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Tired in the City That Never Sleeps

After an unbelievable start to the season, Kristaps Porzingis is crashing back down to earth. The drop-off in production has become a trend for the Knicks star. Is it fair to start wondering whether he’s built to carry the team on his shoulders?

Three faces of Kristaps Porzingis, looking angry, sad, and happy Getty Images/Ringer illustration

By any measure, Kristaps Porzingis’s development as a basketball player since the age of 17 has been astounding. It’s 2018; we are five years removed from his first professional season overseas, four years removed from his averaging a measly 6.7 points in the Spanish League, and three years removed from the once-unknown Latvian being booed on draft night. Now, Porzingis is dropping 23.7 points per game while leading the Knicks to their best season since 2012-13. Porzingis has enhanced his offense since his time overseas by tightening his handle, adding post moves, and honing his jumper. On defense, he’s morphed from a raw athlete into a rim protector who smartly rotates, contains pick-and-rolls, and swats 2.3 shots per game. Porzingis is a force of nature who has changed the Knicks franchise, and just two months ago, he was performing at an MVP level. We caught a glimpse of greatness in Porzingis at the start of the season. That’s what makes his recent games so hard to swallow.

The Knicks are slipping. They’ve lost nine of their last 12 games, and Porzingis’s play has declined considerably in that span. He’s exhausted, and he’s already suffered multiple lower-body injuries. Pressure is rising in New York. An anonymous NBA scout called the branding of Porzingis as the Knicks’ franchise player “idiotic,” according to the New York Post’s Marc Berman. All of which reminds me of a conversation I had with two executives about Porzingis around the beginning of the 2016-17 season. We’ll call the executives Hall and Oates.

Hall was the dissenting voice. The Knicks big man was fresh off an incredible rookie season, but Hall had doubts about whether Porzingis would ever be an elite player. Oates and I were flabbergasted. We listed his skills and described what we saw as his clear path to greatness. Hall sighed, then asked, “As Porzingis gets older, can he stay on the floor or handle the type of load that superstars do?” Oates and I had the same defense, citing his age and room for physical growth. “I get it,” Hall said. “But he’s thin in the legs. He’s frail. He’ll be a good player. But he won’t hold up.”

And now, after yet another uneven performance against the Bulls—one in which Porzingis logged 44 minutes of playing time—perhaps it’s time to reckon with the question Hall posed a year ago. Since 2015, Porzingis has suffered the following injuries to his right leg: sore hip, sprained ankle, sore foot, and “inflammation to the bone and tendon” of his knee. The list is longer for left-leg injuries: sore Achilles, sore knee, sprained ankle, sore groin, strained quad, and bruised thigh. He’s also battled lower-back tightness and a right-shoulder strain, and he has a right-elbow problem that might require surgery. Porzingis was diagnosed with anemia in 2010. He has missed games in all three NBA seasons for illnesses, including an upper-respiratory infection and three separate stomach flus.

“They call me ‘The Lizard’ because I recover so quickly from things,” Porzingis said in November after suffering a sprained right ankle. It’s true (not the Lizard part; no one calls him that): Despite that daunting list of injuries, Porzingis has missed only 32 games over his career. But on December 14, after he tweaked his left knee, his tone changed. “I did what I could this summer to prepare my body for this [workload],” Porzingis said. “Hopefully I can keep working on my body and strengthen all the ligaments everything and do what I can to avoid these kind of things.” Then on January 3, he admitted that he’s drained. “I’m tired, I’m tired, I’m so tired right now,” Porzingis said. “I have one day to rest my legs and get back and play better and have more energy and try to bring the team’s energy up.”

He’d clarify the comments the very next day. “Every day off helps, especially after a back-to-back that we had,” Porzingis said. “That’s what I meant. I was tired after the back-to-back. A day off always helps.” However he meant it, he still sounded more like an old, grizzled veteran than a rising 22-year-old superstar.

Porzingis is simply facing the cost of doing business as a giant in the NBA. He’s averaging 33 minutes with a 32.4 usage rate, a rarity since 1977-78, the first season usage can be calculated on Basketball-Reference. Only six players listed at 7 feet or taller have averaged 30 or more in both minutes and usage (Yao Ming, Dirk Nowitzki, Patrick Ewing, David Robinson, Hakeem Olajuwon, and Shaquille O’Neal). Porzingis is primed to join the ranks. When the minutes and usage thresholds are dropped to 25, we have a sample of 115 such seasons by 7-footers; in 23 of those player seasons, or 20 percent, 7-footers missed over one-fourth of their possible games. By comparison, of 386 player seasons for those between 6-foot-8 and 6-foot-11, only in 14.8 percent of them did players miss one-fourth of their games, which correlates strongly with a 2014 study by FiveThirtyEight that found 7-footers drafted in the lottery this century miss roughly seven more games per season than shorter players.

But even historical precedents don’t fully outline the issues Porzingis is facing. He’s missed “only” 32 of 205 possible games, or 15.6 percent. It’s not just that he’s missing games due to injury, it’s that he’s significantly worse when trying to play through them.

Kristaps Porzingis’s Production by Season Segment

Season Segment GP PPG eFG% DREB% USG%
Season Segment GP PPG eFG% DREB% USG%
Start of the Season (Oct. 19 to Nov. 7) 10 30 55.6 19.3 35.7
Elbow Injury Announced (Nov. 11 to Dec. 14) 14 22.2 48 17.8 32.4
Return From Knee Injury (Dec. 21 to Jan. 10) 11 20 40.4 15.4 29.5

Porzingis’s scoring efficiency has plummeted since the start of the season, especially since his mid-December noncontact knee injury against the Nets. His defensive rebounding has also dipped, while his fouls have increased. Considering New York’s dearth of talent, he’s forced to take tough, contested shots, rather than play off his teammates and score easy buckets. His situation isn’t helping matters, and as fatigue builds, his shooting percentages also have dipped across the entire floor.

This season isn’t the first time Porzingis’s performance has declined before the halfway point of the season. As a sophomore, his play hit a swoon around mid-December until after the trade deadline (before he missed the final five games of the season with a sore lower back). As a rookie, Porzingis began to slip in mid-January, and that level of performance was sustained through the season (until he missed the final seven games with a right shoulder strain). It’s an undeniable trend in the wrong direction.

Anyone who witnessed the Best Bad NBA Game of the Month on Wednesday night—a 122-119 double-overtime win for the Bulls over the Knicks—saw a microcosm of Porzingis’s season: a fast start followed by a struggle. The Knicks don’t make it easy on Porzingis. They ran isolation after isolation for Porzingis, with so few creative screen actions to get him open and easy shots. The game is a constant physical battle for him. It’d help to not force him to post up so frequently since fewer one-on-one touches down low would lead to fewer bumps and bruises. (Only five bigs attempt more post-ups per game, according to Synergy Sports.) The development of Frank Ntilikina at point guard and the return of Tim Hardaway Jr. should also get him easier baskets.

Porzingis said in October that he prefers playing power forward because at center he’s “fighting with the big a lot of times and I’m wasting a lot of energy.” Tweaking his workload could help, too. Porzingis frequently plays the entire first quarter and is one of five big men to average over 10 minutes in the opening frame (two of the others are Anthony Davis and Blake Griffin). I’d be interested to see coach Jeff Hornacek tweak his rotations to give Porzingis shorter stints per quarter. He could find inspiration in what Spurs coach Gregg Popovich does with LaMarcus Aldridge. Pop generally pulls Aldridge with about three minutes to go in the first and third quarters, then sends him back in with nine minutes to go in the second and fourth quarters. Or Hornacek could get funky like Sixers coach Brett Brown, who takes out Joel Embiid midway through each quarter, then puts him back in with about three minutes left. Whatever it is, they’ll need to figure out adjustments to coax that old Porzingis out of hiding.

“Sometimes it’s hard to judge a guy in the first 10 games when he’s really hot,” Hornacek said after Porzingis expressed his fatigue. “We all wanted it to be the normal but he’s 22, trying to be in that role. He’s going to have great nights, going to have rough nights.”

Porzingis’s first 10 games of the season was the ideal version of him as a player. It was a glimpse of his prime, and it was intoxicating. But it also warped our sense of where he stands developmentally. It’s irresponsible to expect any young player to average 30 points while dominating on defense, like Porzingis did to start the season. Of players 22 or younger, only Kevin Durant and LeBron James have averaged at least 30 this century.

The Knicks believe they have a superstar in Kristaps. But they can’t ignore the troubling precedent set by players of his ilk, nor can they ignore his own injury history. Porzingis is only 22, and in his first season as a primary option. He plays with reckless abandon, flying around the floor like he’s a wing and banging around against big-bodied centers. He’s carrying the weight of the Knicks on his shoulders. That’s a lot of pressure on his slender frame.