The Knicks’ home opener against the Celtics on Oct. 26 was surreal, and that had little to do with the outcome.
A franchise that has been in transition or rebuilding for five years was already drawing boos by the second quarter. Dennis Smith Jr., the prized point guard acquired from the Mavericks in the Kristaps Porzingis trade, was getting jeers after missed jumpers.
In the second half, chants turned into “We want Frank!” as in point guard Frank Ntilikina, who had essentially become an afterthought because he was a Phil Jackson draft pick. Soon after the Ntilikina chants, and as the Celtics widened their lead to 25, the chants turned into “We want Tacko!” for Celtics center Tacko Fall, who thrilled the crowd with 4 points and 2 rebounds in a short stint.
The Knicks were supposed to be better this season. They had their sights set on a free agent pairing of Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, hoping to become a title contender, finally spending the salary-cap money they had secured over the past few years. They traded Porzingis to clear cap space, feeling they would land at least one major free agent. Instead, they were spurned by their targets and had to settle for signing the solid but unspectacular crew of Marcus Morris, Bobby Portis, Julius Randle, Taj Gibson, and Wayne Ellington.
The goal is to compete with capable players, but the Knicks are off to a 1-5 start and are again likely headed for the lottery. As for coach David Fizdale, it’s difficult to grade his performance in his second season. The Knicks won 17 games last season with a patchwork roster, believing that this season would be different. Instead, Fizdale is trying to harness a lopsided roster filled with power forwards into more respectable results.
“Any win is a confidence builder for this group,” Fizdale said. “Our biggest issue has been trusting each other. We’ve been in almost every game, for the most part. The last time we played [the Celtics], we were right there with them and then they blew it open. A lot of it is us. Our issues come down to trusting each other.”
The bright spot has been third overall pick RJ Barrett, who was averaging 18.2 points and 6.4 rebounds entering Friday. “You could tell why he’s leading us in minutes, the kid has a feel for the game,” Fizdale said. “A great competitive streak. He’s never out of it. No matter how he starts the game, he always seems to find a way into impacting the game in a big way. For a 19-year-old, he’s just really got a lot of maturity.”
Barrett wanted to be a Knick. He sought New York during the predraft process and along with former lottery pick Kevin Knox and wiry center Mitchell Robinson, Barrett gives the Knicks a solid younger core.
“It’s hard to take [Barrett] off the floor, he does so much for us,” Fizdale said. “That’s a lot to ask of a rookie, but he’s handling it well. There hasn’t been a lot of times where I felt like I had to rein him in. He’s not out there going for his. He’s playing the game to win. He’s doing it with an attention to detail and he understands I’m going to hold him accountable, but as long as he plays the way we need him to play, it’s going to be how it’s going.”
Morris, a former Celtic, has assumed the role as vocal leader. Like he tutored Jayson Tatum during his first two years in Boston, Morris has become a mentor for Barrett and Knox. The hope for the Knicks is the veterans they signed in the offseason will become leaders and guides for the younger core. The hope is they grow together and become a capable team as the season progresses.
The organization had such high hopes for this season, almost certain it would lure a superstar. The Knicks had the money, but all they could sell was their distant glorious past and that wasn’t good enough for a generation of players that barely remembers the Knicks reaching the Finals in 1998. Instead, it could become another forgettable season. Making the rebuild worse, Irving and Durant signed with the rival Brooklyn Nets.
HUNTER TO HUNTED
Bucks faced with new challenges
The Milwaukee Bucks know the road to return to the Eastern Conference finals and eclipsing that point will be difficult. The Bucks lost at home to the Heat and were pounded in the second half Wednesday against the Celtics.
Two years ago, led by a young Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton, the Bucks grabbed the seventh seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs and took the Celtics to seven games. Last year, they breezed to a 60-win season and a 2-0 series lead over Toronto in the conference finals before losing four straight.
The Raptors’ defense reduced Antetokounmpo to an erratic jump shooter. The Bucks’ defense couldn’t stop Kahwi Leonard and their elimination was abrupt.
With the Raptors losing Leonard to the Clippers, the Bucks have been tabbed as slight favorites over the 76ers to win the East. But the Bucks realize that they are targets this season. The Heat and Celtics each pointed to the Milwaukee game as a benchmark for their progress.
Although the Bucks bring back two All-Stars, they aren’t the same team. In order to sign Middleton to a maximum contract extension, they had to let valuable guard Malcolm Brogdon go to the Pacers, leaving the wildly inconsistent Eric Bledsoe as the starting point guard. In the Boston game, coach Mike Budenholzer removed Bledsoe midway through the fourth quarter and replaced him with the more effective George Hill. Wesley Matthews joined the Bucks from the Pacers, but he’s seen better days.
Still, the Bucks have Antetokounmpo, perhaps the league’s most unstoppable force. He’ll be enough to win a bunch of games.
“The continuity we have with so many guys coming back really helps us,” Budenholzer said. “We can hopefully continue to build off the foundation we laid last year. We’re excited about Robin [Lopez] and Kyle [Korver] and Wesley. It’s just a great mix of young guys, old guys, guys that have been here, guys that are returning. We like the roster.
“I’m probably a lot more focused on all the positives from last year. I think how important it is for us to be good defensively. Can we have more attention to detail on both ends of the court? Can we be maybe a little bit more dynamic offensively, a little bit more diverse offensively? How can we build on what we did? Sometimes running it back isn’t a terrible thing.”
Especially when the central figure is Antetokounmpo. He has improved his scoring and rebounding in his first five seasons. But like the Bucks, he has become a major target. He’s seeing double and triple teams. Defenses are being more physical and aggressive, trying to frustrate him.
“All I care about is being better, help my team win,” he said. “When you’re young you don’t think about that, you just want to get better, but right now for me, it’s all about winning. What can I do to make it easier for my team to win? For now that’s what I think about.”
The subject that will hover over the team this season is Antetokounmpo’s contract status. He will be a free agent after the 2020-21 season, but the Bucks intend to offer him the supermax extension of five years and $250 million this summer. Antetokounmpo is worth the money, but winning is paramount to his long-term future in Milwaukee, making this season crucial for the franchise.
Tough road ahead for Golden State
Most prognosticators, including this one, picked the Golden State Warriors to reach the playoffs despite losing Kevin Durant to the Nets and Klay Thompson to a potential season-ending knee injury. When the Warriors countered by acquiring All-Star D’Angelo Russell in a sign-and-trade for Durant, it seemed they wouldn’t slip much and would be a more guard-heavy squad with Stephen Curry teaming with Russell, and Draymond Green anchoring the frontline.
Golden State began the season getting blown out at home by the Clippers and then routed at Oklahoma City before bouncing back to beat New Orleans. The Warriors’ home game against the Suns was supposed to be a chance to gain more momentum and to start resembling a playoff team.
That was until Golden State fell behind by 31 points in the first half to the resurgent Suns and then Aron Baynes landed on Curry on a drive, breaking his left hand. The two-time MVP will miss three months, leaving the Warriors as a team in limbo.
The Warriors just moved into San Francisco’s Chase Center, a place that priced out many of the team’s previous season ticket-holders. They wanted to give the fans a decent product in what was supposed to be a smooth transition into the post-Durant era.
Now the organization has a quandary. With Curry out until February and Thompson expected to miss the entire season, should the Warriors just prepare for 2020-21 by snatching a lottery pick then return with a vengeance next season? Warriors primary governor Joe Lacob said the club isn’t considering tanking, but it does have to consider getting playing time and experience for younger players, especially with Russell and Green as its only established veterans.
There is a theory that the Curry injury may benefit the Warriors in the long term. They weren’t going to go far in the playoffs this season, so why not let Curry get some rest, ensure Thompson comes back healthy, and allow their younger core to improve with playing time?
One of the biggest criticisms of the Warriors in their title years was they didn’t draft well — Jacob Evans, Damian Jones, Festus Ezeli — and didn’t develop a core to support Green, Curry, Thompson, and Durant.
Green knows he is now the primary weapon, the lone holdover from three championship teams. “Obviously it gets way harder without Steph,” Green said. “I went from like the second brother in line to the older brother, which is a completely different thing. I’ve never been that in my NBA career. Leading in all facets, being more aggressive, a lot of things change, but that’s the business we’re in.
“When you’re going through the things we went through the last four or five years, you’re looking forward to bad times. You know it’s not going to be that [glorious] way forever, but you don’t think about it. You’re not excited to have everyone hurt. But it’s a different challenge. More importantly, these guys get an opportunity to try to make a name for themselves.”
Without Curry, the Warriors will go with Michigan rookie Jordan Poole in his place. The Warriors are also giving Villanova rookie Eric Paschall extensive playing time along with former lottery pick Marquese Chriss.
There is definitely young talent on the team, but now those players are going to have to play major roles in the rigorous Western Conference, where plenty of teams are looking for payback after being dominated by Golden State the past five years.
The Warriors will be a different team, obviously. But coach Steve Kerr will try to refine the young players and prepare them for better days. Every organization goes through these transition periods, but the Warriors felt they had prepared to avoid a major skid.
In the Western Conference, considering there are likely 12 legitimate teams competing for eight playoff spots, the Warriors will take their hits.
“It’s a great opportunity for these young guys to play,” Kerr said. “It’s also a little bit too much. You want to bring along rookies as best you can and we’re putting so much on their plate. But we have no choice with all the injuries. They have to just seize the opportunity. With where we are, we might as well throw them into the frying pan.”
Green said he isn’t exactly preparing to spend late April at home. Are the Warriors a playoff team after the injuries? No. But there are 77 games left, far too early to relent.
“I’m a basketball player. I’m a competitor. We’re never going to throw playoffs out of the equation,” Green said. “Are things that’s happened bigger blows to our chances? Absolutely. But as someone who’s healthy I’m not going out there like, ‘It’s over for the playoffs.’ No. You go play and try to win games.”
The Heat are off to a 4-1 start and the primary reason was not on anyone’s fantasy radar a month ago. Rookie Kendrick Nunn scored 112 points in his first five games, cementing his spot in the starting lineup. Miami is determined to make the playoffs this season after missing the past two seasons, and coach Erik Spoelstra is not sparing anyone’s ego. He has placed Nunn, who played three years at Illinois and one at Oakland University, in the starting lineup along with Kentucky rookie Tyler Herro. Meanwhile, veteran Dion Waiters has not played this season because of conditioning issues and hasn’t been happy about losing his slot to a rookie. James Johnson also hasn’t played this season because of conditioning issues and hasn’t traveled with the team. The Heat had playoff talent over the past few years, including last season with Dwyane Wade in his final season, but the organization believed the team lacked discipline and strayed away from the Pat Riley toughness mantra. Waiters and Johnson could be trade chips except that both are signed through next season — Waiters at $12 million per and Johnson at $16 million per with a player option. Johnson is almost certain to exercise his player option for next season. The Heat already traded Hassan Whiteside to the Trail Blazers in the offseason, believing Whiteside didn’t work hard enough to improve after signing his five-year, $94 million contract extension. Besides Jimmy Butler, the Heat’s best players are all rookies — Herro and Nunn — or second-year player Bam Adebayo. Spoelstra has brought point guard Goran Dragic off the bench, and he is second on the club in scoring. If things don’t work out for the Heat, Dragic, in the final of his contract, could become a trade chip . . . This is a pivotal time for the WNBA, and the league realizes it. The players and league agreed to extend their current collective bargaining agreement to Dec. 31, giving the sides more time to negotiate a new deal. The players are unhappy with several elements of their current deal, including salary, travel arrangements, and scheduling. Several star players want to earn enough in the 12-team league not to have to go overseas to play in the winter. Star center Brittney Griner threatened to sit out next season if she doesn’t receive better officiating after being suspended for a fight with Dallas’s Kristine Anigwe after a hard foul.