It’s been a long time since the New York Knicks were a fun basketball team. The 2012-13 Knicks were the closest thing to fun we’ve seen in the Garden in more than a decade, as Carmelo Anthony and J.R. Smith shot their way into our hearts by getting buckets.
Otherwise, the Knicks have been miserable to watch since 2001. That 2012-13 squad was one of three to make the playoffs (the last in a three year run of playoff teams, the first two of which lost in the first round), and since then Knicks fans have endured the Phil Jackson era, as he insisted on the team running the triangle and failed to surround Anthony with anything close to resembling a talented team.
The one good thing to come out of the Jackson era is Kristaps Porzingis, the 22-year-old budding superstar that the Knicks selected No. 4 overall in the 2015 NBA draft. Entering his third season, Porzingis was handed the keys to the franchise as they dealt Carmelo Anthony to the Oklahoma City Thunder. The Knicks looked awful early in the season with lopsided losses to the Thunder and the Celtics in the first three games (two superiorly talented teams) and the first official year of New York’s rebuild looked like it was going to be another rough one for fans when the reached 0-3.
However, since that loss to the Celtics, New York has ripped off five wins in their last six games and Porzingis has emerged as one of the NBA’s top stars. Not only is he putting up video game type numbers, averaging 30.2 points, 7.8 rebounds, and 2.2 blocks per game with a 50.0/35.7/82.6 shooting split, but he’s done the seemingly impossible in turning the 2017-18 Knicks into a fun basketball team to watch.
On a nightly basis, Porzingis is producing incredible highlights on both ends of the floor. During his career-high 40-point performance against the Pacers, Porzingis put on a show on both ends of the floor. While he was dynamic offensively, his best individual play might have been one of his six blocks, when he met Lance Stephenson at the rim on a dunk attempt.
The close runner-up to the Stephenson block on Sunday was this incredible alley-oop finish as the 7’3 Porzingis needed every inch of that frame to haul in a lob and throw it down.
That dynamic play-making ability on both ends of the floor is what makes Porzingis such a unique player. He and Giannis Antetokounmpo appear to be the next transcendent stars in the NBA with their two-way ability and seemingly limitless potential. No sequence this year has captured Porzingis’ freakish ability quite like his chasedown block turned dunk in transition against the Suns on Friday night.
He moves better than anyone that tall should be able to, running with an effortless gate compared to the usual plodding or awkward strides of most we’ve seen come into the league at that height. Porzingis changes the game on both ends and, like Antetokounmpo, has the ability to put the team on his back and carry them to a victory. The Unicorn makes plays few others can, and, among his many talents, his knack for putback dunks comes in very handy with the band of relatively inefficient shooters around him.
On the Knicks, only Courtney Lee (41.2%) and Doug McDermott (36%) are shooting better from three-point range than Porzingis (35.7%). That three-point range and the threat of him stepping out well beyond the arc to knock down shots makes him all the more dangerous in transition and on pick-and-rolls. Defenders have to step up and respect the fact that he could stay out behind the three-point line and knock down perimeter shots, which makes his long steps even more effective when he does decide to attack.
Porzingis hasn’t fallen in love with his jump shot, though, as he’s seen his overall field goal attempts go up from 14.9 per game last year to 22.2 per game this season, but his three-point attempts have remained the same (4.8 in 2016-17 to 4.7 in 2017-18). He’s attacking far more now that the Knicks have put the ball in his hands as the primary weapon with Anthony gone, as he’s taking 7.4 more two point attempts this season. By proxy, he’s also getting to the free throw line at a much higher rate, doubling his free throw attempts per game from last year at 3.8 to 7.7 this season.
The Knicks might not be a playoff team yet. There are still significant holes on the roster around Porzingis, but the most encouraging sign is that he seems to be mentally and physically able to accept the role as the star in the Garden. On the court, he’s taking that role and attacking rather than leaning on his jumper. Off the court, he seems to be embracing being the favorite son of New York, while also learning to deftly maneuver through headlines and drama, such as his brother claiming the Knicks need to “keep him happy.”
Whether the new Knicks front office can build a quality team around Porzingis remains to be seen, but if nothing else, we can all enjoy the Kristaps experience for awhile and, thus, for the first time in a long time, have fun watching Knicks basketball.