Porzingis will have to do more than wait 10-12 months to return to the hardwood—he’ll have to re-engineer how his body works in order to maintain a successful NBA career.
Players in the NBA are more athletic than ever before, and players are increasingly turning to biomechanics to meet the increased demand for finely-tuned athletes. Much like a host of freakishly talented, yet frustratingly sidelined superstars before him, the injury-riddled Kristaps Porzingis may now have no choice but to jump on the biomechanics bandwagon to survive the rigors of the modern NBA.
KP’s health has hovered ominously above the swarm of buzzwords that have been the soundtrack to this offseason. Development, patience, and culture are all very well and good, but they’re peripheral, an assortment of tasty organizational condiments. Freakish talent is the foundation of all successful NBA franchises, and in this regard, Porzingis is the beating heart of this Knicks rebuild. Without him, the whole process would feel unnervingly Nets-esque.
It’s a crucial moment for the Knicks organization and for KP who, when healthy, is as dominating a two-way talent as anyone in the NBA. The 23-year-old Latvian is simultaneously one of the best rim protectors in the league, second only to Paul Millsap in DFG% allowed within six feet of the rim at 48.7 percent, per NBA Stats, and one of the most potent pick-and-pop threats, shooting a hair under 40 percent from deep last season. At 7-foot-3, he’s almost unblockable out there.
Considering the, shall we say, sub-optimal coaching context in New York during KP’s career thus far, imagining him in a modernized system with a roster constructed to maximize his freakish skill set is intoxicating for Knicks fans. Put in a position to succeed, the sky is the limit for KP. Cruelly, though, what makes him so freakish—that 7-foot-3 body—is what makes him so fragile.
Today’s NBA is a league of uber-athletes. It’s an arena where survival, and for a select few, success, is measured in superlatives. In recent years, the game has fetishized freakish-ness, unicorns, and athletic anomalies. Improved shooting has effectively enlarged the court, so that players have to cover more ground, more often, in less time. This improved shooting has stretched the floor, but it’s also stretched the athletic boundaries of what very large humans can physically accomplish.
7’3″ frames are poorly designed to handle the athletic minefield that is an NBA defensive possession. Sprint out to defend a pick-and-roll. Contain a jitterbug point guard. Recover to deter a lob. Close out on a three-point shooter. This type of skeletal punishment—stopping, starting, lunging, and twisting—is a physically destructive dance that defenders undertake hundreds of times a game, night after night.
Now, more than ever, athleticism is seen as an untapped resource—another efficiency to be maximized, another differentiator between best and not-quite-best. For Porzingis, it’s becoming more apparent that athletic efficiency is a necessity.
At his unique size, with his unique skills, he cannot sustainably stay healthy without optimal biomechanics. Super-skilled seven-footers are the pinnacle of an NBA ravenous for extreme skill and extreme size in one player. The intersection of this league-wide demand, and the physical limits of humans seven-plus feet tall, will make or break guys like Porzingis.
It’s no surprise that in his short career so far, KP’s list of injuries is a long one. To his right leg: a sore hip, sprained ankle, sore foot, and “inflammation to the bone and tendon” of his knee. To his left leg: a sore achilles, sore knee, sprained ankle, sore groin, strained quad, bruised thigh, and now a torn ACL. Arguably, the series of injuries to the left side of KP’s body, culminating in a major injury to his left knee, is indicative of a biomechanical imbalance. Identifying and fixing this biomechanical weakness is crucial, and is something Kristaps and his rehab team have been prioritizing.
In his comeback documentary series, KP’s orthopedic surgeon, David Altcheck, addresses his biomechanics: “When he lands, he jumps, his knee does this because his hip needs to get stronger. The idea is, get his ACL done properly, super strong, and then take a lot of time to improve his body mechanics. And that’s the best defense to this happening again.”
The ACL tear that was partially the result of biomechanical imbalances may be the catalyst for Porzingis to address these imbalances, with the extended time off the court giving him the time to reset his body.
Stories of biomechanical overhauls extending, saving, or reinventing NBA players careers are nothing new. Steph Curry, a two-time MVP, had career-threatening ankle issues for years before learning to “load his hips to help unload his ankles“. Even LeBron James overcame disc issues in his back with the help of his personal biomechanist Donnie Raimon, who worked to strengthen James’ core muscles and improve his posture to take the stress off of his lower back.
One of the most recent beneficiaries of a biomechanical overhaul is Victor Oladipo, who in the summer of 2017, just before being traded to the Indiana Pacers, re-worked his body as a first step to resurrecting his career. He focused on his hips, which were so tight that they were preventing his hamstrings from performing at full strength. After a summer of hard work, Oladipo had a breakout year and blossomed into a superstar.
Two of Oladipo’s teammates, big-man duo Domantas Sabonis and Myles Turner, have focused on improving their bodies to get leaner and faster in an effort to survive in today’s super-charged NBA. All three have been focusing on their hips, an area of the body frequently neglected or underused by players around the league.
When Porzingis tore his ACL against the Milwaukee Bucks last season, in what should have been a beautiful moment of unicorn-on-unicorn crime as he blew by and dunked on Giannis, he was given an opportunity to build a physical foundation capable of sustaining performance at the highest level. His ACL rehab is an opportunity at longterm preservation. It’s an opportunity which Kristaps and the Knicks cannot afford to waste.
Whilst the Knicks’ front office and coaching staff have all preached patience and development as steps not to be skipped during an uncharacteristic rebuild in New York City, the most important development for the future of the franchise is happening behind closed doors, as KP and his medical team work to improve his body mechanics.
Their success will mean the difference between a theoretical unicorn or a fully weaponized one—the difference between Porzingis the superstar, leader of a relevant New York Knicks, and Porzingis, the latest Knicks what-if, who had unsustainable moments of magic that were ultimately limited by a body that could not keep pace with today’s relentlessly athletic NBA.