As Kristaps Porzingis clutched his left knee Tuesday night at Madison Square Garden, memories of the New York Knicks’ many catastrophes and false starts over the past two decades came rushing back.
Porzingis is different. The franchise’s first homegrown star since Patrick Ewing, he has done everything possible through his first two-and-a-half years in the NBA to show that he was capable of turning things around for the woebegone Knicks.
That is what made Tuesday night – when the Knicks announced Porzingis had suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament in that left knee – so devastating for the franchise. Just when it seemed things finally might be moving in the right direction, the Knicks suddenly find themselves back where they have been so often the past two decades: square one.
Now the Knicks, who already faced a long path back to relevance, have even farther to climb. Porzingis, who is likely to have surgery soon, will probably be out until this time next season. That, coupled with the inevitable caution the Knicks will show when he is ready to return, will make him a minimal contributor next season, at best.
Tuesday marks the latest low point in a 21st century full of them for the Knicks, who have continually found new ways to implode over the past 17 years – during which they’ve managed to compile just four winning seasons.
That run of ineptitude is just about the only accomplishment the franchise has on its ledger lately. One big name after another has passed through the doors of Madison Square Garden – from players (Stephon Marbury, Amar’e Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony) to coaches (Larry Brown and Mike D’Antoni) to executives (Isiah Thomas and Phil Jackson) – all of whom were hailed as the savior who would return the Knicks to basketball respectability. Instead, one of the NBA’s flagship franchises has continued to flounder, enduring years of misery while drifting from one failed plan to the next.
Into that breach stepped Kristaps Porzingis, the most unlikely of saviors to enter The World’s Most Famous Arena. A 7-foot-3 forward from Latvia, Porzingis possessed a skillset that caused Kevin Durant to dub him a “unicorn” during his rookie season, and made him look like a future all-star from the moment he began his career.
In short, he was the kind of player the Knicks have been desperate to find for the past two decades – and one that looked like he could finally be The One, after all of those failed saviors past, to turn the Knicks around.
Now team president Steve Mills and General Manager Scott Perry will have to move forward with the knowledge that their star player will essentially not be fully part of the team’s plans until the start of the 2019-20 season – when he will presumably be in the first year of his second contract.
Between now and then, however, there is much to be determined. The one silver lining to come from this – if there can be any silver lining from such a depressing event – is that without Porzingis, the Knicks should plummet in the standings – and, in doing so, improve their draft pick. After losing to the Milwaukee Bucks on Tuesday night, the Knicks find themselves with a 23-32 record. That is the 10th worst record in the NBA – but just 5.5 games ahead of the Dallas Mavericks and Atlanta Hawks, who are tied for the league’s worst record.
Dropping all the way to last may not be feasible in New York’s remaining 29 games, but moving into the top five certainly is, given how little talent the Knicks have at their disposal. How far they fall could prove to be the difference between the Knicks landing another solid future talent, like Frank Ntilikina (the eighth pick in last year’s draft), or a potential future franchise cornerstone to pair with Porzingis (the fourth overall pick in 2015).
But wherever they wind up, the Knicks will have to do something they have failed to do across the past two decades: exercise patience. This team didn’t have a chance to be competitive next season with a healthy Porzingis; without him, they could very well be the worst team in the league. After consistently trading away first round picks in the past, the Knicks actually have all of them moving forward; that could allow them to stock their roster with young, homegrown talent with high upside.
In the past, such opportunities have been sidetracked by foolish decisions made in haste, without regard for the future. Mills and Perry had privately stressed their plan to be patient and grow this team organically around Porzingis and Ntilikina prior to Porzingis’ injury; they cannot deviate from that plan now. The potential to pair as many as three lottery picks (Ntilikina plus their 2018 and ‘19 first round selections) with him is intriguing.
The Knicks had been hoping to form such a nucleus, however, with a healthy Porzingis. A star turn this season – he was averaging 22.7 points, 6.7 rebounds and a league-leading 2.4 blocks per game while shooting 39 percent from three-point range when he got hurt, and was set to play in his first all-star game – made Porzingis the kind of budding star other players around the league would want to play with.
In 2019, when the Knicks were set to have significant cap space in a summer when several stars will hit the open market, the lure of playing with Porzingis as he entered his prime was going to be their strongest selling point.
Now, though, they just have to hope that he can show enough over the final two months of next season – while playing on a minutes restriction for a team almost certainly bound for a high lottery pick – to prove he can still be the kind of alluring talent that potential free agents would want to play with. More importantly, they need him to prove he can accept the mantle of being the face of a franchise in New York – no easy task – and that he could more than live up to the responsibilities that come with it.
So now the Knicks will wait – for Porzingis to get healthy, for the ping-pong balls to bounce as they may, for the next calendar year to go by.
It’s back to square one yet again for the Knicks. Only this time, it was through no fault of their own.
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