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Exactly how good is Kristaps Porzingis?

Two best friends and the best writers at P&T work through many, many thoughts

NBA: New York Knicks at Phoenix Suns Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

That’s a good clickbait headline, right folks? It’s the only way for me (Drew) to justify my unreasonable salary here at Posting and Toasting. For a lot of people who are reading this article, especially those who are not Knicks fans, what you’re going to read is probably going to come off as salt and harbored resentment. You may absolutely be right, but I honestly do not believe that to be the case. There may be a pinch of salt, I’ll give you that... maybe. Not sure these days.

Over the past two years now, I have had private conversations about my skepticism of Kristaps Porzingis and my willingness to trade him. I kept them private because the last thing you want to do as someone who writes about the New York Knicks is be critical of the best young player since Patrick Ewing, as well as the presumed future face of the franchise. It’s is the last thing your audience wants to read; it makes you look really ignorant. I mean, how can you question the ceiling of a guy who’s 7-foot-3, athletic, can dribble, shoot threes, and protect the rim at an elite level?

And that’s where things get complicated: theoretical ceiling versus reality. One of the people I have had these conversations with is my good buddy, Shwin. Shwin and I go back a long ways, before our days of being the best and brightest at Posting and Toasting. We decided that we should have our lengthy discussion on this topic turned into an article. I was like, “This can be like those old Bill Simmons and Malcolm Gladwell email-exchange articles.” Shwin said it was a great idea while James Marceda said, “Simmons and Gladwell makes sense as a framework cause they’re both overrated hacks.” James has been lashing out at us lately because he’s threatened by our greatness. I can’t blame him. I mean, the Knicks did trade Porzingis on the day my mailbag dropped because they wanted Knicks fans talking about the deal instead of my article.

Without further ado, here is our discussion.

Drew Steele [7:04 AM] Feb 4

I know you’re not awake, and I’m pretty sure that Slack prevents you from getting notifications right now so I know that this message is not going to wake you up (hopefully). Last night was my first night in my new apartment and one of my cats decided to meow at like 6 AM, because cat logic. I’ve been up and out of bed since about 6:30 AM, so like any normal person, I get right to work on Posting and Toasting articles. Let’s use the Slack DMs to discuss these complicated feelings we have with Kristaps Porzingis leaving. This is going to be the first message in the article everyone will see. I’m going to kick things off by asking you this: are we salty that the New York Knicks traded Porzingis, and are we acting like the bitter boyfriends who got dumped by a girlfriend or boyfriend who were wife and husband material, or has our fandom blinded us from the reality of who Porzingis actually is?

Shwin [1:29 PM] Feb 4

Whooo boy. That’s a hell of a question. Let’s start with the fact that yes, we are 100 percent salty. Nobody likes getting dumped, and regardless of whether Porzingis demanded or “suggested” that he’d prefer to be traded, it seems safe to say he didn’t want to be a Knick any longer than necessary. Does that mean everything those who believe (like me) that the Knicks did the right thing in trading Porzingis are simply rationalizing to make ourselves feel better? There’s certainly an element of that at play, but that type of rationalizing/homerism is exactly why we’ve ignored, forgiven or excused some of his past behavior and the clear holes in his game. But, before I continue, I’m curious, what do you think is Porzingis’ reality?

Drew Steele [10:04 PM] Feb 4

For whatever reason, my stoic approach to watching and enjoying the Knicks did not extend to Kristaps. It also hasn’t extended to Frank Ntilikina, but that’s a different topic altogether. Like so many Knicks fans, I conflated theoretical Porzingis with actual Porzingis. Fans of all teams do this with effectively every young player. As a writer, though an unpaid one, it’s my job to be as objective as possible when trying to evaluate what is happening in the present and cut through the emotional bias fandom generates. When you look at the numbers and watch the film, you can make the case that actual Porzingis is quite overrated. Before the ACL tear, theoretical Porzingis could be somewhere between a top 10–15 player in the NBA and a premier two-way player. Because he hasn’t played, theoretical Porzingis is now TBD, but before the injury, well, let our good friend Bootum present the stats:

Every year Porzingis has been in the league, Porzingis has improved is production and incrementally improved upon his weaknesses. While there was clear improvement, there was also clear and distinct regression starting in December, and then KP would get injured. Porzingis has never finished a season, has never had a true shooting percentage about 55 percent (despite being a “shooter”), and had a defensive rebounding percentage that was only 0.6 percent greater than Damyean Dotson. I get that Dotson is good rebounder for his size and position, but he’s listed at 6’5 and Porzingis is a legit 7’3. You can easily make the case that playing with Doncic as the “point guard” and not Derrick Rose and Jarrett Jack will improve his efficiency, but, man, it doesn’t look promising.

Shwin [8:34 AM] Feb 5

I have always had a major issue with his lack of rebounding. It’s been one of my primary criticisms of him throughout his career. As much as we all wanted to see him play more at the five during his time in New York, his anemic (no pun intended) work on the glass rendered that a situational and matchup specific option, rather than something to commit to full-time. When he played center without another big on the floor (1,091 minutes) the Knicks certainly benefited offensively overall, posting a 112.9 ORtg over the course of his entire tenure. But those lineups were a slight negative, registering just a 113.0 DRtg. That’s obviously not solely down to Porzingis’ lack of rebounding. When you’re covering for some of the garbage perimeter defenders the Knicks have thrown out there over the years, you’re really just trying to plug holes in a leaky ship. There’s evidence that when paired with an elite perimeter defender — like Frank Ntilikina last season — the defense could markedly improve, even despite Porzingis’ substandard glass work. What always seemed like a red flag to me about the viability of these lineups over the long haul, however, was the fact that his individual rebounding stayed virtually the same, as he posted an 18.9 DRB% in these specific lineups compared to a 19.1 DRB% for his career. You would expect him to collect a larger share of defensive rebounds when he plays as the pivot, but there wasn’t much indication of that.

With regard to the offensive efficiency issues you brought up, I do think playing with Doncic is likely to improve this significantly. That said, I suspect the scorching hot starts to the season we saw in ’16-17 and ’17-18 were outliers in terms of what a high-end efficiency season would look like for the Latvian, as those were buoyed by unsustainably hot mid-range shooting in both instances. Still, you convert some of those shitty mid-range post-ups into catch-and-shoot threes in pick-and-pop or rolls to the rim in pick-and-roll with Luka, it’s going to make a difference. Now, if Porzingis’ 70.4 percent mark at the rim in his second season is closer to reality than the 57.6 percent he shot as a rookie or the 60.4 percent he shot last year, then Dallas will really be cooking, but it’s hard to say with certainty that’s the case. Ultimately I see peak Kristaps posting something like a 57-58 TS%, which is very efficient, but just below the level of the top offensive players in the league.

Additionally, he just doesn’t see the floor very well at all. His assist rate has dropped every year in the league, and he had his worst mark last year when he upped his usage to primary-option levels. Over the course of NBA history there have only been three individuals who have recorded seasons with over 1,000 minutes played, posted at least a 30 USG%, and averaged two or less assists per 100 possessions: John Drew, Chris Gatling, and the Unicorn.

Kristaps is a super high-level talent, with glaring holes in his game on both sides of the ball. I still think you can run a good motion offense running more DHO’s and spread PnR with him from the top of the key, but I’m skeptical he ever develops plus playmaking when he faces up inside the arc or posts up. Defensively, as I mentioned previously, it’s rebounding. If he becomes even a slightly below-average rebounder for a center, then he’s going to be a monster given the plus rim protection he tangibly provides. But if not, it makes it difficult to construct big minutes lineups with him at center, as you’ll need plus rebounding at most every other position, something which is hard to do. Although, again, playing with Luka will help here as well.

Drew Steele [9:38 PM] Feb 7

There is a lot to unpack here. I’m going to try to tie all of this together, starting with rebounding. When you look at Porzingis’ single season defensive rebounding percentages, he shares similar figures with some notable players. Here is the list I generated at Basketball-Reference of forwards and centers who are over 6-foot-10 with a defensive rebounding percentage of 19.1 or less. You’re going to see a bunch of guys who couldn’t rebound like Tony Kukoc, Ryan Anderson, Brook Lopez, Danilo Gallinari, Rashard Lewis, and many others. Then you’re gonna see guys like Robin Lopez, Steven Adams, and Al Horford and think, “Are these guys really Porzingis-level bad?”

Looking at rebounding in a vacuum doesn’t paint a complete picture. Check out the on–off for Robin Lopez and Steven Adams. Their teams over the past few seasons rebound better with them on the floor. Ever check out Porzingis’ on–off splits when he isn’t playing with a center like Robin Lopez, Kyle O’Quinn, or Enes Kanter? They are dreadful. Last season when Porzingis was playing the five, the Knicks were in the first percentile in both offensive rebounding percentage and opponent offensive rebounding percentage, per Cleaning the Glass. That’s a complete disaster. Dallas, or another team if he decides to take the qualifying offer, are going to need to surround Porzingis with very specific rebounding talent to make up for his inability to secure a defensive rebound. This could potentially limit a team’s ceiling, but Dallas does have Doncic, which should erase a lot of things.

How how does Al Horford tie into this? His teams don’t rebound better with him on the floor. What Horford lacks in rebounding he makes up in effectively all the things Porzingis does not do, and potentially cannot improve upon. Horford can pass, set screens, play switchable defense, and is just a very high-IQ player. He makes up for his lack of rebounding prowess by doing other things. Porzingis doesn’t set screens well, but that’s something he can get better at. It’s the switchable defense and passing that is as big a concern, if not more a concern than the rebounding. I discussed a while back that Porzingis wasn’t as bad at defending the perimeter as many people thought; however, I also said that he isn’t necessarily “good” and we still need to see his mobility after the ACL recovery.

Regarding the passing, Ben Falk wrote an excellent piece on Porzingis in January 2018 detailing his lack of passing. Here is an excerpt:

Here’s an even crazier stat. We can look for games that seem to be on the extreme of shooting without passing: games with 25 or more shot attempts and 1 or 0 assists. Let’s call this a “Carmelo”, for reasons that will become clear in a minute. Porzingis leads the league this year in Carmelos, with 7 in just 31 games played. The league leader last year was Anthony Davis, who had 11 Carmelos in 75 games played. The most Carmelos in a season in the last 15 years is 13, by, well, Carmelo, who has led the league in this stat three times in the last 15 years, the most of anyone. This year, Porzingis is on pace for over 15. Carmelo has passed the torch to Porzingis in more ways than one.

For those who haven’t read it and have a subscription, go read it. If you can’t, Falk’s claim is basically Porzingis has poor passing vision and it’s really, really difficult to improve upon. Not impossible, but quite unlikely. So, to conclude my equally as large message, Porzingis basically needs to become a widely efficient volume offensive player to make up for his weaknesses, because if he maintains his current rate, he’s simply not going to fulfill his ceiling.

Shwin [8:51 AM] Feb 8

We can talk about his strengths and weaknesses all day, but I think we more or less both agree there’s a definite path for him to develop into a true star player in this league. It’s the high-end outcome for him that seems dicey. Even after three years in the league, he hadn’t shown any improvement as a passer or rebounder prior to his injury, and those are the two problem areas many scouts had earmarked before he entered the draft. There’s a decent chance he can improve his glass work, but I’m far less optimistic about his chances of improving as a facilitator, which limits his fit within the construct of a true contender. The best teams have, at the very least, first and second options capable of creating for others. Porzingis, ultimately, is likely to top out as a tertiary option, which is still an excellent player and an outcome which still means he’d be a star-level player, but not quite the superstar-level talent we hoped and thought he could be at various stages.

Some will say this “realistic” take is, again, me just being salty over a player who wanted out. Like I said at the beginning, that could well be true, but I’d like to pivot the discussion to a broader scale to justify my stance. His contemporaries among modern big men include Anthony Davis, Joel Embiid, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Nikola Jokic, Lauri Markkanen, Jaren Jackson Jr., and DeAndre Ayton. Among that group, where does Porzingis rank? And, perhaps more importantly, how many of those players’ teams would swap them for Porzingis, even throwing the difference in contract status aside?

Drew Steele [4:11 PM] Feb 9

No matter what we say in this discussion, people are going to read it as “you salty AF.” Can’t really do anything about it. But let’s talk about these players. We learned that the Pelicans would not swap Anthony Davis for Porzingis, so that’s a proven “no.” Also, the fully realized version of Porzingis’ ceiling is the current version of Anthony Davis, and I’ll take the proven commodity over the hypothetical one. Antetokounmpo is going to win the MVP this year and the Bucks probably trade him for no one. Jokic took a noticeable leap this season because he’s actually trying on defense. He’s still not “good” at defending in space or protecting the rim, but Jokic is a significantly better offensive player, which makes him more valuable and better than Porzingis. Outside of shooting, Embiid is better than Porzingis at everything else — he’s bigger, stronger, and a true franchise player. These four players are absolute givens as better, more valuable than Porzingis.

These last three are quite interesting. Because of Porzingis’ contract situation, I’m not entirely sure Chicago, Memphis, or Phoenix trades those young guys because they’re still on rookie contracts and not coming back from ACL injuries. With that said, there is no guarantee that Lauri, J-Cubed and Ayton ever have the same impact as Porzingis had on the Knicks last year. I know from a Knicks perspective, if they got any of these three guys back in a Porzingis trade, I would be happy, with Ayton being my least favorite. The question becomes: would Bulls, Grizzlies, and Suns fans be disappointed if they got Porzingis for those young players, given the current situation with his ACL and contract? Memphis fans are more than likely disappointed, and Suns fans are probably torn. I’m not sure how Bulls fans would be, because my buddy Joe House Will Muckian (who’s a Bulls fan) and I would joke around that Markkanen was the better version of Porzingis. I know he would be upset (sorry if I’m wrongly speaking for you, Will. Just yell at me later), and I gotta say, I think Bulls fans would be upset too because Lauri is a legit competitor. Lauri doesn’t have the same ultimate, theoretical ceiling as Porzingis, but both players have the same practical ceilings and Lauri isn’t an injury risk or as shitty a rebounder. Am I off base?

Shwin [5:18 PM] Feb 10

I don’t know. Out of all these guys, Porzingis is the best rim protector. That matters, but it’s just one aspect of defense, ultimately. I didn’t include Rudy Gobert in this discussion, but he’s likely the best interior defender in the league, and even he’s been marginalized in back-to-back years in the playoffs by Golden State and Houston. Those are two historically great offenses who arrive there in vastly different ways, but the formula to neutralize Gobert’s elite rim protection for both was identical: run a pick-and-roll, force a switch for one of your awesome perimeter scorers with a spread floor, and let them attack Gobert over and over and over again. The league always evolves, though, and those changes are often due to the ever-changing landscape of who makes up the best players in the league. With this many young bigs coming up, it seems we could be not that far from bigs once again ruling the league. Even in that reality, though, are we sure Porzingis is among the cream of the crop? In the West, are we even sure he’s more than a borderline All-Star? He has the potential to be that and more, but as we’ve discussed, there are major deficiencies in his game which he’d need to address to make it so, and those are deficiencies he simply has not tangibly improved upon thus far.

All that said, even with all of these health and on-court concerns, I think he is worth a max. It would certainly represent a gamble to give him one (more than some would like to believe), but the potential payoff is worth the risk. The thing is, we don’t even know if Porzingis would have taken a full max offer from the Knicks. He certainly wasn’t happy with the organization or management, something which was always bubbling under the surface, and became clear in the breathless reporting following his departure. On top of that, the presence and influence of his brother-cum-agent, Janis, has always loomed large, and he certainly has had no qualms about attempting to use leverage to strong-arm Knick execs at various points during Kristaps’ time in New York. We can certainly blame Phil Jackson for poisoning the relationship with some of his foibles, but the Steve Mills- and Scott Perry-led regime made a genuine effort to bridge the divide. However, as we now know, there was a lack of trust on both sides of this relationship, which was exacerbated at various stages. When you can’t trust another party in what needs to be, to some extent, a partnership, the foundation of any long-term relationship is flawed.

If you want to blame most of that failure on New York’s front office and general Knicks dysfunction, that’s fair, but don’t fool yourself into thinking the Porzingii are just collateral damage. Remember, to get to New York initially, they refused to workout or share medical information with the 76ers. When Phil was doing Phil things they took it public, leaking Kristaps’ choice to skip the exit meeting to national media almost immediately following Phil’s end-of-season press conference, where no mention of it was made. He’s posted various cryptic and controversial messages on social media during his time in New York, which publicly put into question his relationship with the organization. These are now issues that Dallas needs to navigate, but they’re pertinent in this discussion, because this shit matters. It matters a lot when you’re talking about maxing a guy out and fully committing to building the team around him as a franchise cornerstone. I’m skeptical it was the major reason in the Knicks’ ultimate decision to move on, but it definitely was part of the calculus.

Drew Steele [9:00 PM] Feb 10

This is probably a good place to wrap things up, because I’m pretty sure we have exhausted all avenues. I do want to at least make it clear that I do think Porzingis is still really good and the Mavericks were wise to take a gamble. If he recovers well — and this is a big if — he should see a boost in efficiency playing next to Doncic, and those two are a good foundation to construct a team. With that said, I think — like you on effectively 95 percent of the takes you’ve had — Porzingis’ true ceiling cannot be achieved unless he shows improvement on his weaknesses, and the Porzingii can very well fuck the future of the Mavericks up and probably shouldn’t be trusted.

I’m happy that the Knicks do not have to make an offer to Porzingis this off-season, but it’s really gonna sting if the Knicks don’t win the rights to Zion or sign two elite players. So, you can have the final word our we can end this here. God bless those who read this entire thing.

Shwin [10:33 AM] Feb 11

Let’s end it here, because I’m pooping right now.