Despite a promising early start, this was never going to be a banner season at Madison Square Garden. The emergence of rookie Kristaps Porzingis was one of the best stories of the season, and with Carmelo Anthony showcasing a renewed all-around game, the New York Knicks looked ready to take an unexpected leap.
Alas, insufficient talent and coaching upheaval eventually brought the Knicks back down to Earth, placing the team in line with preseason projections, but at least offering glimmers of hope.
The excitement around Kristaps Porzingis has been completely justified. The rookie is an absolute physical specimen, standing 7-foot-3 with an even bigger wingspan, natural athleticism typically reserved for a wing, and the sweet shooting stroke of a guard. As a teenager coming to the NBA from Lithuania, even Porzingis’ biggest pre-draft supporters would’ve admitted he’d need a year or two to adapt to the NBA game—especially physically.
Instead, Porzingis quickly made a name for himself by making ferocious put back dunks his signature play and becoming a strong contributor in his first year.
In a healthy 28.4 minutes a night, Porzingis is averaging 14.3 points per game, shooting 33.3 percent on 3.4 three-point attempts, and proving much more adept at rebounding (7.3) and shot blocking (1.9) than anticipated. Porzingis is tall enough to get his shot off over anyone, with a deadly quick release from three. And at just 20-years old, with a season to adjust to NBA range, it should become a big weapon for the Knicks.
The Knicks have both relied on Porzingis’ contributions, and brought him along slowly—bringing in more NBA-level talent after a disastrous 2014-15 season.
Carmelo Anthony returned the court after last year’s season-ending knee injury with his volume scoring largely intact, supplemented by some surprising playmaking abilities (career-high 4.2 per game) and resurgent effort on the boards (7.9 rebounds per game).
Signing Robin Lopez has proven to be a success. While Lopez and Porzingis play the same position, New York has made it work enough with the two together. Lopez is a heady defender, great rebounder, and underrated post operator. After last season’s embarrassment, the Knicks just needed guys who can play and Lopez has fit in admirably and figures to be an important mentor for Porzingis for the next few seasons.
Lance Thomas, brought back on a one-year deal, has emerged as a functional three-and-D player off the bench. Thomas is evidence that perseverance and tenacity pay off in this league, and its important for young players to have hard-working veterans to look up to. Thomas actually leads the Knicks in net rating, underscoring the importance of solid two-way players placed around bigger talent. The Knicks defend at a team-best rate with him on the floor, and the emergence of Thomas’s three-point game (over 40 percent on the season) has boosted the offense as well.
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Inking Arron Afflalo hasn’t worked out quite as well, but he’s been a perfectly average player for the Knicks. He’s second on the team in minutes after Anthony, but seems to be clashing heads with interim head coach Kurt Rambis now that he’s been demoted. Afflalo has a player option for next season that the Knicks are banking on him turning down. He’ll have an opportunity to get paid one more time with the cap exploding, while perhaps distancing himself from an unhappy situation.
Although Porzingis has reinvigorated the franchise and proven to be a stellar pick, the long and disappointing campaign has left a bitter taste in the mouths of Knicks fans. Deposed coach Derek Fisher began the season in an ill-mannered fashion by getting involved in a domestic altercation with Grizzlies’ forward Matt Barnes just before opening night. Off court rumors trailed Fisher throughout the early part of the season, as Phil Jackson ultimately fired him for allegedly unrelated reasons.
According to Jackson, he initially wanted to back off from Fisher and allow him to grow and flourish on his own as a coach. After a season and a half, Jackson felt like he had enough evidence that Fisher wasn’t going to work out. While it clearly didn’t mesh on the court, there has also been plenty of talk about Fisher’s actions off of it. From the aforementioned altercation to rumors that he was involved with girlfriends of players, Fisher and the Knicks have been in the news for a lot of the wrong reasons. After his firing, it also came out that Fisher blew off a coaches’ retreat before the season meant for “bonding and philosophical discussion.”
In that story, Ramona Shelburne also reported that Jackson would text Fisher advice and observations only to be met with one-word answers from his young coach. It’s interesting because the majority of the public long assumed that Fisher was just a puppet for the legendary former coach. In reality, the marriage simply didn’t work out for either side.
Frustrated with Fisher’s ill-fated independence and lack of success, Jackson installed his trusted friend Kurt Rambis as the interim coach. Phil acknowledged the need to work more closely with the next coach after botching his first hire. Unfortunately, that move has been a misstep, as Rambis seems woefully underprepared to win in today’s NBA. Rambis’s previous coaching stint involved some of the darkest days in Minnesota Timberwolves history, when he refused to unleash future star Kevin Love on a horrid lottery team. To Jackson, Rambis’s familiarity with the triangle offense and “veteran” nature likely mattered a lot more than his track record.
There is a whole separate conversation to be had about whether or not the triangle even has a place in today’s NBA. However, there is no disputing that a modern championship-caliber offense must go further than purely running the triangle. All evidence of the system succeeding at a high level has come with both elite-level talent and big men who really know how to pass. Even then, the offense is designed to unlock lots of open midrange shots—which made more sense when it was being designed around Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant. These are shots that Carmelo Anthony can succeed on, but he’s most effective when he has his long distance game working as well. Most importantly, though, the future of the Knicks belongs to Kristaps Porzingis, not Anthony.
The most effective way to maximize Kristaps’ skillset would be through a constant diet of spread pick-and-rolls. Unfortunately, we haven’t had much of an opportunity to find out. Coach Rambis, the triangle disciple, has no interest in a high-paced spread offense. Since taking over, Rambis has emphasized far more post touches for Porzingis in lieu of operating in open space and stretching out for threes. And as a rail-thin 20-year-old big man, this has made Porzingis look a lot more like the project so many were expecting. Instead of maximizing Porzingis’ unique skillset and developing him naturally, Rambis is trying to cram a unique talent into predefined notions of what a big man should be. He even has said that there are shots that Porzingis takes that he “flat-out [doesn’t] like”—a clear reference to three pointers. As Chris Herring points out, those quick-hitting post-ups Rambis favors would yield more success as transition dunks and trailing threes for Porzingis. He’s even already talking about how Kristaps is athletic enough to play small forward.
Kurt Rambis is completely missing the macro trends of the NBA: Everyone is playing as small as possible to maximize flexibility and three-point shooting. Porzingis should barely even be playing power forward. The value of stretching the floor with a sweet-shooting center is unmatched. It makes sense currently as a way to reduce his workload, especially with Robin Lopez as the team’s third-best player. Eventually, though, Porzingis has to be a full-time center. And the Knicks have to feed defenses a hefty diet of spread pick-and-rolls.
Carmelo Anthony is still one of the best scorers in the NBA and a talented player, but the fit in New York makes less and less sense by the day. Anthony turns 32 this May and has undoubtedly been in decline the last couple seasons after suffering a fairly serious knee injury last year. Because his free agency came at the most awkward time possible, Anthony is under contract for three more years after this one. He’s still worth the gamble for another team, but the Knicks need to be thinking more from a big picture perspective.
Porzingis is just 20, years away from his prime, and the Knicks don’t have any other All-Star caliber talent even close in age to him. While it’s encouraging that Anthony has returned to solid health and unlocked a playmaking aspect of his game, this season has made it clear that the Knicks must trade him now while they can maximize his value. By the time Porzingis starts to tap into his prime, Anthony may already be on the wrong side of his 30s. Furthermore, the roster isn’t even close to being good enough to justify “going for it” now with a 32-year-old Carmelo and baby-faced Porzingis.
The Knicks can almost surely find a team happy and willing to take Carmelo with the cap set to explode this summer. However, Anthony holds a no-trade clause and is very comfortable in New York, so that may prove impossible. Regardless, Phil Jackson must do everything possible to find a way to get him out of New York soon.
While Porzingis has largely gotten the necessary opportunities to grow in his rookie season, the same cannot be said of point guard Jerian Grant. The Notre Dame product is getting a historically low level of court time for a highly drafted point guard (19th overall). Jose Calderon is 34 and already decrepit enough defensively that a serious team should not be starting him. Langston Galloway will be a restricted free agent this offseason and is more of a combo guard then a lead ball-handler; his destiny is probably as an effective bench player. Grant has a team-worst -5.9 net rating this season, but the Knicks have been out of contention for months.
Even if Grant isn’t capable of being the floor general of the future, Kurt Rambis and the Knicks owe it to themselves to find out for certain. Grant (and Porzingis for that matter) has seen even less playing time since Rambis took over for Fisher and will never develop without an opportunity to do so. This week, it’s been reported that veteran Knicks players even had to go to Rambis and ask him to reduce their minutes in favor of younger players.
The Knicks are a young team that is still years away from contending. Kurt Rambis has a terrible track record everywhere he’s been, but especially with developing young players. His head-scratching decisions this year with Porzingis and Grant, combined with the aforementioned burying of Kevin Love is enough evidence that Rambis must go. Phil Jackson needs to bring in someone who is flexible, forward thinking, and focused on the long-term growth of the team. Of course, Jackson may be the real obstacle here. It’s not exactly a secret that he’s the reason they run the triangle, and Phil seems to be content with Rambis’s work as the interim coach. To stay on the right path, the Knicks must hire a new coach this summer.
This summer, the Knicks must replace Kurt Rambis, attempt to move Carmelo, and start finding the right pieces to build around Porzingis. Kristaps is the future of the franchise, and a lot of the misery surrounding this season will be quickly forgotten if New York constructs an optimal roster around him.
With Phil Jackson and the franchise holding mutual opt-outs after next season, nailing these moves is critical.