There was anger in the Knicks’ locker room late Wednesday night and anger in Jeff Hornacek’s voice after their 105-99 meltdown in Memphis. Perhaps they were hit by the realization of a playoff race slipping away into a developmental phase.
Whispers are another few terrible defensive performances like the one on Beale Street will set the stage for a Knicks fire sale at the Feb. 8 trade deadline to accumulate more draft picks and 25-and-under players.
The entire brass is on this six-game trip against the Western Conference — president Steve Mills, general manager Scott Perry, director of player development Craig Robinson, director of player personnel Harold Ellis and longtime Knicks executive Jamie Matthews.
As the Knicks cruise through the Western territories, facing Utah on Friday, internal meetings are ongoing about the roster — one that showed all its flaws against the Grizzlies.
Though the 17-14 record looked solid after beating Boston on Dec. 21, skeptics abounded. The belief that record was inflated because of the team’s home-heavy schedule to that point is being confirmed.
At a season-worst five games under .500 (20-25), the Knicks are 12 games into that dreaded 16-of-20 stretch on the road after Christmas Day. Their record so far stands at 3-9 after losing to the depleted Grizzlies.
The preseason concern at point guard is rearing its ugly head. Veteran Jarrett Jack looks worn down some nights (two points, three turnovers in Memphis) and overwhelmed defensively. French rookie Frank Ntilikina has had one promising game in the past five since stepping up against fellow rookie Dennis Smith Jr. Now he gets Donovan Mitchell Jr., another point-guard prospect the Knicks passed on who is playing as well as anyone from the 2017 draft.
Against Memphis, Ntilikina reverted to his errant shooting, was sloppy with the basketball and failed to push the pace enough. His shooting percentage is 34.8 percent after going 0-for-6 — 0-for-4 from behind the 3-point stripe. He had seven assists but also committed three turnovers. His scoring average has been stuck at 5.4 ppg pretty much all season.
That Knicks coach Jeff Hornacek didn’t give a whirl to newly signed penetrator Trey Burke was a head-scratcher, though he could be unleashed Friday against the Jazz team that selected him in the 2013 lottery. Jack could use a day off.
Flaws were evident Wednesday up-front, where the Knicks’ big men have trouble against athletic bigs — even young unknowns such as center Deyonta Davis, who started in place of Marc Gasol (ill) and crashed the rim.
Starting center Enes Kanter is a bull on offense but also looks to be wearing down on defense. Kanter scored 20 points on 7-of-11 shooting with four offensive rebounds, but Hornacek wasn’t comfortable keeping him on the court in the fourth quarter as the Knicks went small with Kristaps Porzingis, who notched six blocks, at center and scoring machine Michael Beasley at power forwar
The Knicks haven’t found a go-to guy in crunch time, though Tim Hardaway Jr. is just three games into his return from injury. Career year aside, co-captain Courtney Lee isn’t up to the closer assignment, and his late technical before the jump ball was not what leaders do. Porzingis hasn’t mastered the closer role but asserted himself in the fourth quarter before having two questionable calls go against him.
With Hardaway back, Hornacek again is struggling with his rotation. The decision to bring him off the bench for his first three games has backfired — Lance Thomas was scoreless again. Hardaway likely will replace Thomas against the Jazz. The Knicks are 0-3 in the three games Hardaway has played since his return.
Hornacek, whose jersey was retired by the Jazz, still is a hero in these parts and one day may coach the team. He still is trying to prove to Perry and Mills the team isn’t regressing defensively and he belongs here for the long haul. Hornacek has one year left on his pact.
The Knicks coach made a revealing remark in Memphis when he talked of his large rotation.
“All your questions, it’s all because we have 14, 15 guys that are all kind of the same,” Hornacek said.
It sounded more a lament about a roster that has too many one-dimensional players who haven’t secured substantial playing time. Hornacek is trying to find the offense-defense balance.
“The starting group has to do a better job with that,” Hornacek said. “If you let a guy take a shot in this league and think putting a hand up late is going to do anything, you’re
Porzingis probably will net his first All-Star berth, but it won’t be as a starter.
As expected, Porzingis finished fourth in the frontcourt voting of fans, media and players in the new format. The three frontcourt starters are LeBron James, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Joel Embiid.
Porzingis actually finished third in the players’ portion of the voting, but fourth with fans and media.
The coaches will vote in the reserves and Porzingis has a strong chance at making his All-Star debut Feb. 18 at Staples Center. Porzingis noted recently coaches throw so many double-teams his way, he knows they must respect his skill set.
Porzingis’ shooting percentage has declined since December but he still is averaging 23.6 points per game on 43.4 percent shooting with 6.9 rebounds and leads the NBA in blocked shots per game (2.4).