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P&T October Mailsack, pt. 1: Make way for Willy? LOL nah

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If the Knicks were The Bachelor, who gets Kristaps’ rose?

We haven’t had a mailbag since August’s two-part event. Let’s get to it. This’ll be a multi-part extragavanza, as the first question is so juicy it gets part one all to itself.

What do you see being the best way to build around KP in the frontcourt over the next few years? I feel one of our main defensive issues has been playing him at the 4 next to a slow-footed 5. The team’s rotations are always a step slow to close out corner 3s, KP picks up a lot of dumb fouls that way and the defense just seems slow. That said, even with KP at the 4 and playing next to a center… the rebounding has been an issue. Do you think Willy and KP is the answer long-term?

Don’t you mean “Do you think Enes Kanter and KP is the answer long-term?” LOL!

(As a not-brief aside: I am flummoxed by all the Willy flimflam these days. He’s not playing because the Knicks would rather move Kanter and Kyle O’Quinn for future assets, and because the Knicks do not care about winning games this year, and the Knicks are right on both accounts. Theoretical astrophysicists have hypothesized what a functional Knick organization might look like. One of their most interesting findings: when the Knicks are finally functional, the early stages of this spacetime will be invisible to us, because we’re so used to the old universe that our senses will insist it remains even when reality begins telling us differently.

The dysfunctional Knick universe we’re accustomed to is defined by management making short-sighted moves to win today’s headline at the expense of the next hundred. A functional universe will feature a front office dedicated to the opposite: sacrificing the now for the then. But we still try to understand moves as they relate to winning, so we jones for an All-Rookie First Teamer to play more minutes and develop his game. We associate teams on the rise with young players with accolades, and we want to be a team on the rise, so we dream of what our young accoladed players might one day bring. Older, expensive vets don’t spark our imagination.

The Knicks could not care less about their record this year; given that this is the last year before the draft lottery reduces the odds of the worst teams winning the top pick, they shouldn’t — not if their focus is, for once, long-term. Willy Hernangomez is not going to forget how to play basketball if he isn’t playing big minutes in October of his sophomore season. Not playing probably means he’s working even harder in practice. Not playing means he’s getting to watch and study the game from the bench, to see the big picture more often. These are not bad things, and in fact make sense if your focus is, for once, long-term.

You never know how 29 other teams’ seasons will unfold. Already we’ve seen multiple season-ending injuries whose impacts will stretch far beyond the affected teams. Gordon Hayward’s injury resonated from Boston to Cleveland to Washington to Toronto, in addition to whatever hypothetical teams those four might partner and trade with. If Milos Teodosic is out a while, or re-injures himself, the Clippers go from maaaybe 50ish wins to maaaybe missing the playoffs; if they sink, would they move DeAndre Jordan?

It’s easy to say today that nobody will trade for Kanter, he makes too much, he can’t play D, he has a player option. No one in this or any dimension would have imagined the haul Denver got a couple years ago for Timofey Mozgov. Cleveland was in a position where they overpaid because they needed something very specific. Kanter is a legit scorer and rebounder. O’Quinn could be a meaningful postseason bench big for a team looking to maximize their bang for the buck. If Hernangomez isn’t playing in 2018, I worry. Right now I don’t. Because I know the day “normal” arrives at 33rd and 8th, the first thing I’ll notice is how little sense it seems to make.)

As to Latvian Prankster’s actual question: look at frontcourt combos among the rising powers in the East. The Celtics have the quick and explosive Jaylen Brown plus the smooth offensive perspicacity of Jayson Tatum.

The 76ers have a true center who can play inside and out in Joel Embiid, plus point-guard-in-the-body-of-a-big Ben Simmons and last year’s Rookie Of The Year runner-up Dario Saric, who can play with Embiid and Simmons. Milwaukee starts a pair of athletic seven-footers in Giannis Antetokounmpo and Thon Maker. Maker can shoot from downtown and defend the rim and the perimeter. Giannis can do everything, it seems, including imbuing a free throw attempt with all the gravitas of a man hesitant to commit suicide. The clip below veers into parody, but check Antetokounmpo’s body language as he starts his routine.

Greek Freak looking more freaked than when Atreyu tested the sphinxes.

Only three players in the league forced opponents to shoot a lower percentage at the rim than Porzingis: Defensive Player of the Year Draymond Green, runner-up Rudy Gobert, and two-time DPOY Kawhi Leonard’s teammate LaMarcus Aldridge. The Knicks have a better net rating each of KP’s two seasons with him at center. Sounds like a guy you want parked around the rim, right? The thing is, he’s clear he’d rather play 4 than 5, and the Knicks seem simpatico with that.

You can use the numbers to reinforce whatever you already feel. Think Willy’s too one-dimensional to be the starting center on a winner? Cite John Schuhmann’s finding that Hernangomez “was, statistically, the worst layup deterrent in the league. With him on the floor, Knicks opponents took 38.2 percent of their shots in the restricted area, the highest rate among the 256 players who were on the floor for at least 2,000 opponent shots.” Then again, Schuhmann also finds (in an admittedly small sample size) the Knicks’ best five-man lineup last year in plus/minus featured—wait for it—Willy and KP (plus Mindaugas Kuzminskas and the departed Justin Holiday and Brandon Jennings).

Remember: Porzingis is still just 22. One day he’ll probably be ready to take the reins as the team’s center, but in these early, tanktastic, please-just-get-through-75-games-in-a-season days?

Hernangomez or Porzingis trying to guard Simmons or either Celtic is probably just no. In the imaginary future playoffs, do you want Willy checking either Embiid or Simmons for 40 minutes a night? Nobody can guard Antetokounmpo, who in the space of a single dribble goes from halfcourt to a dunk. There will be nights and match-ups where the Knick bigs succeed. Offensively, in particular, Hernangomez and Porzingis could combine to do good. Willy is a good passer; we’ve already seen times this year where other centers like Kanter don’t recognize opportunities that he would.

But like Ikea and Allen wrenches, Porzingis is such a specific talent I think maximizing his potential dominance means building him with a very specific big, one who can occupy a defender down low and stretch enough to be a midrange menace while also being able to defend both in the post and on the perimeter. Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett, and Dirk Nowitzki were seven-footers spared the rigors of manning the pivot. Guys like Antetokounmpo and Kevin Durant are modern, supersized wings. Let your brightest stars shine in the skies they’re most comfortable.

You know who’d let KP shine brighter than Saule, the Latvian sun goddess?

An unrestricted free agent next summer, Derrick Favors checks off all the boxes. He’s been a two-way force at power forward but has voiced an openness to playing center: “Whatever Coach needs me to play, basically,” he said. “If he needs me to play the 5, I’ll play the 5. If he needs me to be a point guard, I’ll be a point guard. Two guard, whatever he needs, I’m there.” At 265 pounds, he’s def not bereft of the heft needed to defend the endangered behemoths still roaming the NBA landscape. But he’s lost weight and has the athleticism and defensive intensity to potentially significantly upgrade the Knick defense.

Favors is also young (26), healthy after a year struggling with Iliotibial band syndrome, and was a rising stock every year of his career until last, when he was cast as Rudy Gobert’s second banana.

Favors has evolved to take nearly twice as many midrange shots as he did when he broke into the league.

After never taking more than 10 three-pointers in any season, Favors has already taken three in three games this year. Brook Lopez took 37 over his first eight years, then 387 last year. John Wall made just three of 42 three-pointers his second season (7%!); two years later he took over 300 and hit at a league-average clip. It took Channing Frye three teams before somebody figured out he was a threat behind the arc. Favors is a young, multi-talented two-way big whose game is expanding eight years into his career. He also once defended one current Knick from another. It took almost a half-dozen grown-ass men to pull Favors away. Give.

That’s all for today. Stay tuned for more hot mail-on-mail action in part two soon!