It was all good just a year ago.
Last season, by the time the calendar turned to March, at 18-17, the New York Knicks had spent a better part of the season meandering around the .500 mark. They were far from world-beaters, but caught fire late and managed to reel of an impressive stretch that saw them end the season at 41-31.
Improbably, they’d risen to fourth in the Eastern Conference.
This year, they haven’t exactly looked like a club ready to launch a takeover. Far from it, in fact.
While DeMar DeRozan and Lonzo Ball signed with the Chicago Bulls, and Kyle Lowry and Russell Westbrook changed addresses last summer, the Knicks instead opted for Kemba Walker and Evan Fournier. Neither have helped the team’s cause.
And with Sunday’s 125-109 loss to the Philadelphia 76ers at Madison Square Garden, the team fell to 11 games below the .500 mark — bad news considering the club will now embark on its longest road trip of the season.
Starting Wednesday — the second anniversary of Leon Rose being named team president — the Knicks will play seven consecutive games away from the comfy confines of Madison Square Garden. They won’t be the home team again until March 16, when they host the Portland Trail Blazers.
Realistically speaking, in order for the Knicks to make a run to the eighth seed, they’ll probably have to go 15-6 over their final 21 games.
Even with the Brooklyn Nets’ loss to the Toronto Raptors on Monday night, New York will have to make up six games in the loss column. The Charlotte Hornets, who currently hold the 10th seed, have three fewer losses than New York. That’s a more manageable deficit to make up, but considering what lies ahead, it won’t be easy.
For New York, 12 of the remaining 21 games are on the road, and 5 of the 9 home contests are against the Bulls, Nets, Raptors, Utah Jazz and Cleveland Cavaliers. There aren’t many “gimmes” in that stretch.
In fact, according to Tankathon.com, the Knicks have the fifth-toughest schedule remaining, with only the Milwaukee Bucks, Los Angeles Lakers, Boston Celtics and Bulls having tougher opponents.
Conversely, the Nets’ schedule ranks as the 19th-most difficult (or 11th-easiest). Unlike the Knicks, though, things are looking up for Brooklyn. It would appear that Kyrie Irving could soon be permitted to play at Barclays Center (although not a guarantee), while Kevin Durant and Ben Simmons figure to return to the floor within the next few weeks.
Unless something crazy happens, assuming the Knicks don’t pull off the improbable, after two years on the job, the challenge for Leon Rose will be to admit mistakes and learn some lessons. Ditto for Tom Thibodeau.
Walker was not the answer at point guard, and upgrading that position has to be the team’s No. 1 priority moving forward.
RJ Barrett probably deserves more repetitions.
RJ picking up where he left off. pic.twitter.com/RqQQKdmB5P
— NEW YORK KNICKS (@nyknicks) February 26, 2022
Julius Randle probably doesn’t.
Truth be told, no player should be considered untouchable if the likes of Bradley Beal, Damian Lillard or Donovan Mitchell happened to find themselves on the market — because as currently constituted, the Knicks simply can’t compete with the conference’s playoff contenders, much less its upper-echelon. They need to be honest about that truth and confront it.
New York is nowhere near the likes of a Sixers team that has one player who won MVP and another who might win it this season, and it showed on Sunday.
Sixers head coach Doc Rivers might even have a theory.
Rivers coached the Boston Celtics to a 66-16 record in Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen’s first season there and won the 2008 NBA Finals. That team had it.
His Los Angeles Clippers teams that couldn’t get over the hump? Not so much.
After his Sixers beat the Knicks on the front end of their home-and-home series on Sunday, when asked what changed for the Knicks since last season, that was the first thing Rivers brought up.
“When you make changes, sometimes that goes well for you and sometimes it doesn’t,’’ the coach said to the New York Post.
“Chemistry is a very fickle thing, as we all know. When you have it, you want it. Sometimes you don’t even know why you have it, but you know you want to try to protect it. And when you lose it, you don’t know why you’re losing it sometimes.”
In other words: Doc can’t help but to look at this year’s Knicks and wonder what happened.
At 11 games below .500 and with the odds of qualifying for the postseason seeming quite remote, in that regard, he certainly isn’t alone.
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