In a game neither team really wants to win, or should be trying to win, the Knicks meet the Sixers tonight in Philly in the NBA’s Tank Bowl.
Such is life in the NBA when you’re racing for the bottom of the standings, with the “winner’’ getting a chance to draft Duke’s highly-skilled big man, Jahlil Okafor, in June.
Not that anyone wants to admit it, of course.
Here was Derek Fisher, fresh off the Knicks’ first win in 38 days, saying he wants his team to continue to do what will only serve to undermine the franchise in the big picture. From here on out the 6-36 Knicks need to lose with a purpose -- that’s the politically-correct way to refer to the unseemly practice of tanking -- and try to out-do what the 8-33 Sixers have been going hard at for two straight seasons.
“The only way I know how to approach a game is to try to win it every time,’’ Fisher said before heading to Philly. “So I can’t read other people’s minds and what other organizations are trying to do. That’s not my job. All I know is that we’re preparing for the 76ers and that’s what I’m going to do. You’re asking the wrong person about that. Maybe if you talk to them you can ask them. But there’s no interest in thinking about which pick we might get based on the way the Ping-Pong (ball) bounces when we play Philadelphia.’’
Who’s in better shape to “win’’ the race for the worst record and head into the lottery with the best chance of securing the No. 1 overall pick in June? The Sixers had the look of the biggest loser when they started the season 0-17 and lost 23 of their first 25 games.
Then again, they were the heavy favorites, having decided two seasons ago that the best way to build a contender was to pull the plug for several seasons, collect as many top picks as possible and find some difference-makers in the draft. Although they’re always catching flak for their approach, they’ve won six of their last 16 games, a veritable hot streak for a team that won only 19 times all of last season.
The Knicks officially entered the Okafor sweepstakes when they recently lost 16 straight games, a franchise mark. Then they took a minor detour by finding the win column on Monday against New Orleans. Besides the Sixers, their top competition to finish dead last is Minnesota, 7-33 and looking smart by trading Kevin Love last summer for last June’s top pick Andrew Wiggins, the best rookie this season.
But after the win over the Pelicans, Carmelo Anthony was saying all the wrong things when asked about the team’s first taste of success since Dec. 12.
“We hopefully can get used to this feeling, try to string some games together,” he said. “It feels good to come in this locker room with a win. It’s a different energy, it’s a different vibe. I just want my teammates to understand what this feeling is and let’s carry it over to Philly.”
Ah, Carmelo, the best thing to do now is not to carry over any wins. The best course of action is to get back to losing. In fact, it would really serve the Knicks’ purposes if their best player would just go ahead and shut himself down to allow his knee to heal. Or, better still, go ahead right now and get surgery he knows he’ll need. Having Anthony on the sidelines would give the Knicks their best chance of earning the worst record in the NBA.
It’s important to Phil Jackson’s rebuilding efforts that the Knicks reward their fans for this lousy season with the 6-11 Okafor, the 19-year old freshman who will play his first-ever game at the Garden on Sunday when Duke takes on St. John’s. He’s seen as a can’t-miss prospect with the polished low-post skills of an older player. The Knicks are stuck with an aging scoring star in Anthony, with his $124 million on the books for four more seasons, and desperately need a young star talent like Okafor to make the jump from their current pitiful lottery state to a playoff team.
As one NBA GM told NBC 4 New York, “Okafor will walk in and help the Knicks immediately. He’s got great moves in the post, he’s a rebounder, he can defend. And he’s a great kid. After the kind of season the Knicks have had, Okafor will help get them turned around.’’
That’s why both teams will want to lose tonight in Philly -- even if no one is going to do admit it.
Longtime New York columnist Mitch Lawrence continues to write about pro basketball, as he’s done for the last 22 years. His columns for NBCNewYork.com on the Knicks, Brooklyn Nets and the NBA, along with other major sports, will appear twice weekly. Follow him on Twitter @Mitch _ Lawrence.