The New York Knicks traded Carmelo Anthony on Saturday, effectively starting the Kristaps Porzingis era. It, of course, brings questions.
I don’t know of many people who dislike Kristaps Porzingis. Only a couple of summers ago, Knicks fans were booing the Latvian as he took the stage to shake Adam Silver’s hand. In a weird turn of events, he became one of the few positives from Phil Jackson’s run as president. Now, it’s Porzingis’ turn to lead New York, and there are reasons to be optimistic and pessimistic.
As someone who likes to make jokes at the expense of my friends and family who support the Knicks, I have a sincere interest in watching Porzingis. I’m a fan of basketball, regardless of who my team is. The former lottery pick has all the makings to be a star, both on the court and away from it, but it’s going to take some time for it all to manifest. Through two seasons, Porzingis averages 16.1 points, 7.3 rebounds and 1.9 blocks with a true shooting percentage of 53.3. His sophomore season saw a dramatic improvement thanks to increased playing time. On top of that, Porzingis looked more comfortable at times playing how he wanted to play. (By “at times,” I mean when Jackson wasn’t forcing Jeff Hornacek to force his guys to run the triangle.)
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Last year, KP became the fifth seven-footer to record 100 threes (112) and 100 blocks (129) in the same season, per Basketball Reference. At 7-3, he’s the tallest. Porzingis’ skill set combined with his size creates all of the optimism. He’s a unicorn. There hasn’t been a player at his size who can dribble, shoot and play with his back to the basket with such fluidity. It’s a hyper-rare combination that, if he reaches full potential, Porzingis will be in the position to be one of the NBA’s five best players.
The Knicks’ relationship with Carmelo Anthony was rocky, especially during his last few seasons. Both parties agreed to disagree about keeping Melo around, and trading him would initiate New York’s rebuild. Porzingis’ second season saw a bigger role because the team knew that he’d eventually become their first option and getting an early look at what he could do would be vital for crafting a system around him. Despite dealing with injuries, Porzingis averaged 32.8 minutes a night with roughly the same usage as his rookie year, which seems a little odd. Anthony’s minutes weren’t excessive (34.3), but his usage sat at 29.1 percent, the 13th-straight year eclipsing 29.
With Melo gone, Porzingis is next up on the high-usage player chart. He’ll get a majority of the shots that Anthony is leaving behind, and most of them are going to come with the starting unit. We don’t know what that lineup is going to look like yet, but, without a doubt, Porzingis is the best player. The offense the Knicks are going to run is still up in the air, but the triangle is likely gone. During workouts, the newest member of the team, Jarrett Jack, said that Hornacek hadn’t implemented any parts of the triangle and is looking to run an offense that features more ball movement and more motion.
Carmelo Anthony is notorious for being an isolation player. That style eats clock and stagnates the offense. It’s okay to run that with a superstar like LeBron James, Russell Westbrook or James Harden, but even they can’t sustain it for extended periods of time. If they can’t, there’s no way Anthony — or anyone else — can.
What Hornacek is looking to do is refreshing. He wants an offense that runs through Porzingis, and that gives them a lot of options. Jeff Hornacek can, essentially, do anything with him because he’s so multi-faceted. The only part of his game that needs work is decision-making.
You can put KP in a variety of pick-and-rolls or pick-and-pops, and his shooting has yet to peak. Last year, Porzingis converted on 41.8 percent of his mid-range looks and 35.7 percent of his threes. He was a deadeye from the right corner (57.9 percent), but most of his attempts came from above the key, where he was below-average at 34.5 percent. At some point, we could see Porzingis knocking down 38 or 39 percent of his triples, and that’s going to throw a wrench in any coach’s game plan. Combine that with an already strong in-between game and a developing post game, and you’re looking at the complete package offensively from someone who’s 7-3. That last part, however, is the most appealing.
With Porzingis’ size and length, it’s easy for him to rise and shoot over almost anybody. The biggest issue was his strength, and, judging by various pictures, it looks like he’s bulked up and is ready to play some bully ball. We know that back-to-the-basket centers are dying because of the three-point revolution, but having a skilled post scorer is lethal when surrounded by shooters. Last season, the Knicks shot just 34.8 percent from three as a team. In a perfect world, New York would add shooters to complement Porzingis, who, in a short amount of time, would develop the best post game in the league. Thinking that happens in one season is irrational.
The Knicks will do their best to add shooters, but Porzingis’ transformation into the next Kevin McHale is going to take time. And it’s unlikely he becomes that good. (If he reaches that level, he’ll be unstoppable.) In 66 games last year, KP averaged 2.5 post-up possessions a game, according to Synergy. He finished in the 31st percentile. That’s terrible. However, Porzingis has taken more than his fair share of tough shots, and that’s something he’ll need to continue to work on. I have faith that Porzingis will reach his full potential. But it won’t be immediate. It’s important to remember that he’s only 22 and he’s got a couple of more years before he hits his prime. Averaging 18 a night while making 45 percent of your shots is incredible for a player whom we knew almost nothing about before the Knicks drafted him. Despite the upside, there are still reasons to worry.
I wanted to see how Porzingis did without Melo last year. The sample size is small. Anthony played in 74 games, and KP was present for six of the eight games Melo missed; the other two were in April when the Knicks rested both of them. In those games, New York picked up two victories — Orlando and Miami. Golden State, Portland, San Antonio and Boston handed them four losses. Porzingis’ numbers in those games are shocking. KP averaged 32 minutes a night and only got up 82 attempts, which is 13.7 per game. That’s weird to me because both of those were below his season averages, which include games played with Carmelo. It gets even weirder. His scoring average was just 14.7 despite a shooting clip of 45.1 percent.
Porzingis’ aggressiveness came and went, but I think some of that is because he couldn’t find a rhythm. After getting 13 and 12 attempts against the Warriors and Magic, respectively, KP got 21 when the Knicks traveled to face the Blazers. He followed that up with just eight against the Spurs (a game where he played 26 minutes). A few days later, he got 18 looks against the Heat, and the last game against the Celtics he finished with 10.
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Such a disparity for your first-option is puzzling. The Knicks weren’t playing for anything, and I don’t get why it wasn’t a point of emphasis to get him as many shots as possible. They literally had nothing to lose. As much as I want to blame the others on the team, a majority of it has to fall on Porzingis for not enforcing his will more. It would’ve been different if he had been handing out assists or finding other ways to be effective, but he barely averaged more than one helper a night. (I also realize that it’s not his job to play point-forward.)
Those six games, however, don’t tell the whole story. Yes, the Knicks didn’t play well, but how often did they? In those particular instances, Porzingis was bad more than he was great, and his best performance came in their win over the Heat when he dropped 22 points and grabbed seven boards on 10-of-18 shooting. He spent a whole season playing minutes with Melo on the bench — 790, to be exact. Over that time, Porzingis posted a true shooting clip of 54.8 percent and averaged 1.10 points per possession. He also had a usage rate of 26.7. When Anthony was on, 1,377 minutes, the shooting clip dropped slightly to 54.2 percent, and the points per possession rose a bit to 1.13 while the usage rate also fell to 23.8.
On a micro-level, you’d say that Porzingis wouldn’t thrive without Melo. On the macro-level, it wouldn’t be so bad. In fact, it’d hardly be noticeable. The Knicks would get used to playing without Anthony full-time. And as Porzingis matures and polishes his game, those numbers would only get better.
The New York Knicks are ready to give Kristaps Porzingis the reigns, but their success won’t come right away. It’s going to be ugly. It’s also going to be great. Those are the punches the organization and fans will have to roll with while Porzingis improves, but also while the Knicks figure out how to maximize his potential.
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