Tuesday night at Madison Square Garden, late fourth quarter, Hornets and Knicks tied at 111. Kristaps Porzingis, my first-born son, is playing a two-man game at the top of the 3-point circle with my second-born son, Frank Ntilikina. Dwight Howard, who spent most of the fourth quarter attempting to intimidate KP but catching buckets nonetheless, was hanging off of him like a freshly washed Tapout T-shirt. Kristaps popped out beyond the stripe, got the ball from Frank, and busted the go-ahead basket right in Dwight’s eye. They grow up so fast.
The first time I held my newborn son Kristaps Porzingis, he was 19 years old. We were at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn. At 7-foot-3 and a spindly 238 pounds, he looked wan but apple-cheeked. He wore a burgundy suit with black lapels with a Knicks hat over his wedge of wheat-colored hair. The world is hard and unforgiving. New York City especially so. I wasn’t surprised that thousands of people booed my son’s delivery with the fourth pick in the 2015 draft. Yet I despaired for him.
But my sweet boy—so innocent and unblemished and ostensibly unused to the ways of the world—was nonplussed. Walking away from the press room, a throng of reporters around him, he stopped and pulled a cellphone out of his suit pocket. “I’m not concerned about that,” he said into the phone, presumably about the boos. “I know I need to get stronger, but, for me, I just know that I take a good example from the Europeans that played and had great careers in the NBA, and I’m going to be one of them.” It was then that I knew he would be OK. Not even a rookie, and he already knew how to craft a photo op and prep a sound bite.
The second time was a month or so later at Las Vegas summer league. It was my son’s professional debut. The Knicks were playing the Sixers, in a much-hyped matchup between Jahlil Okafor, the no. 3 pick, and Kristaps, the no. 4. Because of the paint-centric demands of the triangle offense, Okafor, a beefy, 1990s-style, low-post scorer out of Duke, was rumored to be a favorite of then–Knicks president Phil Jackson. As Jackson’s buddy and biographer Charley Rosen so eloquently explained in the run-up to the draft: “They need a center with a big butt to hold space.’’
For one half of summer basketball, Okafor and his big ol’ butt ran rampant. Jahlil bullied Kristaps in the paint with the ease of a man carrying a plastic bodega shopping bag. But I noticed something. Though my son was physically overmatched, he never quit, never hung his head. In the second half, Kristaps started fronting, using his length to negate Okafor’s bulk. In the final minute of overtime, Kristaps blocked Okafor’s layup attempt, preserving an 83-81 Knicks win. Two seasons later, Okafor is on his way out of Philadelphia and Kristaps is already the best offensive player in Knicks history, with a real chance to lead the league in points and blocks.
On Sunday night, Kristaps Porzingis scored a career-high 40 points on 62 percent shooting, pulled down eight rebounds, and blocked six shots, lifting the Knicks to a 108-101 comeback win over the Pacers.
My son ate, and he ate in omnivorous fashion—off post-ups, free-throw-line fall-aways, 3-pointers, dunks in traffic, and an alley-oop. He scored through contact and over double-teams. He scored the same number of points (17) in the fourth quarter as the Pacers did as a team. KP had only one assist in the game, a no-hesitation dime to Ntilikina. I’d love to see Kristaps’s assist numbers come up, but who should he be passing to? Porzingis is leading the league in usage rate at 35 percent, up from 24 percent last season (damn you, Melo!). Yet even with the massive leap in volume, he’s scoring at a more efficient clip: 61 percent true shooting, up from 54 percent the previous season. Turns out there’s no real way to guard a 7-foot-3 dude with handles who has 3-point range and can drive and shoot fadeaways. The Knicks are over .500 through nine games for the first time since 2012-13.
The Knicks always have to buy their way out of tight spots, either by signing free agents or trading assets—young players and draft picks—for veterans. This is natural. New York moves fast, and the city is brimming with distractions. There’s no time for a full-on, bottom-out rebuild, the thinking goes. This personnel policy has been fruitful for the city’s other teams, especially the Yankees, whose hegemonic success set the standard and who, because of the relatively lightly capped salary structure of MLB, can, in actual fact, spend their way out of jams. Not so in the NBA.
Watching players grow creates a bond between fans and their team. As inept as the Knicks have been in the James Dolan era, and, man, have they been train-wreck-in-a-nuclear-waste-dump-during-an-earthquake-that-has-lasted-my-entire-adult-life bad, they’ve secretly been good at drafting, particularly in the mid-to-late first round. Nene (seventh pick in 2002), Trevor Ariza (43rd pick in 2004), Channing Frye (eighth pick in 2005), David Lee (30th pick in 2005), Wilson Chandler (23rd pick in 2007), and Danilo Gallinari (sixth pick in 2008) all had, or are still having, fruitful careers. Kristaps Porzingis and Frank Ntilikina (eighth in 2017) are just beginning theirs.
But the team has been impatient with its young players. Nene, now in his 15th season, was flipped on draft night for Antonio McDyess and his ticking time bomb of a kneecap. Ariza, a 3-and-D player before the term existed, was included as part of a deal for Steve Francis. The context of that trade (Larry Brown’s ongoing self-immolation; the despotic and despicable Isiah Thomas regime; the fact that Stephon Marbury was already on the roster, meaning the Knicks backcourt would soon be the basketball version of the Spider-Man pointing at himself meme) is so ridiculous, it almost doesn’t make sense to type. Like, that happened; the Knicks traded Trevor Ariza and pieces for Steve Francis, who was three years away from being out of the league.
Frye was traded for Zach Randolph, who was, in turn, dumped to the Clippers to clear cap space for [laughs until my vocal cords shred and bleed and the convulsions of my muscles breaks my ribs] LeBron James. Chandler and Gallo, both of whom I love to this day, were shipped out in the Carmelo Anthony sign-and-trade. Had two-way soul-wrecker Kawhi Leonard or human Marshall-guitar-amplifier Draymond Green been drafted by the Knicks, they probably would’ve been dealt.
All of which makes my son Kristaps’s nascent superstardom that much sweeter. Every basket he scores, every shot he throws back, is a reminder of how close the Knicks were to repeating past mistakes. It felt as if the team was on the brink of catastrophe. The highest draft selection since Patrick Ewing, the most talented young player in the franchise’s modern history, and the Knicks were exploring trading him. Some would like to move past this fact. I never will. This near-franchise-altering idiocy must never be forgotten, lest it happen again. Phil Jackson was looking to trade Kristaps Porzingis, who has top-five talent and is the only player in NBA history to score 40 points with two made 3s and six blocks, because he skipped a meeting. I guess. And didn’t want to play the triangle. Jackson stans might say, “Well, he has to listen to trade calls. That’s his job.” The entire point of player acquisition—through the draft, trades, and free agency—is to land someone who you can build a title team around. That’s the job. To get a player like Kristaps. Phil, an 11-time champion as a coach, losing that power struggle is the single most positive sign of the Dolan era.
The counterargument is: The Knicks wouldn’t have Kristaps Porzingis if not for Phil Jackson. The counter-counterargument being: That was longtime scout Clarence Gaines’s doing; Jackson probably wanted Jahlil Okafor’s donkey butt.
My son’s early-onset adulthood is not without its ironies.
Greg Monroe and Okafor were linked with the Knicks because of Phil Jackson’s predilection for post play. Now Phil’s gone, and Kristaps is taking nearly a quarter of his shots in the post, converting at an elite 1.03 points-per-possession clip. And, because of the mighty leap in Kristaps’s game, the Knicks are too good to tank.
They grow up so fast.