NEW YORK -- If you needed visual proof that NBA players aren’t interested in tanking games, you found it Monday night at Madison Square Garden.
Carmelo Anthony missed a shot he knew he should have made, one that would have given the New York Knicks an impressive win over the Kyle Lowry-less Toronto Raptors. It was a shot that would have lifted New York to within 3½ games of eighth place in the Eastern Conference with 22 games to play and keeping the Knicks' improbable playoff hopes alive.
But Anthony’s open 3-pointer rimmed out at the buzzer, the Knicks lost another game they probably should have won and they fell further from playoff contention.
If Anthony was happy about the 92-91 loss -- if he was secretly playing for the Knicks to improve their lottery position -- his acting job would have made Casey Affleck proud.
Carmelo ripped off his headband and threw it across the floor. He was standing near the top of the arc when he tossed it; it ended up at the baseline.
“It was all about that shot,” he said later, explaining the headband toss. “I should’ve made that shot.”
Anthony, along with the rest of the Knicks players, wanted to win this game. So did coach Jeff Hornacek. Earlier in the night, Hornacek scoffed at the notion that New York planned to lose games with an eye on the draft.
“Who says we’re trying to lose?” he said. “... As a team, we’re not thinking about losing.”
Events earlier in the day made it fair to wonder if Knicks management was thinking otherwise. Brandon Jennings was waived and replaced by young guard Chasson Randle. The parting between Jennings and the Knicks was mutual -- Hornacek said Jennings, one of Phil Jackson’s key signings over the summer, wanted more minutes -- but the Knicks wanted to make room for Randle.
In Randle and fellow guard Ron Baker, the Knicks have two young guards on team-friendly contracts. In the best-case scenario, these two will develop into rotation players who can join the core of Kristaps Porzingis and Willy Hernangomez and help the team move forward.
The Knicks also cleared Jennings’ $6 million cap hold off their books, which gives them at least $5 million more to spend in free agency this summer. If the club ends up moving on from Derrick Rose, it will have at least $24 million in cap space. That should be enough to put New York in the running for a top lead guard.
Whether the Knicks can attract top talent is a question for another day. But they’ll certainly try.
One player to keep an eye on? New Orleans Pelicans point guard Jrue Holiday. League sources familiar with the matter say that some in the Knicks organization view Holiday as a target in free agency this summer. Team president Phil Jackson expressed interest in trading for Holiday earlier in his tenure, so the Knicks’ current interest in him makes sense. Holiday will likely have plenty of suitors, though.
What's more, Jackson hasn’t exactly set the world on fire in free agency since he took over the Knicks in March 2013. He reportedly wanted to trade Anthony -- his biggest acquisition in the summer of 2014 -- earlier this month. He traded his biggest signing from the summer of 2015 -- Robin Lopez -- for Rose, whom he tried to trade last week. His biggest signing in 2016 -- Joakim Noah -- will likely miss the rest of the season after undergoing arthroscopic surgery on his left knee.
The Knicks are hopeful that Noah can return at some point later this season, but what’s the point? According to ESPN's NBA Basketball Power Index, the Knicks had a 1.2 percent chance of making the playoffs before their defeat on Monday.
Yes, this seems like another lost year for Jackson, which won’t be a selling point for free agents this summer.
The Knicks also won’t be able to sell players on Jackson’s track record as an executive. Thus far, his presidency has been meandering and messy; if Jackson engineers another rebuild, it will be the second major roster overhaul of his presidency. A defining characteristic of his tenure has been player turnover; the Knicks have had at least seven new players on each roster during Jackson’s tenure.
Besides drafting Porzingis and Hernangomez, holding on to New York's first-round picks and a few other acquisitions, Jackson hasn't done much to inspire confidence. He's under contract for at least another two seasons, so he will probably get another chance to rebuild the roster this summer. He'll have plenty of cap space to work with, along with a first-round draft pick.
But don't expect the Knicks to lose out to improve their draft position.
"No," Hornacek said. "We’re still trying to win."