In the blink of an eye, Kristaps Porzingis‘ knee injury altered not only the present for the New York Knicks franchise but its future as well. Here’s a look at how exactly that outlook has changed, and what fans can look forward to from here.
Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.
That’s one of those phrases older people say to younger people when something unfortunate happens. Its conciliatory value lies somewhere between a Bed, Bath & Beyond coupon and an enema.
Yet for a certain fan base, it’s an expression worth keeping in mind for the rest of this season, and probably even longer than that.
Best laid plans
For the first time in what seemed like forever, the New York Knicks had a plan. New general manager Scott Perry laid it out pretty clearly before the season even started, and it became more obvious along the way.
The Knicks – infamous for a history of making win-now moves that have resulted in anything but – were finally going to build around a young core. While this type of thing usually doesn’t produce results overnight, Perry & Co. were apparently trying to play both sides of the fence: develop the youth, but win nonetheless. The playoffs became an organizational prerogative to anyone willing to listen, as did the notion of preserving cap space for the summer of 2019, presumably to bring in the missing piece to the puzzle.
New York had the luxury of saying all of this with a straight face thanks to a certain seven-foot-three Latvian who showed, however briefly, that he was capable of lighting the rest of the league on fire when he put it all together.
Kristaps Porzingis, of course, is now gone. When he returns, whether it be in December or February or with a few weeks to go in the 2018-19 season (just like Paul George in 2015 – don’t rule this out), he will be joining a team with very different aspirations than it had before he went down.
A new path
No, next year will not be the year it all comes together.
Gone is the notion that New York can take a quantum leap like the 2012-13 Golden State Warriors or 2009-10 Oklahoma City Thunder.
There remains the faint hope that the team will still be hovering around .500 when Porzingis returns, but with a defense likely to be anchored by a starting front-line of Enes Kanter and Michael Beasley, no one should count on it. The pair have a comically bad 118.1 defensive rating together, surprising to precisely no one who watched the layup line Indiana ran Sunday night.
In all likelihood, Porzingis will be returning to a team less prepared to make a big splash in the summer than to try and nail a lottery pick for the third straight year.
There are plenty of questions surrounding this new reality. Do they take on bad money to try and get an extra draft pick? Should they still preserve 2019 cap space at all costs? Will they keep Kanter around long term, and if so, at what price? Who is coaching the team next season?
More important than all those, though, is a much simpler query: what is the next 12 months about?
Thankfully, Scott Perry seems like the type of guy who will not only answer the difficult questions but take the process in stride while he does.
The right man in charge
That the Knicks finally have what appears to be an unnerving, stabilizing force guiding the ship should be the first thing to encourage every fan of the team. The second thing is that although Perry is a quiet captain, he’s done anything but sit on his hands.
It didn’t take long for Emmanuel Mudiay to make an impression. It’s already become clear watching him and Frank Ntilikina play together that a) this notion the two of them can’t share the court is utter nonsense and b) there’s a lot that happens to a point guard’s development between year one and year three.
Mudiay has definitely looked rusty – he averaged just 13 minutes a night over his last three weeks in Denver, which followed a month when he was out of the rotation entirely – but he’s also showed flashes of the ability that got him drafted seventh overall in the first place. He’s made passes that Knicks’ fans haven’t seen in years – ones Frank Ntilikina certainly seems capable of pulling off but isn’t yet prescient enough to attempt.
It hasn’t all been great. Mudiay has missed all six of his long-range attempts and seems magnetically connected to the screener whenever he’s been put into a pick and roll. Against the Sixers, he showed some of the lack of focus that got him shipped out of Denver after two and a half seasons.
Still, for a player Scott Perry obtained for someone who wasn’t in New York’s long-term plans and a second-round pick swap, the kid seems worth a look.
Joining Mudiay in the “not half bad” club against Indiana was Frank Ntilikina.
Frankie Smokes led the team in minutes (31 – his second-highest total of the season) and plus/minus (plus-eight in a game they lost by that same amount). Ntilikina is also up to 34 percent from deep on the year, which is good. There are also still nights like he had against Philadelphia, which are, well…not so good. Stuff happens when you’re 19. He’ll learn and live to fight another day.
There have been guest appearances by fellow young’ns Trey Burke, Damyean Dotson, and Luke Kornet (have you caught Kornet-fever yet? If not, best visit a drug store, and fast). Save for some early flashes by Burke, none have done much to distinguish themselves.
That’s far less important than the fact that all three should have semi-important roles on this team next season. If even one turns into a keeper to place alongside Porzingis, Ntilikina, Tim Hardaway Jr. and Mudiay (drink the Kool-Aid with me, friends, there’s more than enough for everyone), the Knicks would be thrilled.
Is the excitement over a couple of somewhat promising young guards just a hefty heap of lipstick on Kermit’s better half? Maybe, maybe not.
But it’s something. And for a franchise that has forced its fans to watch season after season dwindle down with little to look forward to, something is more than nothing.
Are we as Knicks fans, and New Yorkers, a patient bunch? Ummm, no. But we owe it to this group to display some here, at least until their leader is back on the court.
After all, there are worse ways to endure losing basketball that getting to watch several young core pieces coalesce together. Most nights won’t be pretty, but the growth process rarely is. Throw in a lottery pick that’s getting better by the day and another one likely on the way next season (you’re really going to look me in the eye and tell me you haven’t scoped out a 2019 mock draft yet? You’re only lying to yourself if you do…), and – say it with me now – things could be worse.
This is the life we’re left with for the next eighteen months. It wasn’t what any of us had planned, but it’s what we’ve been given.
Much like Scott Perry, we should all make the best of it.