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Kristaps Porzingis Is Free of the Knicks’ Problems but Not His Own

The former savior of New York no longer has to deal with the dumpster fire at MSG. His game, however, still needs work to fit with Luka Doncic in Dallas.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

When Kristaps Porzingis returns to Madison Square Garden on Thursday, he will find it in a state to which he grew accustomed during his three-plus years as a member of the New York Knicks: on fire, and embroiled in chaos.

It took all of 10 games for the Knicks to turn a run-of-the-mill bad season into yet another slapstick shitshow. Team president Steve Mills and general manager Scott Perry hastily conducted an impromptu press conference on Sunday to rather transparently place blame for New York’s 2-8 start at the feet of head coach David Fizdale. In doing so, Mills and Perry laid the groundwork for Fizdale to take the fall for the franchise’s latest dismal campaign and potentially ensure their ability to stick around long enough to oversee another. Reminder: The dissolution of Porzingis’s relationship to the Knicks reportedly began in earnest when he skipped an exit interview following the 2016-17 season, weeks after decrying the “top to bottom” confusion plaguing an organization that had just spent months engaged in a pointless cold war with superstar Carmelo Anthony. His discomfort stemmed, people around the team told SNY’s Ian Begley, “from a lack of faith that the Knicks could create a winning environment, one where he could thrive individually and on the team level.” Kind of tough to ding him on that score right now, you know?

Porzingis’s tenure in New York curdled and ended with almost shocking speed. In just more than a week, Porzingis went from “engaged with us, still participating, fighting for us, texting” to on his way to Dallas because “it became clear to us that Kristaps was not on board with [the] plan we had laid out.” Less than two months later, a woman told New York police that Porzingis had raped her at their Manhattan apartment building in February 2018. A representative for Porzingis denied the woman’s account. The NYPD told Marc Stein of The New York Times this week that “there is no update on” its investigation into the complaint.

Feelings in New York over Porzingis’s exit remain fraught, with passions inflamed among both those who lament his loss and those happy to bid farewell to someone who apparently grew weary of being a Knick. Regardless of how he’s received in Thursday’s MSG return, though, a pressing question is whether the Mavericks are better equipped to create a winning environment for Porzingis. The early returns have been mixed.

The Mavericks enter Thursday’s game at 6-4. While they’ve played one of the NBA’s softer season-opening slates, they’ve earned a quality road win in Denver, put together a pair of solid performances in losing efforts against very good Lakers and Celtics teams, and are second in the league in offensive efficiency, according to Cleaning the Glass. Look a little closer, though, and it looks like those gaudy offensive numbers might owe less to the arrival of Porzingis than to the ongoing ascendance of Luka Doncic:

Porzingis’s averages look fine: 18.3 points, 7.9 rebounds, 2.4 blocks, and 1.7 assists in 31.4 minutes per game. His interior shooting percentages are down—he’s making just 41.8 percent of his attempts inside the arc, and 68.4 percent from the free throw line—which is mitigated somewhat by the Latvian knocking down a crisp 37.5 percent of his tries from beyond the arc.

In his first nine games back after 20 months on the shelf following a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee, Porzingis is attempting both a smaller share of his shots at the rim than he ever did in New York and a career-high 6.2 3-pointers a night. Some of that shot distribution is by design: Porzingis’s long-range stroke makes him a valuable floor-spacer and spot-up threat. Stationing him outside the arc draws his defender—which, since he’s 7-foot-3, is typically a pretty tall guy who’s more commonly assigned to staying parked near the basket—out of the paint. That means opponents have to scramble to protect the rim, which Doncic can exploit to great effect, creating layups and dunks for off-ball cutters or rim-running screeners like Dwight Powell and Maxi Kleber:

That can be a really effective way to run offense, but leaning too hard on that approach runs the risk of marginalizing Porzingis—a credible face-up player who averaged 22.7 points per game and made an All-Star team as a primary option in New York prior to his ACL tear. There are lots of other ways that Dallas coach/noted offensive magician Rick Carlisle can spring Porzingis for clean looks—running him up from the baseline around pindown screens at the foul line that let him catch and either rise up or attack from the middle of the floor, for example. But the one that the Mavs hope will eventually tie defenses in Gordian knots is the Doncic-Porzingis pick-and-roll.

Drop back to take away Doncic’s drive, and you’re giving up an open pick-and-pop 3. Trap the ball, and you’re giving Porzingis a chance to attack four-on-three, or rise up over the top of the defense for an open midrange jumper that should be an easy bucket. Switch it, and you give a 7-foot-3 dude a chance to rumble into the paint, turn, seal his defender, and go to work.

One issue with that: Porzingis hasn’t done so hot when he’s drawn a smaller defender and gotten the chance to attack. This is nothing new; it’s been the book on Porzingis since his rookie season, when Brad Stevens got “kind of crazy” by putting Marcus Smart on the no. 4 draft pick after a 20-point first half. Despite working to add bulk and sharpen his reads since then, Porzingis remains a hit-or-miss proposition when working out of the post with a smaller and/or slighter guy on his back.

According to NBA.com’s matchup data, he shot a combined 1-for-8 against the Celtics’ trio of Smart, Jaylen Brown, and Jayson Tatum in a loss on Monday, and 0-for-3 against former Knicks teammate Frank Ntilikina in a loss last Friday. It’s one thing for big, long defenders like Jonathan Isaac to give Porzingis problems. But not being able to anchor down, maintain post position, and get off a quality look against guys who are between 6 inches and a foot shorter than him will make it a lot tougher for Dallas to extract maximum value out of the two-man game with Doncic, and for Carlisle to use Porzingis as a featured option in mix-and-match reserve lineups when Doncic needs a breather:

The glass-half-full take: This is the first competitive basketball that Porzingis has played in nearly two years. He was bound to have at least some rust to knock off his game once live action started. “I played a lot of pickup in the offseason and I was trying to find my rhythm and then all the little details about the game, the contact, where the contact is going to come, and game feel, decision-making and the speed is different in the game,” Porzingis recently told Chris Mannix of Sports Illustrated. “That’s the thing that I have to still keep getting used to.”

He’s already shown flashes of the old stuff—a 32-point, nine-rebound, five-assist performance against the Trail Blazers; 28 and nine with five blocks against the Knicks. Those sorts of performances make it a bit easier to stomach the ugly nights, like Monday’s 1-for-11 outing in Boston where he said he felt like he “had no legs on my shot,” according to Brad Townsend of the Dallas Morning News. “It was just flat. I rushed into a couple of them. I have to take my time when I get those switches, get good position and just turn around and shoot over guys. ... It’s a matter of time, me getting used to those switches again and physical play and them getting beneath me.”

He’s got time. Doncic is off to an MVP-caliber start his second season, and Porzingis signed a five-year, $158 million extension this summer. Everybody associated with the Mavericks knows they’re playing the long game with Porzingis; you can more readily ride out some volatility and early reversals when you know your investment doesn’t necessarily have to pay out right away.

He’s got Doncic, the best passer and playmaker he’s ever played with by a distance that spans galaxies, and Carlisle, a relentless tinkerer who could probably produce a top-10 offense with the washed roster of your Sunday morning men’s league team if you gave him a little bit of time to prepare. And, despite how hard he seems to be taking the dips in his early-season roller-coaster ride, Porzingis also has a hell of a lot less pressure on his chest and shoulders in his new digs.

In New York, for better or worse, Porzingis had to be the standard-bearer for an organization that has defined failure in the NBA for the better part of two decades. He was the gleaming beacon of hope for a fan base that hadn’t gotten to embrace a homegrown superstar since Patrick Ewing; the long-awaited and much-dreamed-of savior who’d return the days when the Garden was Eden, and deliver the Knicks their first championship since the Nixon administration; the only thing worth being excited about on some dreadful and drama-plagued teams.

In Dallas, though, Porzingis will always be the second man in. Luka’s the golden boy, the chosen one, the prince who was promised. He doesn’t have to validate years of suffering with an immediate title push, because Mavs fans don’t have to rely on fading, sepia-toned memories of the squad’s glory days; only five franchises (Toronto, Golden State, Cleveland, San Antonio, and Miami) have more recently won a championship. And even the most pressing problems surrounding the Mavericks would probably have a hard time beating out the third-most-interesting positional battle on the Cowboys’ depth chart for headline space and airtime in the conversation in Dallas. A 1-for-11 night in Boston isn’t going to get him crushed for three days in every form of media imaginable.

Porzingis doesn’t have to be the savior now. He just has to space the floor, score when Doncic doesn’t have it going, and figure out how to not get short-circuited when wings guard him. All he has to do is find his shot-making rhythm, get comfortable in a couple of different spots on the floor, and let his talents and Luka’s gifts take over. Thursday night in his old stomping grounds provides a chance to take another step, plus one hell of a fringe benefit: the knowledge that, no matter what fresh misery the folks in charge at MSG can cook up next, he doesn’t have to deal with it anymore.

This piece was updated at 1:18 p.m. ET on November 14, 2019, with additional information after publication.