The Knicks Were 0-for-Los Angeles, but There May Be Signs of Hope

LOS ANGELES — R.J. Barrett, the Knicks’ 6-foot-6 teenage rookie, dribbled into the lane on Tuesday evening and confronted the Man Wall that is Lakers center Dwight Howard.

Barrett tossed up a high floater, and Howard rose higher still and swatted the ball as if slapping a housefly.

Barrett is 19 and not easily flustered, and he scampered over to the basketball, picked it up, squared to the basket and launched another attack at Mount Howard. This time, the aging and still massive and springy center fouled the rookie hard.

This was a not quite a lost Los Angeles sojourn for the Knicks, a team for whom the term Pyrrhic victory might have been coined. The Knicks played twice in Los Angeles, on Sunday against the Clippers and on Tuesday night against the Lakers.

These are the N.B.A.’s aristocrats. The Clippers possess Kawhi Leonard, who won the league championship last season with the Toronto Raptors, and his pacesetter, Paul George. The Lakers possess the lordly LeBron James and the munificently talented Anthony Davis, and they own the second-best record in the league.

That the Knicks, a team that pans for losses with the determination of a luckless miner, lost came as no surprise. We have entered the third decade of the 21st century, and the Knicks have recorded precisely four winning season records.

That said, this season of late has offered glimmerings of something less than despair.

The new coach, Mike Miller, a basketball lifer, has installed a new system with better spacing. An offense that once slogged up and down has quickened the pace. The Knicks Film School, a collection of perceptive hoop obsessives, has noted that the Knicks turn the ball over less, shoot more accurately and score more often. A few of the young players — Barrett; Mitchell Robinson, an Elongated Man leaper of a center; and Frank Ntilikina, the Rwandan-French guard with the praying mantis arms — have improved. And Julius Randle, a powerful young man freed of the disastrous conceit that he could play point forward and distribute the ball, has become a reliable scorer and rebounder.

This said, it is best not to take too seriously the palaver of opposing coaches. The Lakers’ coach, Frank Vogel, 46, talked before the game of the Knicks as a “deceptive” 10-26 team. I thought to myself: Righto. Had a few things broken right, this team might have been 12-22.

Vogel noted that the Knicks have “no marquee superstars.” He might have added that the Knicks also lack non-marquee superstars, and stars too. They have some young players who with proper diets and work habits could become fine N.B.A. players in a year, or two, or three.

I can dimly recall the Knicks’ championship teams of 1970 and 1973. And I enjoyed the Patrick Ewing era. My sons, Aidan and Nick, who are ardent fans, have few such memories. Sustained mediocrity with a promise of somewhat better looms as a land of delights.

On Tuesday, I drove to Eagle Rock in northeast Los Angeles to talk with Clarence Gaines Jr., once the scouting swami on the Chicago Bulls and later a top assistant to Phil Jackson when he was the Knicks’ team president. Gaines is credited with recommending the drafting of Kristaps Porzingis, he of blessed memory. Gaines counsels patience with the smooth-cheeked and sallow-chested teenagers.

A young man in this N.B.A. can take years to trust his footing. “You do not acquire confidence,” he said of young players. “Confidence acquires you, and slowly.”

That’s fine advice, if only the Knicks could quarantine James Dolan. In early December, Dolan, the team’s glowering owner, grew so disgusted with a loss that he ordered his putative management team to go out and say something, anything, to the press.

It was at that moment that David Fizdale, then the coach, became a dead man walking. Over the weekend, a few New York reporters decided to play anthropologist and ask Clippers Coach Doc Rivers if such behavior — so normal at the Madison Square Garden Politburo — struck him as odd.

Rivers nodded.

“Yeah, that was bad, I think we all know that,” Rivers said. “Coaching is hard enough. Playing is hard enough. I just know when everyone works together it’s better.”

The Knicks’ battle with the Clippers was the strangest of the weekend. Leonard, the league’s part-time superstar, decided to sit out the game. It turned into a series of sprints, as the Knicks galloped out to a big lead, the Clippers came tearing back and won, 135-132. It was as if for an afternoon coaches and players had banned defense.

What, a reporter asked Rivers, did you tell your players at halftime?

“Guard someone,” he replied.

On Tuesday, Vogel, the Lakers’ coach, forecast a tight battle with the Knicks. James was considered doubtful for the game, as he had a cold and body aches. (A few nights earlier, James could be heard advising teammates that his wife was sick and so he had to hurry home to the Brentwood manse.)

Alas for the Knicks, James came running down the ramp before the tip, and that was that. He finished with 31 points and a few Union Pacific freight train trips to the hoop. The Lakers won, 117-87.

“It was definitely cool,” Barrett said of facing James. “I mean, he was my favorite player growing up.”

Barrett, who was 3 years old when James played his rookie season, caught himself. “But you can’t think about that.”

Mitchell Robinson, the Knicks’ young and lanky 7-1, 224-pound center, also spoke of this trip as a finishing school. His moment came Sunday against the Clippers, when Montrezl Harrell, the Clippers’ chiseled and barrel-chested center, tossed him around like junior high schooler. “That was one bad game of me guarding him,” Robinson acknowledged. “I had to wake up and shape up, bro.”

True that. It’s the charm of this team that the young players sound like the college sophomores they might otherwise have been. At night’s end Barrett headed toward the door of the locker room in blue hoodie and shorts.

The Knicks’ next stop was Salt Lake City on Wednesday. Marcus Morris, the dependable 30-year-old forward and de facto old brother eyed Barrett. “Yo, R.J., you know it’s colder in Utah, right?”

Barrett nodded and Morris shook his head. Rookies, man.