An eternal question has follow the 7-foot-3 Latvian since his entry into the league. Let’s dive into the possibilities surrounding KP.
Heading into the 2018–19 NBA campaign, there’s one question looming over the head of all Knicks fans regarding their franchise player—when, exactly, will Kristaps Porzingis play?
As all Knicks fans know, the 7’3″ big man tore his ACL in February, leading to much speculation about his return date. However, considering the nature of his injury, coupled with his gargantuan height and the Knicks’ projected “ineptitude” over the course of a rebuilding season, the real question shouldn’t be when will Kristaps play, but rather—where will Kristaps Porzingis play?
Not where, as in, which team will he play for—we all know KP isn’t going ANYWHERE, anytime soon. More like where on the court will he play?
You know, like, position-wise.
While head coach David has preached a “position-less” offensive system for the upcoming season, that’s more of a philosophy, above all else. Sure, the league is trending in the direction of employing five seven-footers who can dribble, shoot, and defend on the perimeter, but the Knicks current roster construct suggests otherwise.
The Knicks—like most, if not all other teams in the league—contain a few players who can only play their natural position. Guys like Trey Burke, who can only really guard one guards, and Enes Kanter, a traditional center in every sense of the term, are pretty entrenched at a single position.
So where does that leave KP—a position-less bird ready to spread its wings and soar away? Well, it’s not easy to say at this point, but we can certainly make some early predictions.
The Strong Case For Center
There are no shortage of Knicks fans clamoring for KP to take up the mantle of the Knicks’ next great starting center, but how practical is it?
Well, it’s pretty damn practical.
For starters, when he’s healthy, he’s a matchup nightmare for any opposing center in a given night. His ability to stretch the floor on offense, combined with his freakish length and shot-blocking ability on defense, makes him the ideal player at the five spot.
However, what makes this year different than previous years we’ve discussed the notion is the fact that Porzingis is coming off a lower-body injury that could very well impact his already less-than-stellar mobility.
Since tearing his ACL against the Milwaukee Bucks in February, Kristaps has vowed to return a stronger, smarter player. Embracing a position change constitutes a strong, smart, move on KP’s part.
Despite playing primarily power forward last year, Porzingis still averaged 2.4 blocks over the course of 48 games played—good for tops in the league during that span.
Porzingis struggled when he was required to guard smaller, quicker players on the perimeter. This was not only the case in defending the common stretch four, but also when he was forced to switch on the pick-and-roll.
David Fizdale, in all likelihood, will employ a heavy-switch defense reflective of his “position-less” philosophy on offense and defense. Coming off an ACL tear, it’s all but to be expected that KP will lose some of his already-lacking lateral quickness. Playing the 4 would put KP in a precarious spot on defense, while also putting him at the risk of re-injuring his knee by playing active defense on the perimeter.
However, putting Porzingis at the center position would mask some of KP’s perimeter woes on defense, while simultaneously playing to his main strength—protecting the rim. In all likelihood, Porzingis will still find himself occasionally matched up on guards on switches, but it’s safe to say he will face far less of these scenarios at center. At the very least, his main defensive opponent will not be hanging around the three-point line—a win in itself.
A Case For The Four
There’s only really one argument for the 4 here, but it’s necessary—Kristaps Porzingis is one of the worst rebounding big men in the entire NBA.
So far in his career, KP has averaged just 7.1 rebounds per game, and despite his improvements on offense last season, he averaged a career-low 6.6 boards a game. Some of this could be contributed to his increased role on offense as the team’s go-to scorer, but much of it comes down to the same problems that have plagued Porzingis since his rookie season—both a lack of strength and a tendency to be out of position under the boards.
Since his rookie season, Porzingis has been paired with a traditional big man at the center position full-time. While a startlingly disproportionate amount of old-school big men have plagued the roster, thanks in part to Phil Jackson’s insistence on running the Triangle, Porzingis’ slotting at the four has been mostly by design. Coaches, including Jeff Hornacek last year, have talked about their hesitancy to play Porzingis at the 5 for extended minutes.
While fans have yearned for Porzingis to play center, evidence suggests it may not be the best idea moving forward. For starters, three point guards (Lonzo, Ben Simmons, Russell Westbrook) averaged more rebounds over the course of a full season than Porzingis did in his shortened campaign.
There is also a startling correlation between his offensive workload and his rebounding numbers. During his rookie campaign, KP sported a 24.5 percent usage rate in 28.4 minutes per game, with an offensive rebounding percentage of 7.1 percent and a defensive rebounding rate of 20.6 (per NBA Stats). In his second season, KP’s minutes increased to 32.8 a game with a similar 24.4 percent usage rate, and his rebounding numbers took a noticeable dip. He finished that season with a 5.6 percent offensive rebounding percentage and a 17.7 percent defensive rebounding percentage.
KP’s numbers on the boards took another startling turn for the worse last season. While Porzingis averaged slightly fewer minutes, at 32.4 a game, with Carmelo Anthony and Derrick Rose off the roster, his usage rate skyrocketed to 31.1 percent. Predictably his rebounding suffered, and as a result, he maintained a paltry 4.5 percent offensive rebounding rate and a less-than-stellar 17.3 percent rate on defense. For all the talk of KP adding muscle last season, it didn’t necessarily do him any justice on the boards.
This could be contributed to fatigue, but KP is going to be a cornerstone of the franchise, and those rebounding numbers will have to improve if he plans on playing center full time. While some may point out that KP has only been coached by old-school brain trust, it appears that head coach David Fizdale won’t commit to playing KP at center, either.
In fact, Fizdale said he could see Porzingis getting some minutes at small forward in “big” lineups—not necessarily music to Knicks fans’ ears. Similarly, then interim head coach Kurt Rambis suggested the Latvian play some minutes at the three spot during his rookie season, and Knicks fans were far from thrilled.
We’ve now had two vastly different head coaches, in terms of play style, suggest Porzingis could play some small forward. For the moment, it’s safe to say that doesn’t bode well for his prospects at full-time center.
In short, while Porzingis looks like a sure-fire offensive hit at center, advanced rebounding statistics—as well as his own coach’s words—show otherwise. Until KP shows he can anchor the middle of a Knicks defense on a consistent basis, he might continue playing the less glamorous power forward position for the time being.
So what does this all mean for KP going forward?
Obviously, it’s playing 35 minutes a game at small forward.
Nah, I’m just kidding.
I think the best case scenario for the young star would be a best of both worlds scenario—play him at both power forward and center. Unlike previous seasons, we should get a better sample size of Kristaps at the 5—his true unicorn position.
The Knicks could employ a big man rotation similar to the Golden State Warriors when KP is cleared to return. We know Draymond Green is the Dubs’ starting power forward, but when they turn to their death lineup, most of his minutes come at the center position. That could change this year with the addition of DeMarcus Cousins, but the formula Golden State has utilized over the past season could serve as a template for what the Knicks plan to do with their All-Star forward.
When Porzingis returns, you could see him slotted in a traditional frontcourt lineup with Knox at the three and Enes at the 5. However, depending on opposing matchups, Fizdale could look to slide Porzingis to the 5—where he can dominate on offense, and has enough size and length to stifle smaller centers in a small-ball lineup, while not getting bullied on the boards.
Mitchell Robinson, who looks like the steal of the 2018 draft early on, could force the Knicks to continue playing KP primarily at the 4, especially considering the former’s rebounding and shot-blocking prowess (Trey Burke recently compared him to a younger, skinnier, Shaq, so there’s that).
And let’s not forget KP’s own preference—he’s on record saying he’s much more comfortable at the power forward spot, and that he expends far more energy playing down low than at the 4.
“I think it’s better for us,” Porzingis said to the Daily News last season. “Me at the 4, especially if I’m playing against a non-shooting 4, I can do a lot. When I’m playing against the 5, I’m fighting with the big a lot of times and I’m wasting a lot of energy. Obviously, offensively I have an advantage at center, but I’m just more comfortable playing at the 4.”
Given his injury history and lack of experience at the position, we could see Porzingis begin games at the four, flanked by a traditional big man like Enes Kanter or Mitchell Robinson, before eventually shifting to center. We’d like to see more of KP at the 5, especially considering his limited mobility coming off of an injury. However, playing center full-time could have troubling repercussions on the court, so it’s up to Fizdale to decide his franchise player’s flexibility between positions.
Either way, having Kristaps Porzingis on the floor, regardless of position, is a good thing.