One of the craziest offseasons in recent history has not only shaken up the league’s hierarchy, it’s altered the path for several prominent teams and players heading into the 2017-18 season. For Golden Opportunity Week, the third of four weeklong series leading up to tipoff of a new NBA year, we’re taking long, hard looks at the most intriguing situations in the league—and what comes next for everyone involved.
The Kristaps Porzingis era has begun in New York City. With Carmelo Anthony in Oklahoma City, the handover two years in the making is here. Porzingis is now the Knicks’ only elite talent. He is the franchise. Every move they make going forward should be focused on making him better. We have never seen a player like him before: a 7-foot-3 shot blocker who can run like a guard and shoot 3s off the dribble. Porzingis is a long way from reaching his potential, but no 22-year-old is a finished product, and he has not been in a good situation in his first two seasons in the NBA. Dealing Carmelo was only the first step. The Knicks’ new front office still has a lot of work to do.
The first thing it has to decide is whether Porzingis is a power forward or a center. He is a mismatch either way. KP would be the biggest 4 in the NBA and one of the fastest 5s. Where he’ll play will determine the identity of the rest of the team. The more size up front, the easier to protect the rim. The more speed, the easier to guard on the perimeter. In a small-ball-oriented league, his natural position is the 5. He averaged 31.1 points per 36 minutes playing center for Latvia at EuroBasket this summer. The competition wasn’t great, but he wasn’t facing nobodies, either. He lit up Nikola Vucevic, Timofey Mozgov, and Anthony Randolph. Traditional big men can’t guard Porzingis at the 3-point line. Play him tight and he can blow by them. Give him space and he can knock down open shots.
There are several arguments for keeping Porzingis at the 4. The first is comfort. He said at media day that he prefers the position. Like many young big men, he would rather avoid the physical pounding that comes with playing center in the NBA. The organization should try to foster a good relationship with Porzingis after everything that happened with Phil Jackson this summer.
The second is health. Injuries will always be a concern for a 7-foot-3 guy with freakishly long limbs. Porzingis has missed time in each of his first two seasons, and he is still growing into his body. He spent a lot of time on Instagram this summer posting workout videos, and he certainly seemed bigger and more well-defined at EuroBasket.
The third is that he’s not ready to anchor a defense. He is a below-average rebounder for a guy his size (11.8 total rebounding percentage last season), and he’s a magnet for fouls (4.1 fouls per 36 minutes in 2016–17). He has a lot to learn. He chases blocks, doesn’t position himself well, reacts rather than anticipates, and picks up cheap fouls out of frustration. In seven EuroBasket games, he fouled out of two and picked up four fouls in two more.
The Knicks are committed to playing KP at the 4 for now. They have four traditional centers on their roster, and they are spending a ton of money at the position. Enes Kanter, the biggest piece the Knicks got for Carmelo, will cost the team $20.6 million this season, and he will likely take up an $18.6 million player option for next season. Joakim Noah is signed to one of the most untradable contracts in the league (there are three years and over $50 million remaining on it). Stretching his contract would be the only way to get rid of him. Willy Hernangomez showed promise as a rookie, but he won’t get much playing time once Noah returns from a 20-game PED suspension. Kyle O’Quinn, a solid reserve with two years and $8.3 million left on his deal, is now an afterthought. Only 21 percent of KP’s playing time last year came at center, and that figure could plummet this season.
Keeping him at the 4 limits his offensive effectiveness. It’s hard for Porzingis to get around smaller and faster defenders. According to the tracking numbers at Synergy Sports, he was in the 28th percentile of isolation scorers last season. He can use his length (7-foot-6 wingspan) to shoot over the top of defenders, but he struggles to finish through contact. He was in the 31st percentile as a post scorer. Just because KP can create an open look for himself doesn’t mean he’s efficient with those opportunities. He’s a good shooter, not a great one. His career shooting percentages are 43.6 percent from the field, 34.6 percent from 3, and 81.1 percent from the free throw line. Expecting him to be Dirk Nowitzki isn’t fair. Dirk is one of the best shooters in NBA history, regardless of size. Saying a 7-footer who can shoot is the next Dirk is like saying a 6-foot-3 guard who can shoot is the next Steph Curry. Dirk routinely makes impossible shots with defenders draped over him. That might not be the best way to use Porzingis.
A Twin Towers lineup prevents Kristaps from playing in the paint. Porzingis was more effective last season the closer he was to the basket. According to NBA.com’s stats, he shot 64.3 percent within 5 feet of the rim, 42.7 percent from 5 to 14 feet away, and 38.2 percent from 15 to 24 feet. Playing with centers who can’t stretch the floor forces him to the high post and elbows. An elite post scorer like Kanter can create open looks for Porzingis by demanding double-teams, but opposing centers will stay in the paint and leave him open if KP attacks the rim. That was a problem last season, when Porzingis was in only the 55th percentile as a roll man. All the traffic in the paint forced him to make plays in tight spaces, rather than just catch and dunk. It’s much easier to read the floor when the help-side defender is coming from the 3-point line, not the paint.
Porzingis needs to improve as a playmaker. He has been a finisher, not a creator, for the Knicks. He held the ball for an average of 1.5 seconds last season. Carmelo (2.8) almost doubled that, while Derrick Rose (5.8) more than tripled it. When he got the ball, Porzingis was looking to score. He averaged 1.5 assists on 1.8 turnovers per game and was one of only three players in the NBA last season (along with Harrison Barnes and Kevin Love) who averaged more than 18 points per game and fewer than two assists. It wasn’t just in the NBA. He averaged 0.9 assists on 1.7 turnovers per game at EuroBasket. KP will probably never be an elite passer, but he has to move the ball when the defense sends help, something that he will see more of this season. Carmelo’s career is proof that it’s hard to build a great team around a first option who doesn’t create shots for his teammates.
A giant offensive leap from Porzingis is the Knicks’ best chance at returning to respectability. Adding one of the worst defensive centers in the NBA (Kanter) to one of the worst defenses in the league (25th last season) is subtraction by addition. None of their other additions—Ramon Sessions, Jarrett Jack, Tim Hardaway Jr., Michael Beasley, and Doug McDermott—are known for their defense either. They don’t have much talent on their roster. Sessions, a career journeyman, and Jack, who has played in 34 games the past two seasons, are competing for the starting point guard job. They have no high-level playmakers. Courtney Lee, a 3-and-D player, and Hardaway, a pure scorer, will be pushed out of their comfort zones. McDermott, Mindaugas Kuzminskas, and Lance Thomas are their only small forwards. They need their young players—Frank Ntilikina (the no. 8 pick in the draft), Damyean Dotson (no. 44), and Ron Baker (an undrafted free agent last season)—to contribute right away.
Ntilikina is a work in progress. He just turned 19, and he has the slight build (6-foot-5 and 190 pounds) of a teenager. He played only 19.3 minutes per game for Strasbourg in the French Pro A league last season. He wasn’t running their team. He came off their bench as a defensive specialist and secondary playmaker. Jackson took Ntilikina because of his fit in the triangle offense. Triangle point guards aren’t supposed to dominate the ball and attack the rim. Ntilikina has the length, shooting ability, and basketball IQ to slide among several positions on both sides of the ball. With Jackson gone, the Knicks have to figure out what role his last draft pick has in their future.
What Porzingis and Ntilikina have in common is versatility. They can both spread the floor and guard multiple positions so New York can move them around the lineup depending on whom the team drafts in 2018 and beyond. Now that they are no longer committed to the triangle, they can take the best player available rather than prioritize a skill set. For the first time in recent memory, the Knicks control all of their future first-round picks, though their next four second-rounders are somehow all tied to the 76ers. Under James Dolan, the organization has always tried to take shortcuts. The assumption was that rebuilding isn’t an option in New York City. The Knicks don’t have a choice anymore. They will be bad for a while. The goal this season is building a foundation. The most important thing they can do is hit on next year’s draft pick. The fate of the Porzingis era will be determined by who they put around him.