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Knicks 2018-19 Preview: Kristaps Porzingis

Will the Unicorn rise like a phoenix?

NBA: New York Knicks at Boston Celtics Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

Heading into the 2017-18 season, there was one question that prevailed in most Knicks-related discussions after the Carmelo Anthony trade:

Is Kristaps Porzingis good enough to be the best player on a winning team?

After two seasons playing the Robin to Carmelo’s Batman (and, arguably, regrettably, maybe playing the Jim Gordon to Melo and Derrick Rose’s Batman and Robin in that second season), Porzingis came into what was supposed to be a throwaway year with almost no real expectations for team success — wins and losses wouldn’t matter, but how KP handled the lead role was going to be scrutinized at every turn.

Simply put, Porzingis put on the cowl and laid almost all of those concerns to bed right from the rip.

The first three games of the season painted a bleak picture for the Knicks; all three were losses, and two of them were blowouts. Even in those losses, however, Porzingis averaged a studly 25.3 points per game. Then, over the next seven games, some truly magical stuff happened:

The Knicks went 6-1 in those next seven games, and Porzingis’ scoring average ballooned to a robust 30 points per contest over the first 10, a far cry from the tank-fest that preseason pundits (and the results of the first three games) had predicted. Make no mistake, it was virtually all thanks to Porzingis that the Knicks looked the part of a respectable team at times last year.

KP would slow down a little from there, settling into a final slash line of 22.7 points, 6.6 rebounds, 1.2 assists and a league-leading 2.4 blocks per contest before that moment.

This article was initially a season review. But the more I sat and thought about it, it was hard to look back on the year that was for Porzingis without the constant nagging thought of what was yet to come. He was so, so good before the ACL injury. Will he come back as good? Will he come back even better? Will he, gulp, come back worse?

It’s difficult to preview a player who may not come back this season. And if he does come back, he will be more than likely a shell of himself due to rust; players need time to find their footing after missing so many games because of an injury. So, in re-imagining this piece as a preview, I’d like to go over not just what made Porzingis so great last season, but also try to find a baseline for what his return from injury could look like — even if, as KP himself said, there’s no protocol for a 7-foot-3 guy coming back from a torn ACL.

I’m not going to go into too great of detail tape-wise about what led to Porzingis being the offensive juggernaut that he was in 2017-18, as our own Zach Diluzio gave a masterclass on that already last fall when Porzingis was at the height of his powers. But when looking at the product that the Knicks put on the court before and after Porzingis’ injury, it’s truly staggering just how much of a positive impact he had on the team.

Before Porzingis’ injury in a 103-89 loss to Milwaukee on February 6, the team was sitting at eight games below .500, 23-31. Porzingis was able to play some of that game, though, so we’ll count it towards his total and say that, with KP, the Knicks were 23-32 last season.

After KP went down, the team struggled to a 6-21 record. Granted, there were some other injury hiccups — most notably, Tim Hardaway Jr. missed 25 games last year as well — but all in all, the 18 percent dip in win percentage was a fairly accurate assessment of how essential Porzingis was to this team being anywhere near competitive last season.

Consider a few measures of Porzingis’ impact on the team:

  • Pre-Porzingis injury, the Knicks had a net rating of -1.7. Post-injury, that number ballooned to a ghastly -7.0.
  • Pre-injury, opposing teams shot 44.9 percent and scored 105.5 points per game against the Knicks. Post-injury, Knicks opponents poured in 113.3 points per game on 47.3 percent shooting.
  • Porzingis shows up in five of the top 10 three-man Knicks lineups by net rating last year (minimum 100 minutes together). (Frank Ntilikina shows up in six of the top 10 lineups. Eye emoji.)
  • Porzingis’ 6.4 percent block percentage led the league when he got injured (and held up the rest of the year).

So, especially on defense, Porzingis was an absolute necessity to the Knicks last year. His loss took the Knicks from a team that could have almost competed for a playoff spot to a team that would have had a real shot at winning the draft lottery if only the last 27 games had counted.

Porzingis’ impact, when he was at full strength, was unmatched last season. Granted, some of that can be attributed to the amount of talent around other star players that went down last year. The Pelicans still had Anthony Davis and Jrue Holiday to fall back on after Demarcus Cousins went down, the Spurs still had Gregg Popovich and LaMarcus Aldridge with Kawhi Leonard out basically the whole year, and the Celtics could still count a slew of good players when Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward went down.

But there’s a real case that Porzingis’ injury was the most impactful of last season, and it would be incredibly devastating to the Knicks if he wasn’t able to come back and be the same player at some point this season and beyond.

Porzingis is one of the tallest players to have suffered an ACL injury in the NBA. He said himself that setting a timetable has been difficult because very few guys near his size have suffered this injury.

One might think that, due to extra pressure on the knees, big men might have less success than others as far as ACL injuries go. But as it turns out, the recent track record isn’t half bad:

  • Jabari Parker has torn his ACL twice in the last four years — once in 2014 (age 19) and once in 2017 (age 21). At 6-foot-9, Parker isn’t nearly the size of Porzingis, but he came back from the first injury and went on to improve his scoring average to over 20 points per game in his third season, before tearing his same left ACL again. The returns last season weren’t quite as good, but he was also brought along very slowly by the Bucks, and played in almost 10 less minutes per game than his third season. He apparently showed enough to earn a huge contract from the Bulls this offseason.
  • JJ Hickson tore his ACL in 2015 at age 26, and only played one more season after that with the Nuggets and Wizards. Honestly, though, I don’t think that he only lasted one more season due to the ACL. Hickson just wasn’t a good enough “traditional” big to stick around during the burgeoning pace-and-space era.
  • Nerlens Noel tore his ACL during his lone year at Kentucky in 2013, at 19 years old. The Sixers famously sat Noel for his entire would-be rookie season in 2013-14. A springy 6-foot-11 shot-blocking type coming out of college, Noel is probably about the closest you’ll come to finding a Porzingis injury comp in recent years. And, thankfully for Knicks fans, most of Noel’s problems as a pro have been some mixture of a center logjam in Philadelphia and, well, whatever it was that led him to getting run out of Dallas. Physically, he’s been just fine.
  • Three other bigs tore their ACLs that I’ll just touch on briefly... David West tore his in March 2011 at 30 years old and managed to come back and play 66 games the next year, as well as six relatively injury-free seasons after. Kendrick Perkins tore his ACL in 2010, and he’s still kicking around the league. Same goes for Al Jefferson, who tore his in 2009 and has played a mostly injury-free career since then.

So, all of that is to say, Porzingis should be able to come back at about the same level that he left at, as long as he’s able to get there without being rushed back. Couple that with the clean break of his ACL without other ligament damage, and things are looking pretty good for the Unicorn.

The most important thing for Porzingis this year will be patience, both on his part and on the Knicks’. Coming back too early and re-injuring himself would be far more catastrophic than even just missing the whole season. Ideally, the Knicks and Porzingis should shoot to get him out there for at least 20 games or so, in order to show he’s still the same player and potentially entice a star free agent next summer.

Will that happen? Here’s hoping it does. A lot of the Knicks’ future as a competitive team is riding on the big Latvian’s shoulders.