Kristaps Porzingis is playing the best basketball of his life to start the 2017–18 NBA season. What does this mean for the Knicks rebuild?
To be fair to the New York Knicks front office—Team President Steve Mills and General Manager Scott Perry—it’s very difficult to prepare for a Unicorn standing in the way your tank. Just standing there, refusing to move, doing inconvenient Unicorn things like pulling up from 30+ feet out. Kristaps Porzingis is that inconvenience. The 22-year-old Latvian heartbeat and hope of the New York Knicks, has emphatically flaunted his ascension to capital-U-Unicorn status through seven intoxicating games to start the 2017–18 NBA season.
Porzingis is averaging 27.9 points, on 47 percent shooting, 7.9 rebounds, and 1.6 blocks per game (via Basketball-Reference). These are easily Most Improved Player type numbers. More than that, they are numbers that without too much Knick-homerism or hyperbole, would put KP on the fringes of the MVP discussion if the season ended tomorrow. He’s been that good.
The new and improved KP has obliterated even the most optimistic of post-Carmelo Anthony expectations. The sizable scoring vacuum left by ‘Melo—one of the greatest pure scorers of his generation—has been seamlessly engulfed by a blossoming Porzingis. The Unicorn is frolicking in the space left by the messy departure of the Knicks last superstar. The potential trauma and transition of losing one of the surest sources of buckets in the NBA was one of the biggest questions heading into this season for the Knicks. KP has answered; quickly, confidently and emphatically, that he has no problem being the number one option in New York.
After three tough losses to start the season, the Knicks bounced back with an unexpected three straight wins, before losing to James Harden and his title-contending Houston Rockets to snap the surprise win streak. Hovering near .500 at 3-4 is only more impressive considering the quality of teams New York has faced so far—nobody expected an even mediocre start to the season. The Oklahoma City Thunder, Boston Celtics, Cleveland Cavaliers, and Denver Nuggets are all teams with high hopes for the season and postseason.
Seven days ago, even thinking about mentioning the Knicks and the playoffs in the same breath would have been beyond absurd. Few NBA narratives less likely. But if this supercharged KP is sustainable, then the possibility of the Knicks making the playoffs in the depleted Eastern Conference jumps from totally absurd to unlikely, yet possible. Kristaps’ sudden jump has reinvigorated the Garden.
There may be a limit to how many games you can lose with a player as talented as Porzingis on the roster. This version of KP could foreseeably elevate the Knicks from 20–30 wins and a top 5 pick, to 30–40 wins and a pick in the 5–15 range. This would be an emotional U-turn for a Knick fan base who are psychologically prepared for tanking, and emotionally invested in the idea of Luka Doncic or Michael Porter Jr. donning orange and blue threads next June.
Porzingis entering the superstar stratosphere usurps the need for the comfort the idea of a top 3 pick at the end of a season filled with losing 60-plus games provides. Knicks fans don’t need to watch hours of Michael Porter Jr. YouTube highlights, or the vague hope of Marvin Bagley III leading them to the promise land in the future, when we can watch our very own Latvian Unicorn take a flamethrower to the NBA three nights a week. Unicorn meeting Tank doesn’t leave the Knicks in some kind of a rebuilding no-mans land, it just puts the franchise on an accelerated path to relevance. It’s a win-win. Either we land a top-shelf talent with a top 5 pick in the draft, or we enjoy winning some basketball games on the back of Kristaps Porzingis, NBA Superstar.
The two scenarios aren’t mutually exclusive, either. Tanking isn’t as binary as the race to the bottom suggests, and having the highest pick possible in recent years hasn’t been as important as using that pick wisely. D’Angelo Russell (no. 2) and Jahlil Okafor (no. 3) were both picked ahead of Porzingis in 2015. You think the Philadelphia 76ers brain trust wouldn’t at least think about swapping this year’s no. 1 pick Markelle Fultz for no. 13 pick Donovan Mitchell given the opportunity?
Picking the right player is more important than having the highest pick possible. For the Knicks, just having a draft pick to use, and owning all their first round picks going forward, is an accomplishment in itself. Winning 10 extra games this season has value outside of the draft, as well. It keeps KP happy, which should top of the Knicks priority list until the Unicorn has signed a max-extension in the Mecca. With KP committed long-term, the team winning games, and stability in the front office, New York becomes an attractive free agency destination again.
Don’t overthink this Knicks fans. This is potentially the most fun the ‘Bockers have been since Linsanity, and the franchise—for the first time in a long time—has the ingredients to make it sustainable. If we land a top 5 pick, great, but if not, just enjoy watching our very own Unicorn doing Unicorn things. Long-balls from the logo. Mid-range magic. Rim-rattling put back dunks. Garden-roar inducing rejections at the rim. He’s seven-foot-three. He’s 22-years-old. He’ll be doing this in a Knick jersey for the next decade.
That’s gotta be more important than a couple of extra ping-pong balls.