that he once played in during his career. After this season, the only building left in the NBA that Frazier played in will be The Garden.