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NBA

Perfectly Average Knicks Season Ends

Ben Simmons scores while Obi Toppin looks on.
Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

The New York Knicks are now a normal basketball team. They employ a league-average starting point guard for first time in perhaps in a decade and a half. It is startling how much more normal this one decision makes a team, instantly. The simple fact of not trotting out 30 nightly minutes of, say, Emmanuel Mudiay goes a long way towards healing institutional rot. The cromulent point guard Jalen Brunson, acquired this summer on a four-year, $104 million deal, gets into the paint whenever he wants and makes pretty good decisions. Julius Randle is free to recede into a supporting role—whether he actually does, on any given night, is a more challenging tale. RJ Barrett is free to discover new ways to miss at the rim. Obi Toppin finally gets to play in some new lineups. Cam Reddish appears useable. Tom Thibodeau exists. All pretty steady stuff here. The averageness is nourishing, even bracing at times.

Until Wednesday, in fact, there was a profound statistical evenness to the Knicks season, which was either eerie or soothing in its particulars, depending on your perspective. Through 10 games, the team’s performance had John Hollinger wondering if they were actually a “simulation.” The Knicks were 5-5 on the season. They held a 0.0 net rating; they’d scored 1,150 points, and had 1,150 points scored on them. They were ranked 16th in offensive rating, and 16th in defensive rating. They were 1-1 in overtime. The five teams that beat them all had a winning record. The five teams that lost to them all had a losing record. The Knicks were also, as Posting and Toasting noted, 4-4 against the Eastern Conference, 1-1 against the Western Conference, 1-1 against the Atlantic Division, 3-3 in October, and 2-2 in November. Deep symmetries prevailed. James Dolan’s Madison Square Garden was a place of cool equanimity.

No matter the outcome of Wednesday night, it was bound to topple this balance. The Knicks headed south to visit the Brooklyn Nets, whose own boundless dysfunction seemed to pause for one night. Kyrie Irving is still serving his suspension; a couple dozen Black Israelites staged protests in his support outside the Nets’ arena, handing out pamphlets to any passersby who were visibly black, and talking about how “the Jews control the media.” On the brighter side, Brooklyn had at least cleared up the confusion around their head coach, after firing Steve Nash last week, and reportedly head-hunting suspended Celtics coach Ime Udoka. They dropped that pursuit, and Nets interim coach Jacque Vaughn was named head coach on Wednesday. Per the lucid analysis of Shams Charania, “The decision to hire Vaughn was made largely in part due to the buy-in from Nets players under Vaughn, according to sources close to the situation.” It seemed positive that the Nets, morally rehabilitating one superstar and psychologically rehabilitating another, had finally bought into something. “I guess I was the write-in candidate in the minds of elections right now,” Vaughn joked before the game. “But I’m OK with that. I said to my wife I might have not been her first choice, but we’ve been together 20 years so it could all work out, so off we go.”

Like Vaughn’s marriage, the Brooklyn Nets could all work out. On Wednesday, at least, they worked out well enough to whoop the NBA’s most average team, 112-85. The rout ran smoothly from the tip, as the Nets opened up a 24-8 lead, and extended the margin as far as 35 points in the fourth quarter, while some Knicks starters were still lingering on the floor. Kevin Durant posted 29 points, 12 rebounds, 12 assists, becoming the first player since Jordan in ’88 to notch 25 points in each of his team’s first 12 games. Edmond Sumner, the 26-year-old reserve who still feels a “mental block” in his game after an Achilles tendon repair last season, started at the point in lieu of Irving, and outscored every member of the Knicks guard rotation with 18. So did Seth Curry, finding his rhythm for the first time since a May ankle surgery kept him off a court for five months, and going 6-of-11 from three for 23 points. Even the floundering Ben Simmons looked passable in 24 minutes, coming off the bench for the second time in his career: six points, nine rebounds, four assists. Simmons personally improved to 15-0 all-time against the Knicks.

The Knicks, once balanced, now follow their destiny: losing to their outer-borough neighbor, for the eighth time in a row, and securing a losing record.