New York’s upcoming offseason is a bit shrouded in the uncertainty of both Porzingis’ bill of health and his career’s position. Jonathan Macri dives in why the Knicks need to prioritize Porzingis permanently moving to center, and how it’ll re-shape the Knicks’ attention to defense with an addition of a versatile wing needed in the summer.
When Knicks fans talk about rebuilding their team into a championship contender, their faces usually look like they’ve either just taken a bite of something really nasty or that the nasty thing they ate a while ago is on its way back up.
There’s a good reason for those reactions. In the draft lottery era—a span of time that’s lasted 33 years—the Knicks have gotten it right exactly once. The blueprint they followed was pretty simple: draft a superstar big man (Ewing), hit on a young point guard (Mark Jackson) make some savvy trades (Jax for Doc Rivers and Charles Smith, Bill Cartwright for Charles Oakley), sign some former nobodies who become All-Stars (John Starks, Anthony Mason), and selectively deal a future first to fill a need (Derek Harper). Sounds easy, right?
It almost worked. The 90’s Knicks always lacked that true second banana though, the player who who could be 1B to Ewing’s 1A. It almost certainly cost them a title.
Fast forward 30 years. Squint just a bit and you can see these Knicks following the same blueprint. Kristaps Porzingis is already in the fold, and Frank Ntilikina was added to the core last June. This season has seen Trey Burke emerge from out of nowhere. He joins his former college teammate, Tim Hardaway Jr., who is either a poor or rich man’s version of John Starks, depending on which night you catch him.
Each one of them is 26 or younger, but much like in the 90’s, no one on the roster looks like a proper complement to the man around which this is all being built. Fans being fans, we all want that second stud. Whether it’s in this draft or in the summer of 2019 (which is looking like the summer of spending), there are some who think that’s all that matters.
It isn’t. NBA rosters are like ecosystems. One small change can have a ripple effect that alters the balance everywhere else. Stars are obviously important, but focusing on that and that alone belittles all the other moves that go into building a contender.
It’s time we figure out what those moves should look like.
Have you heard of Kenneth Gatewood? The name probably doesn’t ring a bell, but I guarantee you’ve seen his work. He’s the artist who used to paint pictures of NBA superstars as infants. I had a few of his pieces hanging in my bedroom as a kid, but my favorite was one called “Centers of Attention.”
The reason I liked it so much was that these five behemoths single-handedly gave order to the NBA at a time when I as a young fan was trying to figure out the difference between contenders and pretenders. These guys made it easy. If you had MJ or one of the five, you were a contender, plain and simple. Starting with the 1992–93 season—Shaq and Zo’s firsts—these five centers appeared in 27 conference semifinals over the next eight years, including two head-to-head matchups in the Finals (three if you count 1999, when Ewing was injured against San Antonio).
But back to today. When talking about rebuilding the Knicks, the conversation inevitably begins with the budding superstar they already have in place, just like it did 30 years ago. Here’s the difference: building around Ewing was easy, or rather, easier. He was a center who could do all the things centers traditionally did—he defended the paint, grabbed rebounds, and although his range extended further than most, his shooting didn’t change the way you structured an offense, per se. Whichever other players you put on the roster, they would fit around Ewing just fine.
That was then, this is now. Kristaps Porzingis may be 7-foot-3, but he’s spent nearly 80 percent of his time as a pro at power forward, per Basketball-Reference. He doesn’t rebound the ball all that well (just 7.1 per game for his career, including 6.6 this season), and for all the magic he provides as a weak side shot blocker, he’s not someone most people see banging with the Andre Drummonds and Dwight Howards of the world on a nightly basis.
For all of these reasons, there’s a growing sentiment that the next Knicks building block should be a big man that can complement KP. That’s not exactly true, though.
Lineups are getting smaller and smaller. Just last week, I turned on a random Nets-Heat game to find that the tallest player on the court was James Johnson—nominally a small forward. It’s no coincidence that we’re coming off of three straight Finals matchups where the head coaches engaged in a game of chicken as to who would pull their starting center first.
So what does that mean for Porzingis and the Knicks? With decisions looming on a draft pick and the futures of centers Kyle O’Quinn and Enes Kanter on the team, New York needs to first figure out what position KP will spend most of his time at. He’s supposed to be the cheat code that can combat units like the Warriors’ “Death Lineup,” in which Draymond Green allows Golden State to play big and small at the same time.
Thus far, it hasn’t worked with KP at power forward, particularly on defense. How many times this year did we see KP sprinting out to the three-point line at less than full speed to recover on an open shooter, only to get there a moment too late? He wasn’t being lazy; he just knew that if he fully committed, his man would either change course towards a now unprotected rim or pump fake and fire away. Unlike contemporaries Davis and Embiid, Porzingis doesn’t have quite that level of lateral movement. (And it’ll be true when returning from the ACL injury.)
Of course, the reason Porzingis was in the paint to begin with is because he’s one of the best shot blockers in the league playing alongside a center who is among the worst at his position in swatting opponents looks. The Knicks made a commitment before this season that the one thing they weren’t going to allow was open looks at the rim, and it worked…kind of.
At the time KP went down, the Knicks allowed the sixth-lowest field goal percentage at the rim in the league, and Porzingis was fourth among 36 centers who defended at least 10 shots per game in field-goal percentage allowed. As a result, despite the fact that they’ve given up more threes at a higher conversion rate than any team in the league, they were still 16th in overall defensive efficiency before KP went down on February 6th.
The Lakers weren’t shy in attacking Kristaps Porzingis on defense. I think they did this purposefully, knowing the Knicks defense is strongest when he can roam off the ball and provide help inside. My breakdown for @TheKnicksWall: pic.twitter.com/lDtkl17yNv
— Knicks Film School (@KnickFilmSchool) January 23, 2018
Since then, the train has unsurprisingly gone off the rails, but we learned a few things about what kind of frontcourt partner is best suited to be waiting for him when he returns.
The first thing we know is that it isn’t Enes Kanter. For one, opposing teams can defend the Knicks by slotting their big man on Enes and allowing more agile wing players to handle KP. Early on this season, Kristaps was feasting by shooting over smaller men, but as the year wore on, we saw opponents wise up and slot defenders on the Unicorn that could get into his body and make it uncomfortable for him to simply rise and shoot.
Even if Porzingis continues to bulk up and can eventually take advantage of such Lilliputians, the Knicks’ offensive ceiling will only be fully realized by taking opposing big men out to the perimeter and either firing when they don’t play him close or driving by them when they do. That won’t happen with Kanter on the floor.
On defense, aside from his lack of rim protection, Kanter routinely gets destroyed in pick-and-roll sets. Just as the Warriors famously did in the 2016 playoffs, elite teams will play him off the court in the postseason every time.
So given that it’s a high pick-and-roll initiated-offense league, what kind of frontcourt partner would help mask KP’s deficiencies under the basket while also being able to handle perimeter defense?
Draymond Green sure would be nice, but Golden State doesn’t figure to let the reigning Defensive Player of the Year go anytime soon. Here, the Knicks would be wise to take a page from the rest of the league, where the only thing teams are trying to get more than unicorns are reasonable facsimiles of the Dancing Bear: players who can provide just enough defense in the middle but also switch onto virtually any smaller player and not be taken advantage of.
Boston has Al Horford and subtly but wisely traded for Marcus Morris last summer, while Washington has his equally skilled brother. Houston scooped up P.J. Tucker from the Raptors, who now employ both Serge Ibaka and Paskal Siakam in that role. We already mentioned James Johnson. The best part is that all of these players can slide over to center in super-small-ball lineups that inevitably become necessary in the playoffs.
Where can New York find such a player? One place could be the draft.
There are many Knicks fan out there dreaming of a twin towers scenario featuring either Mo Bamba or Wendell Carter Jr. Sure, these dudes would solve some of the issues, but are either of them (or is Kristaps, for that matter) really comfortable defending in space on a regular basis? Bamba and Carter have already shown the ability in college to defend a guard in a pinch, but doing something on occasion in the pros is a very different animal than relying on it as part of a regular defensive game plan. In the playoffs, or just in the course of a regular season, they’ll be put in high pick-and-roll after high PnR. It might not go so well. Miles Bridges, on the other hand, is listed at 6’7″ and averaged 7.6 boards per game in his college career. If the Knicks miss out on a certain other Bridges, he might be a perfect fit.
The second option might already be on the roster. Kyle O’Quinn is nobody’s idea of the ideal starting NBA center, but could that just be because he’s never gotten the opportunity? In the limited time he played this year with Porzingis and the Knicks lone plus perimeter defender, 19-year-old, future multiple-time DPOY* winner Frank Ntilikina (*may be an idealistic prediction), New York outscored teams by nearly eight points per 100 possessions, according to Cleaning the Glass. The offense wasn’t great, but it didn’t need to be; the defense would have made the ’96 Bulls blush, giving up just 98.1 points per 100 possessions, a figure that would easily lead the league.
For many fans, the idea of heading into the future with a frontcourt of KP and K.O. is probably a bit unpalatable, which brings us to the third option: free agency, where the best options will be nominal power forwards who an do some of the dirty work for KP.
Fans have been salivating over Julius Randle for months, but he’s going to be expensive and doesn’t provide the type of perimeter defense you’d be looking for from such a player. Kyle Anderson (who isn’t much of a shooter but makes up for it with super-savvy passing) is a restricted free agent this summer, and the Spurs starting lineup with him at power forward is destroying teams to the tune of a plus 17.9 Net Rating. OKC’s Jerami Grant will be unrestricted this summer, can defend one through five and has shown evidence of a respectable deep ball. Both Morris brothers will be unrestricted free agents after next season, when they will be just 29.
— Alexis Bullen (@alexis_bullen) March 6, 2018
One last route is acquiring someone via trade, and one unsexy name that may be available is Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. His complete lack of range may have the Hornets ready to move on in the offseason, but as a part of units that have shooting at the other four spots on the floor, you could do worse. He’s still only 24 and has shown the ability to rebound and can guard pretty much any non-center with ease.
There is one last concern, and it’s one I myself have preached for years: Kristaps himself has voiced hesitation about being a full time center. As he should…at least until he gets years more work on his lower body in the gym.
The Knicks would be foolish to push that card on him before he signs his extension, and even after; every players’ wishes should be honored to a certain extent, and none more so than the franchise cornerstone. But for as cautious as he might be, the young Latvian also isn’t stupid and very much wants to win. He’s smart enough to know where this team’s ceiling lies on both ends of the court.
New York conveniently has three players who have shown themselves, to one degree of another, to be in the long-term plan: Frank Ntilikina, Tim Hardaway Jr., and Trey Burke.
Here’s what we know so far: on defense, Frankie Smokes is very good, Tim Hardaway Jr. is a bit of a space cadet, and while Young Iverson (I’m going with it until someone makes me stop) tries his heart out, he leaves a bit to be desired.
Can all three of them work together? It’s not out of the realm of possibility. According to Cleaning the Glass, in the 247 possessions the trio has been together on the court for, the Knicks are holding opponents to 107 points per 100 possessions, which is pretty decent for a such a bad team. It’s also not a number that should necessarily inspire confidence. But what if New York took one of the two weaker defenders off the court and replaced him with another elite wing stopper?
A quick look at old friend Carmelo Anthony provides some insight on just how big of an impact such a move could have. Everyone knows that Anthony is anything but an elite defender, and yet for much of the year, was part of one of the elite five-man units in the game. Per Cleaning the Glass, the ‘Melo–Russ–George–Adams–Roberson starting lineup allowed just 95 points per 100 possessions, which is more than six points better than the league-leading Celtics’ lineup. That’s a crazy good number for any five-man grouping, but for a unit featuring a 33-year-old Anthony and notorious irrational gambler Russell Westbrook, it’s borderline incomprehensible.
Since André Roberson went down with a ruptured left patellar tendon, OKC’s defense has cratered (they’ve been league average without him, down from fifth with him), and Carmelo’s individual Defensive Rating has gone down more than five points (down as in up, up as in more points allowed, which is bad).
What does any of this have to do with the Knicks? Simple: it’s proof that if you have three elite defenders on the floor at the same time, anything is possible, even with a group that has significant offensive limitations (see: ‘Melo and Roberson’s shooting numbers on the year).
Burke might not be a plus defender, but he’s a far more apt cog in the machine than Anthony. If you’re thinking he’s a guard and thus his poor defense will hurt the team more, look at what the Celtics did with Isaiah Thomas in last year’s playoffs, hiding him on the opposing team’s weakest offensive player, regardless of position. Creative coaching finds a way around these little pitfalls (which NY may have to work on, too).
New York is lucky enough to have not one but two hopeful future All-Defensive Team stalwarts already in the fold. Even the Frankie haters acknowledge that his defensive ceiling could be the guard version of Kawhi Leonard. He’s still growing—literally—and once he bulks up, Ntilikina is going to be able to credibly defend across three-to-four positions:
Frank's defense on 6-9 forward Robert Covington 😍 pic.twitter.com/oUYiblgR7R
— Reid Goldsmith (@reidgoldsmith) March 29, 2018
Porzingis, on the other hand, is a human Oreck machine. As we’ve discussed, he can’t slide out on guards with the greatest of ease, but his shot-blocking prowess more than makes up for it. He’s going to be a defensive monster for years to come.
We’ve already seen what just these two are capable of when they share the floor, giving up under 100 points per 100 possessions. If the Knicks add a third All-Defensive-caliber, or adjacent, perimeter player to the mix, it’s game over. If said All-Defensive-caliber player were also able to hit a high volume of threes at a highly efficient rate? It’s the Mortal Kombat fatality when Sub Zero freezes the dude and then pulls out their spine. Opposing teams will be afraid to come out of the locker room at halftime.
You can see it now: Porzingis in the middle, a Draymond-lite-type player alongside him, a 3-and-D wing and Frank to defend the opposing team’s best perimeter players, and Burke running the show. Frank gets to run point when Burke sits or needs a breather. K.O. (please re-sign) can either slot in alongside Porzingis or back him up when he rests. Timmy gets moved to the super-sixth man role he’s always been destined for. Optimistically, everything falls into place.
It doesn’t all need to happen in one offseason (and, in fact, the cap dictates that it almost surely can’t), and with next season likely a wash due to a certain inconvenient ACL, that’s fine. But this plan works for two main reasons, and they’re interrelated.
First, Scott Perry has talked about three things since he came aboard: getting younger, getting more athletic, and no longer being a doormat for opposing offenses. This approach takes care of all three. Second, it’s a methodology in lockstep with where the league is at, and more importantly, where it’s headed.
It’s copycatting a team like Houston, where you can close your eyes and chose any four guys from the Rockets’ bench to play alongside Chris Paul or James Harden (or both) and chances are they’ll hold their own. It’s creating a roster that ceases to become a traditional puzzle and instead turns into a collection of Lego’s. They’re interchangeable, and more importantly, if you’re missing a piece or two, the fun doesn’t end. Best of all, regardless of which big name player comes knocking on your door in free agency, you have a roster that can accommodate his talents.
Right now the Knicks have one such “position-less” piece in Frank Ntilikina (there’s a reason why the entire rest of the NBA is very high on his potential). If Troy Williams learns how to shoot, they’ll have another. Damyean Dotson—if this late-season mini-explosion is to be believed—might be a third.
Of course, that’s not nearly enough. Guys like Enes Kanter and Michael Beasley—one-way players that only function in just the right ecosystems—need to go. Keep them around for next year because someone needs to fill the uniform, but after that, is sayonara.
With that, Scott and Steve, feel free the print this out and stick in on the refrigerator—it’s the steps we’ve talked about (plus a few we haven’t, because, you know…people have jobs) which, if followed, should lead to candy canes and gumdrops for everyone:
- Offer Kristaps Porzingis a max extension the moment the clock strikes midnight. If he tells you “no, let’s wait a year to maintain maximum cap flexibility,” fine. But do not mess around. Pay the man.
- Draft someone who fits in with the modern game and the roster (either Bridges will do) and offers enough positional flexibility that it doesn’t restrict you from making any particular move going forward.
- Consider Ntilikina a foundational building block, and pencil him in for 30+ minutes a night for the next decade—worry about his fit later. As we’ve established, exact positions are a thing of the past.
- Give Burke a shot at the full-time starting point guard job, because why not, he has proven himself.
- Go bargain hunting this summer for players that fit the long-term vision: athletes who can switch across positions, don’t take anything off the table when used correctly, and most importantly, complement Kristaps Porzingis. If none are available, don’t do anything stupid. On that note…
- Don’t sign any contracts that can’t be easily moved if and when someone big shows interest on July 1, 2019. (Because saying “maintain 2019 cap space at all costs” is over simplistic and close-minded. Flexibility comes in many forms). Don’t sign any deals you can’t get rid of without attaching an asset.
- Try to hold onto Joakim Noah for as long as possible—there’s no need to limit your options with a stretch and waive until the Players Union is breathing down your neck. Hopefully that never happens (and obviously, if someone wants to trade for him at a less than exorbitant cost, throw a party).
- Unless Emmanuel Mudiay breaks down his game and rebuilds it from scratch, including offering to go to the G League until he gets it right, try your best to cut ties. He doesn’t defend, can’t shoot, and at this point, is simply in the way.
- Whether it’s this summer or in 2019, let Enes Kanter’s contract expire, thank him for his service, and hope someone invents a time machine to take him back to 1987 so he can have a Hall of Fame career.
- Hire a coach who understands the demands of the modern game, as opposed to someone (cough, Jeff Hornacek, cough) who is still living in the past.
The work of rebuilding this roster is closer to the starting gate than the finish line, but it’s clear that the foundation is already in place. Another interesting piece will arrive by the draft , and then the tough part begins. So far, Scott Perry has shown he’s up for the task. If he keeps it up, the Knicks should be able to execute on a blueprint that has somehow eluded them for three decades.
Keep your eye on the prize, Scott. Knicks fans everywhere are counting on you.