Granted, it is a formidable challenge to find much, if anything, to cheerfully ascertain about the Knicks’ predicament. They are mired in a 1-12 death spiral since Porzingis’s awkward landing after dunking on Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo and almost certain to lose 50-plus games for the fourth consecutive season. Their makeshift roster, sans Porzingis, includes no one currently projected for stardom.
But here’s the better news: By losing the majority, and possibly all, of their remaining 14 games, the Knicks can slightly improve on their 2018 lottery position for what is considered to be a deep draft pool. They are also poised to continue posturing for another premier pick next season without having to answer accusations of tanking.
In other words, the Knicks are finally free to delve deep into their rebuilding process, though one not too contrived, like that of the Philadelphia 76ers, who happen to be Thursday night’s opponent at the Garden.
Over the past several years, the 76ers have been one the most compelling horrible teams in N.B.A. history. Prodigious amounts of newsprint and digital pixels have been devoted to the machinations of the team’s former executive Sam Hinkie, who eschewed all competitive pretense in constructing teams designed to lose for the purpose of annually leasing space in the draft lottery penthouse.
After four seasons of torturous nonsuccess (75-253), the 76ers — powered by Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, both fruits of the belabored process — are sailing toward the playoffs at 36-30. They are not worldbeaters yet, but good enough in the Eastern Conference to perhaps win a round, to serve notice for the foreseeable future.
Widely ridiculed before the N.B.A. office nudged the 76ers’ ownership to hire Jerry Colangelo to babysit him in December 2015 and then replace him with his son, Bryan, several months later, Hinkie now is hearing people argue for the restoration of his reputation, and suggesting that it’s just a matter of time before he returns to steer another franchise.
A closer look reveals a more complicated assessment. Embiid’s pro career was stalled by injuries for two full seasons and parts of a third before he blossomed this season into a fearsome center. Dario Saric, a Croatian power forward obtained in a 2014 draft-night trade and wisely stashed in Europe until last season, represents Hinkie’s other coup.
On the downside, his résumé includes a curious obsession with centers in a league trending small. His 2013 draft-night maneuvering landed Nerlens Noel, an active but skill-challenged teenager. In succeeding years came Embiid and the offensively gifted but plodding Jahlil Okafor, taken with the No. 3 pick over Porzingis, a giant with 3-point range, who went fourth over all.
In 2016, Bryan Colangelo’s first draft produced the 6-foot-10 Simmons, whose passing skills are pure magic. But last year, Colangelo traded what appears will be Sacramento’s valuable 2019 first-round pick to Boston to move up two spots to No. 1 for Markelle Fultz, whose mysterious shooting hitch has rendered him useless this season and clouded his future.
What’s developed in Philadelphia is surely promising. What might have been had Hinkie not drafted Noel and Okafor — both of whom were traded for figurative pennies on the dollar — is mind-boggling.
Fortunately, as it has turned out for the 76ers, Embiid’s injuries helped them continue to lose and be in prime lottery position to draft Simmons, and Simmons’s injury, which forced him to sit out last season, led to Fultz, who may yet be the shooter they thought they were getting.
What’s instructive to the Knicks is that losing (and the resulting draft leverage) provides multiple possibilities but no guarantees. Injuries do provide pathways forward. Until he returns, the pressure is off Porzingis to be the Knicks’ culture change agent and squarely on the management team of Steve Mills and Scott Perry.
“It’s their job, it’s in their hands,” Porzingis said when asked if he wanted to participate — as many so-called franchise players have done — in personnel pursuits. He added, “I’m confident that they will make the right moves.”
Will those include offering Porzingis the five-year, $157 million extension he will be eligible to sign this summer? The benefits to both player and team would be significant — Porzingis would be protected from long-term recovery or more injury issues, and the Knicks would no longer have to fear Porzingis’s camp issuing win-or-walk ultimatums, as his brother and agent, Janis, did earlier this season.
Faced with a similar situation on Embiid, the 76ers signed him to a five-year extension last October with salary-cap protections related to his health. The process — now at a half-dozen years and counting — continued.
To the Knicks’ long-suffering fans, their process already seems three times as long, dating to the turn of the century because, at the Garden, collapsing is often mistaken for rebuilding. Phil Jackson’s decision to re-sign Carmelo Anthony in 2014 only delayed the inevitable. And now, for as long as it takes, losing for lottery fortune is inescapable.