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  • What Now? A Game Plan to Pick Up the Pieces in Porzingis’ Absence

What Now? A Game Plan to Pick Up the Pieces in Porzingis’ Absence

The Knicks suffered a heavy loss with the injury to Kristaps Porzingis. Nevertheless, Scott Perry and the Knicks need to pull themselves by the bootstraps and keep working on building a team from the bottom up while Porzingis is away.

I know where I was when it happened. I was sitting at my dinner table enjoying a nice tall glass of discount eggnog. It was probably the most deflating, disappointing moment in this post-2010s era of Knicks fandom. Kristaps Porzingis tore his ACL and our dreams, however near or far, vanished before our eyes. Still, the day after, anyone mildly invested in KP is in shock. The outpour of love and support from fellow NBA players, including his teammates, has been swift and vast. Good friend and (former) teammate Willy Hernangómez shared a heartfelt sentiment via Twitter, “This is so hard….you are my best friend. We have been together almost every day for five years. But, I know you will be back stronger and better than ever!!! I love you bro!” LeBron James wrote, “Best wishes and have a speedy healthy recovery.”

One can only hope these compassionate messages comfort Porzingis in this time of hardship. During a media scrum on Wednesday, Scott Perry described Porzingis as “emotional.” While it’s important to consider the implications of a tragic injury on the young man’s career and life (let’s not forget athletes are stuck with their bodies after sports), the New York Knicks are a team, an entire organization, and the show must go on.

Strictly speaking in terms of the team’s direction, this injury has undeniably altered the long-awaited rebuild of the Knicks franchise. Porzingis will be out of the lineup for an extended amount of time, possibly an entire year. Even then, it would take at least the half-season left for him to get his chops back. The road to recovery from an ACL injury is long and arduous. Porzingis has a tough task in front of him, but what of the Knicks? What can they do in the meantime to bolster their roster? What moves can they make so that when Porzingis returns he’ll have a supporting cast capable of shouldering the load until he’s at 100 percent and then dominating with him when he reaches full strength? At this time, nothing is certain, but a number of moves could facilitate using this adversity as a building block.


What to do with the vets?

With the recent trade of center Hernangómez, it’s obvious that the team is still looking to make moves before the trade deadline on Thursday, February 8. The playoff push died during the current losing streak. Whether the team intends to tank or not, they’ll lose more than their share of games to qualify as a lottery-bound team. So where does this leave their veterans? ESPN’s Ian Begley suggests more trades are on the horizon for New York by Thursday’s 3 p.m. deadline:

Although the Hernangómez trade opens up the logjam at center a bit, teams’ interest in backup Kyle O’Quinn cannot be ignored. The 27-year-old center is averaging 6.5 points, 5.6 rebounds, and 1.9 assists in 16.6 minutes for the Knicks—all career highs. He’s also shooting 59.4 percent from the field. O’Quinn can pass out of the post, offer rim protection and, every so often, he turns into LeBron James in 15 second increments:

For championship contenders that focus on three-point shooting like the Houston Rockets or the Golden State Warriors, he’d be invaluable off the bench.

However, his contract is one of the most interesting aspects. O’Quinn current salary puts him at a frugal $4 million per year, but he has a player-option for next season. If he decides to opt-out and completely control his destiny by entering free agency at the end of the season, he could leave the Knicks before the team could capitalize on using O’Quinn’s skills and contract to bait an asset. Teams interested may require an agreement where he opts in to his affordable player-option. The risk of giving up a valuable asset for less than half of a season of play only to re-sign the same player for a higher price tag, or lose him completely, understandably isn’t ideal. Nevertheless, O’Quinn is a player to give a long hard look at.

Knicks veteran Courtney Lee is currently posting a career high in points, three-point field-goal percentage, rebounds, and assists. Lee is an above average perimeter defender and a competent ball-handler as well. Reliable wing help is at a premium right now, and Lee is exactly that. His strong play may be desirable, but his contract may make things a bit difficult for teams that are tapped out in terms of cap space. Even more, whatever they have to offer the Knicks in return may not be up to par. For Lee’s $12 million salary through 2020, you get what you pay for. Other teams may not have made deals as savvy as this one and may not be fiscally able to offer the Knicks anything other than the results of their poor decision-making. It’s tragic that the dream teams would imagine with Lee is partially borned by the Knicks’ own crushed hopes, but sacrificing the present to create an advantageous future may be the Knicks’ best bet.

If New York’s general manager Scott Perry decides to continue the idea of a youth movement, he should start by opening up the roster spots by trading vets with value for returns similar to those of Hernangómez. On the other hand, Michael Beasley, is on the books for the remainder of the season and nothing more. As an expiring contract, he could offer bench scoring in the playoffs but not much else. It’s highly doubtful he’ll be dealt before the deadline. However, that may just mean it’s his time to shine. With fans dilapidated by the Knicks inexhaustible bad luck he may be the scorer necessary to keep people interested in watching games. A known character in the NBA, the Walking Bucket’s antics are already infamous in New York. This season Beasley is averaging 12.4 points and 5.1 rebounds in 19.6 minutes. Not bad. In the seven games that he started, Beasley averaged 20.3 points and shot a clean 50 percent from three-point range. Despite Beasley’s natural bucket-getting ability, his scoring is offset by just about everything else, a win for Knicks fans counting on an outright tank job.

With most of the important veterans on the roster dealt with, it’s time to take a look at the Knicks young prospects.

What to do with the young prospects?

Begley also reported a tentative plan of the Knicks:

One thing this tweet reveals is that the team has swiftly come to the realization that, of the remaining games, the Knicks will lose way more than originally expected. Hopefully, the Knicks organization comes to terms with the idea that the 2018–19 season could be more of the same sooner than later.

The other side of this tweet is the comforting idea that the Knicks will finally invest real playing time into their young guards, specifically Frank Ntilikina and Trey Burke. Jarrett Jack had a great first half of the season. At one point he was nearly a league leader in assists. It was a sufficient swan song for the aging point guard, and now it’s time for him to rest on the bench. Jack had been horrid as a defender the entire season, and his second halves have been all-around abysmal for a while now. He can’t push the ball, he can’t drive, and even he knows his three-point shooting is spotty at best. If the Knicks wish to build an identity for the team, they have to start with developing their younger players and giving them some burn.

Ntilikina has had a rough rookie season. He hasn’t shot over 40 percent for a single month, he’s easily pushed around by stronger guards, and his playing time was annexed by G League stand out Trey Burke. Earlier in the season, Hornacek played Ntilikina in key, late game possessions, a move to be applauded. Since then, however, Hornacek has benched him for entire halves. Ntilikina doesn’t help his case by being soft and making silly mistakes, but there is no reason for the 8th selection in the previous draft to play fewer than 10 minutes per game, especially when he offers better defensive pressure than the incumbent starting point guard.

In all possibilities, Ntilikina could start at point at the beginning of next season. Whether he’s ready or not is debatable. Although he can be unfocused at times, his defense has proved to be his greatest strength. However, if Ntilikina’s rookie wall is so low offensively, perhaps it’s best that Burke, an experienced point guard aching to make a difference, become the starter beforehand.

Burke, former University of Michigan running mate of Tim Hardaway Jr., started his tenure with the Knicks in early January averaging 7.4 points and 3.4 assists on 55.6 percent shooting, per Basketball-Reference. In February, he’s on pace to eclipse his first month averages by posting 11.5 points, 2.5 rebounds, and 2.0 assists. Burke himself has defensive struggles similar to Jack due to a lack of size. Leaving him in long against a starting point guard who is a known scorer could prove to be problematic if the Knicks want to compete.

So, one possibility that Hornacek could employ is involving Burke and Ntilikina in the same lineups. Burke’s offensive gifts coupled with Ntilikina defensive prowess could mask the weaknesses of the young backcourt. Both are average passers that can hit an open man when the defense decides to collapse or stretch themselves too thin. With a little tinkering, Hornacek could utilize his dual point guard gimmick once again.

If the Knicks decide to pull the trigger on a trade for Courtney Lee, rookie Damyean Dotson could see some playing time. Dotson is averaging 17.9 points, 6.1 rebounds, and shooting almost 40 percent from three in the G League (via RealGM). Those are solid stats that could forecast him as a 3-and-D player similar to Courtney Lee.

Also, should the Knicks move another center before the deadline, 7’1” Vanderbilt product Luke Kornet is on a two-way G League contract and may deserve a temporary internal promotion.

What about everything else?

The 2017–18 season is dead, but it doesn’t mean the Knicks should stop trying to build. In fact, the Knicks should be more active than ever in case, God forbid, Porzingis isn’t the same player.

They should look at the trading block for discount deals on role players. According to SLAM, forward Shabazz Muhammad is asking for a trade from the Minnesota Timberwolves after a steep drop in playing time. Rodney Hood may not be an ideal fit for the Knicks as currently constructed, but if he’s being dangled out there by the Utah Jazz, a second look couldn’t hurt. Perry’s former team, the Orlando Magic, are quietly looking to move coveted power forward Aaron Gordon as well. If they’re still as gullible as they were when they gave up Victor Oladipo for what ended up as Terrence Ross and a half-eaten bag of Fritos, then hopefully he can sucker the Magic into accepting another substandard deal. The Knicks would have to pay Gordon and open up sufficient cap space for that, however.. Gordon could be the power forward the Knicks need while KP recovers and eventually be the Duncan to his Robinson.

While this free agency isn’t ideal for the Knickerbockers, valuable players will still be available as unrestricted free agents, and a couple of frugal deals offering solid contributors consistency could help the Knicks in their endeavor to find a roster that can survive without Porzingis, yet thrive with him. Help at the forward positions would work wonders if they could find it cheaply, and persistence is key.

The Porzingis injury shook the foundation of the Knicks. The team’s plans were derailed in an instant. It’s unclear what the future holds for New York’s franchise player, but if the front office is serious about building a contender, they must roll with the punches and keep moving forward with a flexible plan to build a contender.

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