The Knicks' Collapse Came Early

The Knicks' Collapse Came Early
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The mid-season New York Knicks collapse came early this year. After plowing through a tough early schedule to emerge proud with a 14-10 record, the Knicks dropped 15 of 20 to find themselves 11th in the Eastern Conference. Things devolved into chaos on all levels as the team spun out. Team president Phil Jackson angered incumbent franchise player Carmelo Anthony first by criticizing his isolation play in comments to the media, and then by letting similarly derisive remarks from Jackson friend and renowned former CBA coach Charlie Rosen stand unchallenged. In between those two incidents, Derrick Rose inexplicably disappeared from the team, Lance Thomas had his face broken, and Kristaps Porzingis and Joakim Noah both suffered leg injuries, with Porzingis’ injury, a lingering Achilles strain, appearing particularly worrisome.

Things looked bad. They were.

However, the worst of the storm seems to have passed. Rose is alive and back with the team. Anthony and Jackson sat down to hash out their differences and reaffirmed Anthony’s desire to stay with the franchise. MRIs on Porzingis’ Achilles came back negative, clearing the way for his reinsertion into the rotation. Thomas’s injury will sideline him for at least a week, but that’s the worst of it. The losing continues, but everything else seems stable.

The season hangs in the balance, so the only question that remains is, “now what?”

On the court, coach Jeff Hornacek needs to find something successful and sustainable. Attempting to continue with the same rotation patterns, defensive schemes, (missing comma in a complex sentence) and offensive sets in the hopes of stumbling back into the early season’s successes would be an exercise in futility. The truth is, even when things were good for the Knicks, they never looked comfortable. Offensive sets stagnated and broke down into I-go-now-you-go isolations for Rose, Anthony, and Porzingis. The defense looked confused as pick-and-rolls were unnecessarily switched, rotations came late (if they came at all), and opposing guards were allowed to sprint down the lane unobstructed. The stat nerds saw the collapse coming early, as they noted that the Knicks were posting a negative point differential through the season even as they sat four games above .500. The Knicks players, to their credit, likely saw the potential for the bottom to drop out, too, as they voiced their discomfort with the team’s precarious chemistry early on and seemed unsurprised when things took a turn for the worst.

Something has to change on the court if the Knicks want to turn things around. To that end, the January 18th win in Boston against the rolling Celtics provided a blueprint for how things could work better in the future. With no Porzingis, Noah, or Thomas, Hornacek opted to start undrafted guard Ron Baker at the two spot and Mindaugas Kuzminiskas at the three, shifting Anthony down to power forward and bringing guard Courtney Lee off the bench.  The results were illuminating, as Rose took advantage of the added spacing provided by Kuzminskas and Anthony to tear through the lane on his way to 30 points on 13-of-24 shooting. The ball moved freely among the starters, and an angry bench mob centered on Lee, Brandon Jennings, and Justin Holiday forced turnovers on one end and worked itself into drive and kick frenzies on the other. Lee was a revelation in this bench role, acting aggressively as a primary ball handler, probing the opposing defense and threading passes at the right moments to teammates spotting up in the corners or cutting into the paint. His final stat line of nine points, seven rebounds, three assists, and zero turnovers speaks volumes.

The most glaring takeaway from the victory in Boston, however, was how little the team missed Noah. Hornacek was able to cobble together a productive center rotation with Kyle O’Quinn, Willy Hernangomez, and Marshall Plumlee, one that was consistently energetic and active on both ends of the floor. The Knicks are now 5-0 in games that Joakim Noah sits this season, and the reality of Noah’s decline into uselessness has to be an uncomfortable one for both Hornacek and the front office. Noah’s signed with the team through the 2019-20 season. How the team handles him for the remainder of his contract will be fascinating to watch, and the decision to hand him a four-year contract will surely be a mark on the legacy of the Jackson regime.

The issues the Knicks face with their front office are deeper than their on-court issues and, thanks to the iron curtain Jackson has drawn to keep the media out, infinitely more inscrutable and apparently intractable. Jackson hasn’t spoken to reporters in months, and rumors have started to circulate that he’s hard to reach even for other NBA executives. General Manager Steve Mills appears to do the majority of the gritty work of fielding calls and building relationships. When Jackson does peak his head out from behind the curtain, he appears to do so only to foment chaos and uncertainty around the team. His relationship with Anthony seems at best tenuous and at worst openly hostile. There was always a method to Jackson’s madness when he was coaching, and it’s not totally unreasonable to think that he’s working some grander scheme here. Still, it’s hard not to get the feeling that all is not well in the offices of Madison Square Garden. There’s an eerie and ominous feeling around the team these days, one that reared its head most pointedly when Jackson left Hornacek to fend for himself with the media on the night of Rose’s disappearance. Conflict may be brewing at the Garden, but then, conflict is always brewing at the Garden.

Even if the Knicks do manage to turn things around and scrap their way back into the playoff race, the franchise’s immediate future will look as murky as ever. Porzingis, still only 21 years old, is undeniably the light for the future, but the coming months and years will present some tough challenges for the team’s decision makers. Rose will be a free agent this summer, and the question of whether to re-sign him will be a complicated one, especially if the team manages to make the playoffs. Lee and Thomas are both good players on reasonable long-term contracts, but if things go south this season, the front office will have to ask itself whether it would be better off shipping them away for draft picks or younger players while they still have high values as assets. Noah’s contract is already an albatross and will only become more so as he continues to age. The ever-present tension between Porzingis’ and Anthony’s respective timelines will continue to hang over everything with this team, win or lose.

For this season, however, the win in Boston showed that a viable path forward is still there. Whether the Knicks will be able to take it will define not just the legacy of this year’s team, but could shape the future of the organization itself.