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Houston Rockets vs. New York Knicks game preview

NBA: Houston Rockets at New York Knicks Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

For the first time in forever a long time, the Rockets are playing a team that they 100% should beat.

The New York Knicks are 10-35 and have lost six games in a row and 19 of their last 21. A lot of their struggles this year point to a problem that Rockets fans can relate to: an injured star. Kristaps Porzingis tore his ACL last season in February and remains out. While it’s probably in New York’s best long-term interest for him to sit, Porzingis seems determined to play at some point this season.

New York has youth that can use this year to grow, and that’s what’s happening. Kevin Knox was the Eastern Conference Rookie of the Month in December. Noah Vonleh and Emmanuel Mudiay are being given more freedom to play than they got in Portland and Denver, respectively. Vonleh in particular averages 12/12 per 36 minutes and is shooting 40% from deep (on a meager 2 attempts per contest, alas). Frank Ntilikina is still just 20 and Allonzo Trier is finding his way. Mario Hezonja is being given every opportunity to show he belongs in the NBA, but it remains to be seen if he really does. He’s still just 23.

Sure, New York is going to have a slightly tough decision to make when Kristaps’s contract extension comes due, but they’re likely to pay him to stay in New York. They’re burdened with ~$6.5 million of dead cap space for the next three years after waiving and stretching Joakim Noah’s terrible contract. They paid Tim Hardaway Jr. way too much money based on his one incredible game against Houston. And they are paying Lance Thomas $7.5 million this year and next year (though it’s just partially guaranteed in 19-20) for some reason. James Dolan continues to be an idiot.

It looks bleak, but the light is there. Steve Mills seems to be a smart voice and the moves New York has made since he arrived have been fairly sound. The Knicks seem likely to get a top 5 pick this season, and next season when Enes Kanter and a few other bad deals come off the books, they can integrate that top 5 pick with Porzingis and grow for another year. Even if they stay healthy, they can probably land another top 10 pick in the 2019 draft. Then in two years, they will only have THJ, Porzingis, Noah’s dead money, and their rookie contracts on the books, which would give them the chance to create at least one (and maybe two) max contract slots. There’s a lot of “ifs” in there, but the path exists and is fairly concrete.

The Rockets are coming off a Philadelphia game where they were simply outmanned and outgunned. They should be the better team tonight, but if Madison Square Garden fills up to see James Harden, the younger Knickerbockers might feed off the crowd energy and give New York a fighting chance. A loss tonight would probably tie the Cleveland loss for lowest point of the season.

Tip-off is at 6:30pm CT