Kristaps Porzingis tore his ACL Tuesday night and now the New York Knicks must come to grips with their new reality. Although there’s much to be upset about, there is one silver lining no one is talking about.
We probably deserve this.
After a decade and a half filled with the likes of Eddy Curry, Jerome James and Andrea Bargnani, we finally got a gift: a precocious kid who didn’t give two flips what the expectations were for European big men and instead made it a point to come in and electrify a starved fan base from day one. The shocks were unlike anything the Garden had felt before, invoking images of mythical beasts and fire-breathing monsters.
This season was always supposed to be a growing one—a year when fans should have been thrilled if the big kid from Latvia merely looked the part of a true first option. We should have expected—no, embraced his struggles. Instead, before the calendar flipped to 2018, despite All-Star level play surrounded by a roster bereft of two-way talent, there were complaints.
He’s soft after all. He’s sitting out too many games. He doesn’t pass enough. He’s another Melo. He’s not a leader. He’s slow getting out on defense. He isn’t. He won’t. He can’t.
Hell, after Sunday’s home loss to the Hawks, there was some question as to whether he was waving to a fan on the last play of the game instead of setting the proper screen.
Now, no one will have a thing to complain about for a very, very long time.
So no, maybe we as New Yorkers aren’t worthy of nice things. Maybe this is what we get for taking someone for granted that 29 other fanbases would have held daily celebrations over. Maybe we brought this on ourselves.
Maybe we didn’t deserve Kristaps Porzingis. Or maybe he didn’t deserve us.
The big picture
(… deep breaths …)
Ok, now that that tidy bit of self-immolation is done, some perspective:
57 years ago, the most transcendent young athlete in the history of New York sports stepped on a storm drain in the Yankee Stadium outfield and suffered a knee injury that would have ended the career of a lesser man. 19 at the time, he would go on to have one of the greatest careers in baseball history, despite never regaining his peak athleticism.
Mickey Mantle wasn’t a lesser man, of course. By all accounts, he was a one-of-a-kind naturally gifted athletic specimen that would make Russell Westbrook look like Dirk Nowitzki.
Still, in a time where whatever passed for “advanced medicine” was anything but, and when players still smoked and drank and drank some more after (and before) games, Mantle was able to make something close to a full recovery.
There have been countless examples since then of athletes coming back from major injuries, returning different in terms of what they could do but not necessarily worse off for it.
One of the various cries from disgruntled Knicks fans this year has been that forcing Porzingis to guard the perimeter put undue strain on body parts that a 7-foot-3 man would probably be better off not putting a strain on (this injury does nothing to disprove that theory). If one of the adjustments to his game, when he comes back, is that he spends more time defending in the post, well, maybe that’s not the worst thing.
Ahh, yes…“When he comes back.” It sounds a bit presumptuous for someone this size who suffered an injury of this severity.
Silver linings and harsh realities
Greatness isn’t just measured in stats or highlights. Greatness is a mindset. Part of the reason that today feels so earth-shatteringly devastating is that, despite our quibbles, we all knew that Porzingis had—and has—IT. If it’s humanly possible for him to be back at close to full strength, he will be back.
And maybe even if it isn’t possible for normal humans. This is the unicorn we’re talking about, after all.
There are other silver linings, most of which became obvious almost from the moment his knee crumpled beneath him—an improved draft pick, both this year and likely next, a definitive seller’s mindset for the deadline (bye Willy … we hardly knew ya), increased playing time for the kids down the stretch, etc. It’s all valid.
Less obvious are the downsides that require thinking a few steps ahead.
Despite proclamations to the contrary from the front office and our newly fallen soldier, this year was always supposed to be developmental in nature. Next season, however, was supposed to be different. 2018-19 was going to be when the rest of the league would start to take notice that the Knicks were back (for real this time). New York would once again (or for the first time, maybe) be the place where a star on the level of a Kawhi Leonard, Klay Thompson, Kyrie Irving or Jimmy Butler — all free agents that summer —could feel like they had a chance to win it all.
If those or any other big names are going to judge a prospective situation by results, that almost certainly puts the Knicks out of the running. Without KP this year, New York has played like a bottom five team. Even if he does come back a few months into the season, it’s going to take time for him to not only get back into playing shape, but continue learning how to be an efficient first option on a team where he doesn’t get a ton of help.
So whatever the future is that fans have been hoping for, it likely gets delayed by an additional season, if not more, which, well…sucks.
Add in the obvious doubts about Porzingis’ long-term health (even with a move to center, losing some of his explosiveness would lower his ceiling as a player by a not-insignificant margin) and the human side of this (feeling horrible for a kid who’s worked his butt off since he got here) and there’s no way any fan should come out of this feeling in any way positive.
That being said …
A bright spot in the rubble
The injury—as heartbreaking as it is—opens up an opportunity for the organization to do something they otherwise would never have had a chance to do.
Heading into this season, the primary concern of many fans (including this writer) was over repairing a relationship with the team’s young star that appeared to exist somewhere between splintered and shattered at times over the previous six months.
With this injury, no one is going to expect the Knicks to appear at Kristaps’ doorstep at midnight on July 1st, 2018 with a max contract extension when it’s not even clear what type of player he’s going to be post-ACL surgery.
This is not the time to screw around. You’ve been blessed with a gift by your predecessor, who then tried to take the gift and shove it repeatedly down the toilet. Now, Steve and Scott, this is your best chance to right that wrong. They should trust the fact that a young man who has never shown himself to be anything but incredibly hard working will make a full recovery, and use this opportunity to make sure the face of the franchise spends the entirety of his prime in orange and blue.
This is the silver lining. Show your faith at a time when a scared, 22-year-old kid probably needs it the most. Give him security over his future so he can attack this rehab without the doubts about his lifelong financial security hanging over his head.
We didn’t always do the right thing by him. Now is the time to change that.
If they do, we should all have faith that despite the clouds which seem to perpetually reside over Madison Square Garden, brighter days lie ahead. Not today, or tomorrow…but someday, likely sooner than we think.