The New York Knicks aren't messing around in the aftermath of Kristaps Porzingis' ACL injury.
Well, actually, they are messing around. They're no longer in the business of trying to win basketball games. Losses that don't draw fines from the NBA for flagrancy are their friends.
The Knicks, like basically one-third of the league, are tanking.
This isn't just the smart play. It's the only play.
The Knicks were playoff long shots at best with a healthy Porzingis. They're nothing without him. In the 54 games they played before he suffered his season-ending injury against the Milwaukee Bucks on Feb. 6, the Knicks performed like a 43-win team with Porzingis on the court and a 31-win squad when he wasn't on the floor, according to NBA Math.
Their struggles in his absence should come as no real surprise. Porzingis was the only thing standing between them and total obscurity. There would be no staving off irrelevance without him.
Except the Knicks aren't just bad; they're really bad. So bad, in fact, that their recent demise is at least partially of their own design.
New York is 1-13 since Porzingis went down (including that Feb. 6 loss to the Bucks), with a bottom-five offense and league-worst defense by a mile. This streak includes two Ls to well-established tankers, the Sacramento Kings and Dallas Mavericks.
The Knicks' latest undoing, against the Mavericks on Tuesday, was a master class in self-inflicted implosion. They led by as many as nine points but managed to pull off the come-from-ahead loss with a 12-point third quarter. And when it looked like they might give the deficit right back, head coach Jeff Hornacek took matters into his own hands, as Posting and Toasting's Joseph Flynn noted:
This kind of tanking gives way to frustration. Michael Beasley and Tim Hardaway Jr. lead the Knicks in total minutes since Porzingis went down. Leaning on them feels disingenuous both to the contrived nosedive and the general rebuild.
So, too, does limiting Frank Ntilikina's minutes at point guard and yanking him from the starting lineup for a healthy Courtney Lee. Unleashing the youth is supposed to be a crucial element of any tank job. Ntilikina specifically owns a large stake in the Knicks' future.
It doesn't matter that he isn't this front office's pick. He's 19 and still a top-eight prospect. Playing him for barely 16 minutes in a mid-March loss when you aren't competing for a postseason berth and are finding comparable or more time for Trey Burke and Emmanuel Mudiay should be unforgivable.
Yet, in this case, putting Ntilikina on a short leash is essentially part of the Knicks' tank.
Opponents are outscoring New York by 7.5 points per 100 possessions since Porzingis' injury when Ntilikina is on the court. That is objectively terrible. It also happens to be the second-best net rating on the team.
Even as he shoots under 32 percent on pull-up twos, hesitates on his drives and coughs up more than 20 percent of his pick-and-roll possessions, Ntilikina could elevate the Knicks. He's too active on defense.
Among the 94 players this season who have guarded 150 or more pick-and-roll ball-handlers, Ntilikina ranks first in points allowed per 100 possessions and opponent effective field-goal percentage. He's similarly stingy in one-on-one situations and has proved capable of holding his own on the block against bigger guards and wings.
Ntilikina's defense alone won't turn the Knicks into a winning outfit. They're allowing 114.1 points per 100 possessions when he's in the lineup, which is still horrible. But it's better than they've fared overall (117.4 per 100).
Turning to Mudiay doesn't pose the same risk. He's a defensive train wreck, and his shooting percentages have plummeted since he arrived in New York. He's hitting more of his shots around the basket, but his true shooting percentage sits at 43.3—the second-worst mark in the league among 156 players to attempt at least 100 shots.
Playing him makes for an easier spin job. The Knicks can argue they're honing a project without jeopardizing the tank. Empty-calorie scorers like Beasley and Hardaway are equally loss-friendly—occasional flash without the substance to incite a full-fledged uprising.
Perhaps this gives the Knicks too much credit. They aren't exactly known for their tact. Ntilikina could be collateral damage of their upside-down approach to rebuilding. But they are too atrocious for everything to be a coincidence.
As a team trying to make correct basketball decisions, what reason could New York have to play Beasley for almost 33 minutes while capping Lee at around 15 in the loss to Dallas? Can the Knicks really let Burke lead the team in usage rate in the temporary post-Porzingis era and expect to not stink?
Can they be this putrid by accident?
This brand of belly flop isn't happenstance. It can't be. The Knicks won't be blessed with meaningful cap space this summer unless they get rid of Joakim Noah and/or Enes Kanter declines his player option. And with Porzingis' salary set to explode starting in the 2019-20 season, the draft is their best, most efficient resource for impactful improvement.
The Knicks know this. They also know the margin for error in the race toward the bottom is thin. Seven other teams are actively trying to not win games: the Atlanta Hawks, Chicago Bulls, Memphis Grizzlies, Orlando Magic, Phoenix Suns, Kings and Mavericks. The Charlotte Hornets and Detroit Pistons might as well be added to this list, too. The Brooklyn Nets aren't trying to lose, but they're still losing.
That doesn't give the Knicks much time to make up the ground they lost at the beginning of the season. They owned the NBA's best crunch-time point differential per 100 possessions through Dec. 15, back when they still fancied themselves playoff candidates.
Those close games—and their 7-5 record in them—are coming back to haunt the Knicks now. They would own the ninth-best odds at landing the No. 1 pick if the draft lottery were held now, an inconsequential consolation prize for a team that may not have its best player on the court again until 2019.
It will take a free fall of legendary proportions to push the Knicks closer toward the jackpot. For now, they're doing their job.
Four games separate them from top-three lottery odds. They could lose out, finish with 24 wins and still not have enough losses under their belt to close the regular season with a bottom-five record. They have only two matchups remaining with pertinent rock-bottom hunters—against the Bulls (March 19) and Magic (April 3).
Falling to the Mavericks could end up being a big deal. They represent the unofficial ceiling on the Knicks' tank. Dallas is two games in front of New York for a bottom-seven record. That upcoming date with the Bulls will be equally huge. They have the eighth-worst record, with a 0.5-game lead in the lottery standings.
Unless the 21-win Nets or Kings run off winning streaks, this is the extent of the Knicks' tanking hopes—a bottom-seven finish. And even that might be too ambitious. Slipping past the Bulls for eighth-place lottery odds would be an accomplishment.
Will that extra spot or two in the draft order be worth it? Tanking can breed bad habits, particularly when you aren't building toward anything in the meantime. And as Hornacek noted, the Knicks are already showing mental cracks:
This invariably matters only so much. The Knicks aren't good enough without Porzingis to reverse morale or reinvent themselves, full-throttle efforts or not. This tank job is fragile because the reward likely won't be worth the heartache.
They've embraced who they are without Porzingis, but only after they wasted precious time trying to be something they weren't with him.