LOS ANGELES — Two weeks ago, Knicks coach David Fizdale was asked if he would start emphasizing players in the rotation who he knew would be returning next season.
“Not yet,’’ Fizdale said.
The new year is here and it appears Fizdale is at that point — with the Knicks’ record at 9-29, the second-worst mark in the NBA, and the team on a 1-13 crash with the LeBron-less Lakers on tap Friday at Staples Center.
Five players are starting to fall off the radar in diminishing roles — and not just Enes Kanter. The controversial Turkish center has just been the most vocal about it.
Kanter, Mario Hezonja, Courtney Lee, Trey Burke and Lance Thomas are the forgotten five — seeing their roles disappear and becoming trade candidates ahead of the Feb. 7 deadline and potential buyout pawns after that.
Ten-day contracts start Jan. 5, so there could be addition-by-subtraction maneuvers on tap to give a young prospect or three a chance at auditions.
Here’s a look at the five’s future — or non-future:
The center got stuff off his chest again in the locker room late Tuesday in Denver, talking about his “anger and frustration’’ with the team’s non-winning direction and his new backup role. Kanter revealed he had a meeting with general manager Scott Perry and adamantly said he didn’t request a trade and indicated he wouldn’t because he still “loves it here.’’ But this ultimately is a strong case of an addition-by-subtraction maneuver if the Knicks feel Kanter has become more distraction than leader.
Kanter would be embraced by a playoff contender, but the motivation for the Knicks to trade him is not high because of his $18 million expiring contract. If they can get a collection of expiring contracts to waive and a second-round pick, maybe Perry would move on it. Jabari Parker’s pact would do the trick, and Fizdale could see what the former Duke stud has left. But why would the rebuilding Bulls have interest in a straight-up deal for Kanter?
If Kanter is willing to give back some money, a buyout should be appealing to both parties. Meanwhile, young Luke Kornet is doing fine offensively in three games as a starting center and his defensive rating is better with him as starter than Kanter’s. Kornet is averaging 18.2 points as a starter and shooting a sensational 15-of-24 from 3. With Mitchell Robinson on the verge of returning, Kanter’s minutes could be slashed to zero. Then the stuffing may hit the fan.
He began the season as starting point guard, but Burke is the same age as Kanter (26) and a free agent. This Knicks regime considers 26-year-olds ready for the rocking chair. Burke had his moments, but a sprained MCL on Dec. 1 ripped up his season. After missing five games, he returned out of sync and Fizdale didn’t give him a chance to work his way back into the flow. He has not played in four of the eight games since being cleared. In Utah, Burke came on only in the final 7:36 of the Jazz blowout, making his first four shots. All that got him was a seat on the bench for the entire game in Denver.
Fizdale has fallen in love with Emmanuel Mudiay and has to develop lottery pick Frank Ntilikina.
“Fizdale wanted Mudiay from Day 1,’’ one person familiar with the situation said.
Burke could look good on a playoff contender such as the Pistons that could use a scoring backup point guard. Packaging Burke in a trade should be the priority. But just waiving Burke might be the proper avenue.
The 2018 free-agent signee has played four minutes the past five games and did not play in four of those games. He’ll be a free agent and, barring a jarring change, he is not playing his way into the team’s future. This looks real bad for Perry, who still believed in Hezonja after drafting him fifth with the Magic in 2015. Fizdale tried starting him 11 straight games and praised his defense but the Croatian forward still couldn’t muster anything on offense. The enigmatic ex-lottery pick was sought after as a free agent — Portland, Sacramento and Memphis were in the mix — so he could possibly fetch a future second-rounder.
The push to showcase Lee appears over. He didn’t play in Denver for the third time in four games. The only game he played in recently came when Tim Hardaway Jr. was ill. Lee said he doesn’t want to be “a distraction’’ by complaining — a subtle dig at Kanter. Lee’s considerable contract that expires in 2020 is tough to move unless the Knicks attach a juicy asset like a future first-round pick. The club isn’t that desperate because Lee is a leader and, Fizdale said, has been “a brother” to the young guys. Lee said he’s staying ready. “You never know, you can get traded at any moment,’’ he said.
The longest-tenured Knick has been back since Dec. 17 following knee surgery, but their unofficial leader will have to lead from deep on the bench. Thomas, 30, has not played in two of the past three games and played seven minutes in the other.
“I know what we’re doing — we have a lot of young guys we’re trying to develop,’’ Thomas said. “I’m always going to be ready. We’re on board. We’re developing. We do have a ways to go.’’
Thomas has just $1 million of next season’s $7.5 million wage guaranteed, so the 30-year-old could be waived or attached in a package for a playoff team needing a defensive depth piece.
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