Kristaps Porzingis, Frank Ntilikina, and Tim Hardaway Jr. are giving us a feeling we haven’t experienced with this franchise before: hope.
I can’t tell you the last time I was excited about the New York Knicks. In my lifetime, the team has made the playoffs a grand total of seven times, where they reached the NBA Finals the year I was born and the Eastern Conference Finals the following year. Since then, I’ve seen the Knicks win a playoff series once, four years ago.
Personally, I was too young to remember the Patrick Ewing era, where the Knicks were one of the most feared teams over a ten year span in the NBA, and all my memories as a fan are largely negative. As an 18-year-old, I think my experiences carry over for many members of this fanbase. I grew up around a family that loved New York sports, I remember being in and out of Yankee Stadium, Giants Stadium (now MetLife Stadium) and of course Madison Square Garden for much of my childhood, which taught me what fandom truly means; you support your team irrespective of the success or failure they’re enduring. Fast forward to today, and my memories of being a Knicks fan are relatively bleak.
The 2012-13 season where the team rode veteran leadership to the second round of the playoffs was fun, albeit short-lived. There was a sense of relief that this team was able to break out of the first round curse that had struck them over the course of the 2000s. Outside of this, the most happy I’ve probably been as a Knicks fan was during the month-long spell of ecstasy that was Linsanity. In short, a second round playoff exit and a player coming out of nowhere only to be relegated to “average” status a few years later have been the not-so-wide range of highlights for me over the past decade.
Outside of those two isolated events, my perception of the franchise has been largely negative. A myriad of poor decisions, ranging from trading Ewing, the draft day trade for Antonio McDyess, giving up fan-favorite Latrell Sprewell, the future hindering trade for Eddy Curry, and whatever the Andrea Bargnani trade was (I could go on…), the Knicks have reeked of mediocrity for the better part of 18 years. Now there is the opportunity for that to change, though.
Despite it being early on in the season, the Knicks have galavanted themselves to a 5-4 record riding a new wave of leadership both internally and externally. Gone is the three and a half year stint of Phil Jackson and the resulting stress that came with it. Now comes the (what seems to be a calculate) approach by General Manager Scott Perry. Led by Porzingis, a player Jackson said was “not ready” to lead this team, and supported by Frank Ntilikina, the ball-handler of the future, and Tim Hardaway Jr., a projected second scoring option behind Porzingis, the Knicks are quietly building a core that they can grow.
Speaking after the Knicks comeback win over the Indiana Pacers on November 5, Porzingis made a claim that was reminiscent of Amar’e Stoudemire proclaiming that “the Knicks are back” a few years ago after he signed his five-year, $100 million contract. “Honestly, I think we’re just playing with that New York mentality—that New York grit. I think we’re representing the city the right way now,” Porzingis bravely bellowed. That grit that Porzingis is referencing is the no-nonsense, hard knock basketball that made New York a playoff mainstay in the 1990s.
Led by Anthony Mason, John Starks, Derek Harper, Charles Oakley and of course, Ewing, those Knicks knew to fight for every rebound, move the ball to the open man and leave everything they had on the court—something I have yet to experience as a fan of this team.
That was then and this is now, though. For better or worse, the Knicks haven’t had a player this young and this talented as Porzingis since the Ewing days. Taking that next step to become the leader, and currently averaging over 30 points per game, Porzingis’ lofty goals for this season, wherein he declared he wanted “to make the All-Star Game…be Defensive Player of the Year, and…be the Most Improved Player of the year” are shaping up to be more reality than fantasy.
With a cacophony of “M-V-P, M-V-P” chants echoing in Madison Square Garden during KP’s trips to the free-throw line, and teammate Enes Kanter even throwing his name into MVP contention, Kristaps took nine games to become the face of this desolate franchise—and bring much needed levity for anxious Knicks fans.
Outside of Porzingis, the Knicks are defensively more succinct with Ntilikina on the court. Utilizing his wingspan, Frank has had the defensive awareness to limit opposition’s offensive capabilities from the perimeter, an incredible feat for a 19-year-old. When was the last time we could say that about a Knicks point guard? Put aside any complaints about Ntilikina’s offense, which is progressing on a game by game basis, the Knicks last five starting point guards have been Derrick Rose, Jose Calderon, Raymond Felton, Jeremy Lin, and Chauncey Billups. Three of those five listed were beyond their best days when they were Knicks, Felton had a standout 2012-13 season before coming back down to earth the next year and Lin had a good month-and-a-half of basketball; we, as a fanbase, are in no place to complain about “The French Prince.”
Between Ntilikina and Porzingis, the Knicks seem well-situated to develop their talented core, considering the fact that they have a first round pick this year that could very well fall in the lottery. That could potentially lead to three bonafide talents for the team, with other building block pieces such as Hardaway Jr. or even Willy Hernangómez in contention to garner big minutes in years to come.
Hardaway Jr., a sharpshooter and presumed second scoring option on the roster, is enduring an up-and-down season, but has shown glimpses of talent worth, dare I say, possibly $71 million. THJ’s splits for wins and losses show that when the Knicks win, which I can currently say is more often than not, he is a considerable part of the victory. Hardaway Jr. averages 19.0 points (43.8 percent shooting), 4.0 assists, 3.2 rebounds, and 1.6 steals in wins. If that shooting percentage increased slightly, then he’d be a real threat on this roster and a good second piece behind Porzingis for the mediocre, yet exciting Knicks.
Despite not playing that much this season, largely due to the increasingly consistent form of Kanter and O’Quinn, Hernangómez is another piece that the Knicks can use, either stretched off the bench or possibly grown into a starter—a potential option that had Knicks fans salivating prior to training camp. Proving to be a double-double threat during an extended period of starting last season, Willy got Knicks fans excited and not due to regression, but rather a logjam, he is still a viable option.
So, combine those four young pieces with a probable lottery pick this year and the Knicks might have had a mini-Process that flew under the radar. Exceeding expectations thus far this season, the Knicks have fans cautiously optimistic. A new savior, a group of young talent, and a new upper management ethos have created a culture shift in the right direction for a franchise that lost its way for over a decade and a half. Fans are coming to the Garden to watch a legitimate superstar, Porzingis, potentially break his career-high in scoring on a nightly basis, a young point guard, Ntilikina, learn the ropes of the NBA and thrives ahead of the learning curve, and a 25-year-old scorer, Hardaway Jr., who knows his shot has no limitations (outside of consistency).
Could a new era have descended over Madison Square Garden? It certainly feels like the Knicks are creating a special core of young and exciting players that are taking over New York.