It was going to be so different this time.
Carmelo Anthony, regarded by too many as “He Who Defiled All Things Basketball,” was gone. Phil Jackson and his blasted triangle were in the rearview mirror. Kristaps Porzingis was the alpha male, especially after the greatest individual start in Knicks history. The concern in those heady days was avoiding Cleveland and LeBron James in the playoffs until the conference finals.
Then losing arrived. Again.
Soon, the 2017-18 Knicks season bore remarkable similarity to the 2016-17 Knicks season and 2015-16 and 2014-15 and 2013-14. Early good vibes again were fool’s gold, based largely on a home-friendly schedule. But before reality surfaced back when the Knicks stunned with rallies, overcoming deficits of 15 and 19, two nights apart. Anything was possible.
Until reality made the Knicks and their fans endure another season of agony, a season in which they are tied with the Nets with one game left, a season whose home misery ended Monday in coach Jeff Hornacek’s likely last Garden game. The Cavs, a team with a downright schizoid season, kept the Knicks at bay late and won a game they needed, 123-109, at the Garden. Kevin Love scored 28 points and LeBron James forged a typically brilliant 26-point, 11-assist, six-rebound jewel.
One game remains for the Knicks, Wednesday in Cleveland before a likely coaching search and another hopeful trip to the lottery.
At the season’s high-water mark, 17-14, after a home win over Boston, the Knicks had played 20 home games. They were 15-5 in those 20.
Suffice to say they did not maintain that pace. But they managed to consistently stink on the road where they’re 9-31.
After 10 games, Porzingis had 300 points. No Knick ever started better. But double-teaming and increased physical play slowed Porzingis. Complicating the problem was the loss of Tim Hardaway Jr. to a leg injury to start December. Hardaway returned at hardly peak form more than a month later. In 16 games without Hardaway when teams swarmed him, Porzingis averaged 21.3 points, shot 39.9 percent. In 19 games before the injury, Porzingis, with Hardaway absorbing lots of attention, averaged 25.8 points, shot 46.7 percent.
That all became moot on Feb. 6 when Porzingis blew out his knee.
It went south quickly. At one hideous point, the Knicks lost 17-of-18. Development became the buzzword. Too familiar. Last season, the Knicks were 14-10, finished 31-51. In 2015-16, they were 22-22, finished 32-50.
This latest exercise in crushing disappointment became the fourth straight season with at least 50 defeats. That tied the franchise record for consecutive seasons of 50-loss futility. Memorable for something at least.
But there have been positives. Honest.
“The bright side of this season is these young guys got a chance to develop,” Hornacek said.
Frank Ntilikina, 19 and called a “foundation piece” by Dallas coach Rick Carlisle, has developed into a solid defensive guard, still learning the game. Trey Burke arrived from the G-League and, using one of the late Chuck Daly’s expressions, became “found gold” with his offense. Enes Kanter, still a way off defensively, is a double-double center. Don’t discount Hardaway’s value. You can argue his contract forever but we like what one scout said at season’s outset.
“Forget the name. If I said you could sign a young, athletic wing who averaged 15 points on a playoff team [Atlanta], would you?”
Sure. So amid misery, hope is afloat: The return of Porzingis; the futures of Hardaway, Ntilikina, Burke; a lottery pick where maybe Villanova’s Mikal Bridges of Villanova brings versatility and defense. They’ve got to reverse fortunes sometime.
“I don’t think we’re that far off,” Hornacek said.
From 2010 to 2013, the Knicks made three playoff runs, winning only one series. Those three appearances for 21 games are all the postseason activity the Knicks have to show for 14 years.
Soon — like after the season finale in Cleveland on Wednesday soon — they figure to start seeking their 10th head coach in those 14 years. Aside from losses, point guards are the only thing they’ve run through at a higher rate.
And this was the year that was going to be different.