In the biggest moments of Tuesday’s loss to the Warriors, the Knicks’ two biggest offseason splashes were buried on the bench. Neither Kemba Walker nor Evan Fournier touched the court in the fourth quarter.
It is now at least possible the Knicks can admit defeat on the signings while their actual defeats pile up.
Tuesday becoming Wednesday marked the unofficial start to the NBA trade season. As of Dec. 15, the majority of players who were signed as free agents this summer are eligible to be dealt leading up to the Feb. 10 deadline.
For the Knicks, that means hometown hero Walker, who can’t find playing time, could find another team. A trade of Fournier, who inked a four-year pact worth as much as $78 million in August, is more difficult to imagine. Nerlens Noel, Alec Burks and Taj Gibson also can be swapped to teams looking for veteran role players.
One exception is Derrick Rose, whose contract type prevents the point guard from being traded until Jan. 15. And if the Knicks have not figured out a way to tap into the cohesion and defensive prowess that last season’s club discovered, then Rose would become a solid trade chip.
Rose, who rejoined the Knicks last season and became a valuable contributor to a team that against all odds finished as the East’s No. 4 seed, could not identify why they are 12-16 a season later.
“I really don’t know,” Rose said after the 105-96 loss to Golden State, their seventh in eight games. “I can’t put a finger on it. If I could, s–t, I’ll be screaming it. But I really can’t put a finger on it.”
The Knicks replaced the defensive force of Reggie Bullock with the projected shooting of Fournier, who has not been active enough defensively and has been more shaky offensively.
Last season the Frenchman nailed 41.3 percent of his 3s, which now looks like an anomaly. He is shooting 36.8 percent from deep and often invisible on the court. He played nearly 29 minutes on Tuesday and finished with two points on 1 of 5 shooting, while whiffing on a couple long rebounds that went to more aggressive Warriors.
If the Knicks want to concede the signing was a mistake, they could attach a draft pick — they have their own first-rounder and Charlotte’s protected first-rounder next year as well as multiple second-round selections — as a sweetener.
“You’ve just got to be patient, you’ve got to work your way through it,” Tom Thibodeau said of the 29-year-old. “He’s a veteran. He knows what he has to do.”
A deal including Walker, who signed a two-year, $18 million pact, would be simpler and more urgent, with the faded star stapled to the Knicks’ bench. Walker has not played since Nov. 26, a DNP-coach’s decision in eight straight contests after he was deficient on the defensive end and not making enough of an offensive difference for Thibodeau to give him a longer run.
Even with recent absences of guards such as Burks and Quentin Grimes, Thibodeau has turned to Miles McBride and a struggling Immanuel Quickley rather than dust off Walker. It is possible the Knicks do not want to risk his aggravating a knee injury that would crush his trade value.
The Knicks likely would not begin selling pieces such as Noel (who was signed for three years and $32 million), Burks (three years, $30 million) or Gibson (two years, $10.1 million) until and if they fall further out of contention.
Which makes their upcoming stretch of winnable games particularly important. They will be in Houston against the woeful Rockets on Thursday before seeing the middling Celtics in Boston on Saturday.
In the Knicks’ next 18 games, taking them through mid-January, they face just three teams (Washington, Charlotte and Dallas) that entered play Wednesday above .500.
Perhaps poorer competition is what this team has truly been missing. But undoubtedly the Knicks have missed contributions from offseason targets who were supposed to build upon the foundation laid last year. The Knicks led the NBA a season ago in allowing 104.7 points per game. This season they are allowing 107.3, which was 16th best.
“It’s a different team, and so defensively there’s things you can always do better,” Thibodeau said Tuesday. “We’ve got to continue to work on it.”