The question on everybody’s mind is when Kristaps Porzingis will be back on the hardwood. Maybe we should be asking ourselves when he should be back.
It’s been 149 days since we last saw Kristaps Porzingis on a basketball court. Since his ill-fated fall after his yam over Giannis, the Knicks have gone through quite the makeover. Jeff Hornacek (who Porzingis may or may not have had a moderate beef with) was shown the door and replaced with the player-friendly David Fizdale. The roster’s youth movement, headlined by Kevin Knox, has made the team appealing for the first time this decade. Most important of all, the front office has a plan in place.
Two seasons ago, Porzingis skipped his exit interview because he was fed up with the dysfunction. The lack of direction was a key point of frustration, and we were one more bad Phil Jackson move from ending the Porzingis era before it began. Steve Mills and Scott Perry have done well to mend that fence and also come up cohesive rebuild plan, with Porzingis as the centerpiece.
A major step in that plan is also its biggest question—when will Porzingis return to action? This is just as much a Knicks question as it is a KP one. We know Kristaps wants to play this season. His projected timeline for a return was 10 to 12 months, which puts his earliest possible return around Christmas time, something that has been reported as a possibility.
We also know that Porzingis’ ACL tear was not as severe as it could have been. His doctor said that much in the second episode of his comeback mini-series:
“Your particular version of the injury has the best prognosis because you didn’t have any cartilage injury, any the other ligament injury. None of the complicating negative factors which we quite honestly, we usually see in NBA ACLs, so this is awesome.”
Given his lizard-like healing abilities, a Kristaps Christmas is plausible, but would it be the right move? When asked at the town hall event last week if it made sense to hold KP for the whole season, Mills stressed the team doesn’t want to jeopardize their franchise player’s long-term future. This is consistent with Mills’ patient philosophy.
Patience has been the buzzword this summer. The front office knows what they want to build and understands that it will not happen next season. The optimal time for the Knicks to make their move is 2020. Joakim Noah’s deal will be off the books—via a buyout or waive—and KP will be locked up. Mills and Perry are already shifting that timeline up a year by moving on from Noah now and allegedly making Kyrie Irving top priority next summer.
Regardless, the team understands this season is all about laying the foundation. At a press conference last Thursday, Mills emphasized that Porzingis is a large part of that foundation:
“He’ll never feel like he’s not a cornerstone part of what we’re trying to do here,” Mills said. “He understands that. We make that crystal clear to him and his representation.”
Mills added that extension talks with KP’s camp have begun. Porzingis is eligible to sign a five-year deal worth up to $157 million. They can choose to max him out as the Suns did with Devin Booker; they can also choose to go the route the Sixers went with Embiid, which is max him out with salary cap protection in case of injury.
Whichever route the team ultimately goes (for what it’s worth, I see a Booker-type scenario to be more likely), the feeling is the team will wait to next summer when they can max him out as a restricted free agent. This could save them about $10 million in cap space which they can use to court Kyrie, and also not cost Porzingis any money.
Perry echoed this thought process when asked about it at Thursday’s presser:
“Our philosophy is that we’re going to stay connected with them,” Perry said. “It’s a long-term thing. Obviously you mentioned the point of the extra cap space in July (we’d have if we waited to give Porzingis an extension). But again, we’re going to continue to keep the dynamics of the conversation in-house. And keep the integrity of that process in order. But we just feel like we’re in a real good space with him, as well as he is with us. And we’re going to do the right thing by him and this organization.”
That should eliminate any haste from KP or the team on a return. The only incentives for him to return to action are to better his body mechanics at game speed, and build chemistry with his teammates for next season.
It is easy to preach patience while Porzingis’ return remains months away. As that return becomes more of a possibility, the temptation to get him on the court will rise. The thought of him, Knox, Mitchell Robinson, and Frank Ntilikina is something we have all been fantasizing about since the Summer League. If the team happens to get off to a decent enough start, that temptation will only amplify. This is where Mills has to remain true to his word.
The handling of Porzingis’ return will be yet another litmus test for Mills and Perry. Trying to decide when to bring back your best player is a losing battle on some fronts. There is no perfect time, per se. The goal here is to limit the downside and stay the current course. There are a couple blueprints that Mills and Perry can follow to help make this decision easier.
Far and away the least popular decision would be Porzingis missing the whole season. Last year, the Knicks finished 6-22 following his injury. That wasn’t an aberration. The Knicks without Porzingis is equal to The Office without Michael Scott: largely unwatchable with brief moments of excitement. The additions of Knox and Mario Hezonja does move the needle in terms of watchability, but let’s be real—the ceiling is the floor.
FiveThirtyEight echoes this sentiment. In their playoff-chance projections, the Knicks are second-worst only to the Kings:
These projections were made under the assumption Kristaps misses the majority of the season. If the team meets those expectations, their consolation prize could end up being the number-one pick in the draft. The Sixers took this approach with Ben Simmons, who was held out the duration of his (real) rookie season with a bone fracture in his foot. He could have likely returned late in the season, but similar to the Knicks this upcoming season, there was no incentive to risk further injury. It allowed the Sixers one last tank that resulted in a top-three pick.
In the Knicks’ case, that could end up being R.J. Barrett, the prodigy, or the electric factory, Zion Williamson. Prying Kyrie away from Boston’s young core is a high priority next summer. Recruiting him to join this young core becomes an infinitely easier task when you can pitch throwing alleys to Zion or sharing the floor with a dude who single-handedly dismantled Team USA.
Putting Porzingis on the court puts that plan in serious jeopardy. When he is on the court, the Knicks evolve from a shoe-in lottery team to a fringe playoff team.
Over the past three years, the Knicks have played close to .500 level basketball when Porzingis is on the court, and like a tanking team when he is off.
The glaring difference being on defense, something the Knicks will confront again this season. Save us Mitchell Robinson! pic.twitter.com/XK7y8azHbj
— Knicks Film School (@KnickFilmSchool) August 29, 2018
Keeping KP on ice the whole season sounds great in theory. At a certain point, though, “Porzingis” chants will start to rain down from the rafters. Fizdale has got to be eager to bring his star into the fold, and his teammates have to be dying to have him back. Having said all that, the toughest road does present the greatest reward.
Should Porzingis push to get on the floor sooner rather than later, the Knicks could look once again to their I-95 neighbors for guidance. The Sixers pushed the limits of patience with Joel Embiid. If the Knicks want to finagle a way for Porzingis to get minutes and remain lottery bound, look no further than Embiid’s rookie season. Joel was held out of back to backs and averaged 23.3 minutes per game until early December.
Placing Porzingis on a similar schedule would be great for him, the fans, and the locker room. It also gives the medical staff leeway in case Porzingis’ knee starts to act up while he gives fans a teaser of what’s to come. The problem that could arise, however, is if the Knicks start winning and Porzingis’ minute cap begins to increase.
Embiid’s minutes cap increased by mid-December to 27 per game. The Sixers started to resemble a professional basketball team once again, and Embiid was at the center of the resurgence. Then his knee flared up, and by the end of January, his season was cut short due to a meniscus tear. It’s not pessimistic to think KP could suffer a similar fate. The Knicks have to be pragmatic, or in other words, they hope for the best while planning for the worst. An earlier-than-projected return yields little to no reward for the team as currently constructed.
However, an early March return makes the most sense. It could serve as the middle ground where Porzingis gets court time, and the team can still grow. By the time March rolls around, the rooks will have plenty of minutes under their belt to make their court time with Porzingis meaningful.
Knox in particular stands to benefit the most. Without KP, he will have the opportunity to get reps as the top scorer—something Tim Hardaway Jr. used to his advantage at the end of last season. When Porzingis does return, he and Mitchell Robinson can slide in and give us a teaser of what awaits next season.
The Pacers implemented a similar strategy with Paul George as he worked his way back from a broken leg back in 2015. They waited until March to allow him to play, but that had more to do with the severity of George’s injury than anything else. George played minimally in six appearances, and the Pacers were able to secure a pick that became Myles Turner. The next season, George returned to form to lead the Pacers back into the playoffs.
There is no reason the same cannot happen for the Knicks. This rebuild has been an unusually smooth process. The key difference has been well planned decision making instead of shortcuts based on delusional expectations. The return of Porzingis is no different. Continue to stay the course, and we will get our Unicorn back better than ever.