NEW YORK -- At this point last year, a dull meeting between the Cleveland Cavaliers and New York Knicks was dubbed the Zion (Williamson) Bowl.
It featured a pair of bad, rebuilding teams with dreams of lottery fortune altering their path.
But Cleveland, which finished with the league’s second-worst record in 2018-19, just a few games better than New York, is staring to show that fickle ping-pong balls bouncing the right way doesn’t have to be the lone route to a brighter future.
Scouting. Player development. Culture. Coaching. Front office decision-making. It all matters.
The Cavs won their second straight game Sunday night, crushing the Knicks 108-87 at famed Madison Square Garden. It’s 11 straight victories for Cleveland at MSG, the longest streak ever recorded by a visiting team. In the process, the Cavs also showed that their renaissance appears much closer than New York’s.
Two draft picks serve as a prime example.
In 2018, after some deliberation, the Cavs’ scouting department chose point guard Collin Sexton over swingman Kevin Knox, who went one pick later to the Knicks at No. 9. Sexton still remembers Knox as the player who received an invite to the Rising Stars Challenge instead of him. Sexton used it as fuel during a second-half flurry to finish fifth in Rookie of the Year voting. He’s shown no signs of slowing down in his sophomore season.
Knox, on the other hand, was statistically the NBA’s worst player last year and is off to a rough start.
Every youngster evolves at a different rate. But Sexton seems to have lapped his draft classmate, with Sunday night providing new evidence.
Sexton led all scorers with a career-high 31 points on 10-of-16 shooting to go with three assists and two rebounds. It’s his 32nd straight game scoring in double figures. Knox tallied just nine points off the bench, playing during garbage time. Advantage Cavs.
Neither Cleveland nor New York won the Williamson sweepstakes a few months back. The New Orleans Pelicans flew up the draft board, snagging the exciting high-flyer from Duke whose rookie campaign has been sabotaged because of a knee injury. The Knicks landed at No. 3, picking Williamson’s Blue Devil teammate, RJ Barrett.
The teenager has enjoyed bright moments this season, looking like a key piece of the Knicks’ future. Sunday night was not one of them. Barrett, plagued by foul trouble, tallied just nine points on 4-11 from the field.
Darius Garland followed up his breakout game against Washington with another solid all-around game. He reached double-digits in scoring for the second game in a row. He also dished out a team-best six assists, tying his career-best mark set Friday.
It was only one game between the two top 5 picks. There’s another coming next week. And more after that. It’s too early to make any call either way. For the season, both Garland and Barrett are averaging at least 8.0 points and 3.0 assists -- two of the three rooks with those marks. No. 2 overall pick Ja Morant is the other.
The other layer to the plan, putting veterans around the young core to provide stability and guidance, points the Cavs’ direction as well. The Knicks went all-in on free agency, creating massive cap space to lure the likes of Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. Instead, they were forced to hand out bloated contracts to other teams’ rejects -- Bobby Portis, Julius Randle, Taj Gibson, Marcus Morris Sr. and Wayne Ellington.
The Cavs have been anchored by Tristan Thompson and Kevin Love, two champions who have set the tone on and off the floor each day. Jordan Clarkson and Matthew Dellavedova are key contributors for the second unit. Cleveland continues to wait on John Henson to get healthy again.
Love scored 17 points to go with nine rebounds in 32 minutes. Thompson added nine points and nine boards. Clarkson poured in 17 off the bench.
Being better than the woeful, directionless Knicks is not the goal. But these two teams, for a variety of different reasons, were essentially side by side last season. Look at them now. Which team seems better positioned moving forward? The final score Sunday night wasn’t even necessary to answer that question.
The Knicks were booed off their home floor. Those Bronx cheers started at the 6:48 mark of the third quarter when the Cavs’ lead ballooned to 26 points.
The boos continued into the fourth quarter while the final seconds were ticking away. Well, from the fans who stuck around until the end, anyway.
The Cavs will wrap up their three-game road trip on Tuesday night against the Philadelphia 76ers. Tipoff is at 7 p.m.
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