The elusive Knicks’ problem Leon Rose will have to fix

PHILADELPHIA — If you listened to interim coach Mike Miller on Thursday night at Wells Fargo Center, you would think the Knicks have reached a nice spot in their 2020 NBA season.

“That’s as well as we’ve played for 24 minutes,” Miller said. “We’ll take that as a sign that we’re moving in the right direction and doing the things we need to do.”

The only problem is games are 48 minutes and the Knicks didn’t play well enough during the total time to prevent a 115-106 loss to the 76ers. It was the Knicks’ sixth straight defeat, dropping their record to 17-42 on a night when Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons were out with injuries for the Sixers (37-23).

Miller’s attempt at putting a positive spin on the outcome is understandable given he’s trying to make his case to be the permanent head coach. But not being able to beat the Sixers minus their two best players is more telling than being competitive for a half.

The Knicks need better players and better coaching. Though the arrival of agent Leon Rose as the next team president could improve the odds of landing a top-tier free agent, his priority should be developing the young players on the roster and those they will draft over the next three years.

It’s critical for Rose to find someone who can construct a proper program that will turn drafted prospects into dependable players who can contribute to a winning environment.

It sounds simple enough, and should be featured somewhere in Coaching 101, but the Knicks have fallen woefully short in that regard. Kevin Knox, the ninth-overall pick in the 2018 NBA Draft, scored one point in just eight minutes of playing time Thursday night. Knox and Frank Ntilikina, the eighth-overall selection in 2017, are still trying to prove they belong in the NBA and need to show rapid improvement to have a long-term future with the team.

Former Duke standout RJ Barrett, the third-overall choice in 2019, had 15 points as he battles through his rookie season. There are other young players on the roster who could fit into the Knicks’ future. But not unless they can get better.

Ask the Knicks about player development and you tend to get a wishy-washy answer that seems to indicate there’s no real plan of action. As an interim coach, Miller doesn’t have the authority to put in a long-term approach. Whatever former coach David Fizdale was thinking went with him out the door when he got fired. Former team president Steve Mills preached patience until he was fired. The Knicks’ next regime has to get it right.

Miller insisted the Knicks’ rotation encourages development.

“The rotation has all the young guys in it,” he said. “Zo [Allonzo Trier, six points in 10 minutes] got another turn tonight. Mitchell [Robinson] plays more and more as he goes. RJ is expanding his role. Kevin didn’t play as many [minutes], but those guys played a lot of basketball this week.”

It has to be more than just a few good minutes in a few games. There has to be some consistency. Knox is no better now than he was as a rookie. Neither is Ntilikina. Damyean Dotson and Dennis Smith Jr. and even Bobby Portis need to be better at the end of the season than they were at the beginning.

“The big thing that we’re looking at as a staff is how well we’re playing collectively and what we’re doing,” Miller said. “I thought it was a good sign for us that we played as well as we did in the second half.”

A good half here and there doesn’t build a winning franchise. Robinson, a second-round pick in 2018, might have shown the most improvement of any. He had six points, eight rebounds and three blocks Thursday night. But the Knicks need more growth. They could have a half-dozen first-round picks over the next three years, which is plenty of opportunity to rebuild a franchise the way the Raptors, Heat and Jazz have. That’s by developing their own.

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