On the burnt end of the N.B.A. season, an unintentional loser beat an intentional loser.
Four years ago, the Philadelphia 76ers grew tired of mediocrity and decided to become as awful as possible. Under the guidance of the N.B.A.’s equivalent of a mad diet doctor, the team began to lose and lose and lose again. At the end of each season they obtained a top draft pick.
This approach, which Philadelphians call The Process, is a touch perverse. But, by God, the 76ers — who won just 28 games this season — appear to have drafted a critical mass of talented young players, although those players have suffered far too many injuries.
And now at the end of another disastrous season, the Knicks will have a good draft pick in what might be the deepest well of college talent in years.
So Philadelphia’s “Process” meets New York’s “Process for Dummies.” May the best loser win.
I brought this evening upon myself. I acknowledge that. I walked down 8th Avenue on a balmy April evening, sunset lighting afire skyscraper windows, and voluntarily stepped into Madison Square Garden, a perfectly handsome arena hosting a perfectly hideous game.
The Knicks gave up 70 points in the paint, which is basketball lingo for saying the home team played absolutely no defense. A backup center for the Knicks, one of the N.B.A.’s 14 modestly talented Plumlee brothers, jumped and stretched for an alley-oop, which as it happened sailed four feet over his outstretched hands and landed in the stands. Not to be outdone, a Sixers guard tumbled and as his feet flew in the air he kicked the ball into the third row.
I could not shake the sense of having stepped into an alt-quantum hoop universe. My disorientation was not dispelled when I sat in on Knicks coach Jeff Hornacek’s news conference.
He was all upbeat. He and Zen Phil get along great. Carmelo Anthony, the team’s aging star, is so great. His team never gave up. Get one good defender and “it just kind of spreads.” (Like peanut butter, I thought, as I drifted along on the coach’s river of warm milk).
The kids kept playing,” Hornacek said. “So that’s…” — he paused — “encouraging.”
“Oh, there were a number of things,” Hornaceck said, never losing his beatific half smile. “You win a few close games and it catapults you forward. It happened to us the other way.”
I should not pick on Hornacek. At the Garden, candor rarely is its own reward. Jackson promised transparency and it has been nine months since he last broke his silence and spoke to the tribe of unfortunates known as Knicks beat reporters.
Afterward a few of us wandered over to 76ers coach Brett Brown’s news conference. He’s from Maine by way of a lobster boat, all hard vowels, and he doesn’t mince words. He said he likes the play of his kids.
Then he continued talking. There’s a surfeit of young talent coming in next year and no one should feel their position is assured. Work like your job’s at stake this summer and don’t look back. “You better have an appropriate amount of fear,” he said, and offered a genial raptor’s grin.
When your team has won 28 games, that sounds tonally right.
By no means has all gone well for the 76ers. The league is dominated by guards, but Philadelphia management drafted big men three years in a row; two of those three are talented but too often injured. Last year the team picked a forward who could play point guard, Ben Simmons, and he promptly broke his foot and missed the season.
And yet many choices made by the franchise reflect a guiding intelligence. As for the Knicks, not so much.
Jackson signed Carmelo Anthony, the team’s leading scorer, to a handsome contract extension and suffered immediate buyer’s remorse. Jackson spent the last two seasons on his phone, typing out not-so-subtle digs at his star on Twitter. Anthony, whatever his faults as a player, absorbed the silliness with dignity.
Anthony played on Wednesday night and then spent 15 minutes on court afterward, autographing and handing sneakers to fans, sorting through adult hands to bestow his gifts on children.
Later he stood before reporters in his gray fedora and spoke of needing to reflect before making decisions about his future in New York. What’s most important to you, he was asked.
“Ah, winning. Winning,” he said. “If everyone is committed to that, then I’m committed to that, too.”
It’s a plaintive and fair challenge to the Knicks. Jackson, who prides himself on his inscrutability, once offered this pearl: “Approach the game with no preset agendas and you’ll probably come away surprised.”
So far the only surprise is how little this former Hall of Fame coach seems to know about putting together a modern N.B.A. team. His Non-Process gained not-so-many wins this season but it did land the Knicks a high-draft pick. He may not have another chance to get it right.