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This has taken me all day to write. 12 hours. Literally the entire day. I skipped the Hoops Roundup because I started on this and couldn’t stop.
And honestly this was all that mattered. I’m sure you all saw Giannis’ dunk already. And at this point, there’s really not much more to say about the Cavaliers collapse. I do have some thoughts on Thunder-Warriors that I’m tossing in tomorrow’s Roundup. But other that that, this was all that mattered.
This is 2500 words. It’s long, but it’s necessary. Keep in mind that I am an emotional father who just watched his beautiful large unicorn son suffer a devastating injury.
Okay… let’s just do this.
Kristaps Porzingis tore his ACL and is out at least until next February.
He’s 7’3″ and relies a lot on his athleticism. The history of NBA players returning close to form following an ACL tear are a slim few. The history of those exceeding expectations are virtually nonexistent.
The Knicks are a cursed, inept franchise. James Dolan is the worst owner in sports, and his presence casts a long, dark shadow on every aspect of the team. He’s kept his cronies on board to be a buffer between him and the ire of fans, and doesn’t understand how that is continuing to damage the franchise.
Their lack of young talent outside of Porzingis, given their position over these last two decades, is genuinely pathetic. They’ve done an egregiously bad job of developing a rookie who is bursting with potential. And are currently giving his minutes to players who are contributing nothing of value while simultaneously stunting both Ntilikina and Porzingis’s growth.
They’ve tied their cap up with a series of contracts ranging from shortsighted to staggering. Outside of Porzingis, there isn’t one asset you could say is definitively part of the future. All there is is the rookie who’s development they’re stunting and the future draft picks that they mercifully have not yet traded away. Tough to be fair, until last night they were ready to trade those draft picks and mortgage their future for a playoff spot they weren’t going to get.
They’ve arrived at multiple forks in the road over the last few seasons. Most of the time they’ve gone headfirst down the wrong path. The rest of the time they’ve taken a step or two down the right path before turning back to go down the wrong path. Those few occasions end up being the most damaging.
Over these last three years, there was one single shining light. One star who has survived three years of ineptitude to continually stand as the one beacon of hope for this franchise. No fanbase deserved a player like this more than Knicks fans – none.
Last night he went down with an injury that will sideline him for at least 12 months, completely derail his career, and significantly lower a ceiling that–like he himself–stood taller than any other in the NBA.
There is no god. Life is meaningless. And being Knicks fans is the worst thing that has ever happened to any of us.
And yet… I’m optimistic.
After staring through the TV for two hours after the news broke last night… After waking up to both wallow in self pity and damn the entire world as I walked my dog… After sitting at this desk for hours with nothing but emptiness inside me… After writing and rewriting 1000 words of dark internal reflection on the human soul and discovering your core beliefs that is now sitting in a drafts folder that I’ll never release… After being shocked to the core and having my entire world thrown out of whack…
After all that… I finally learned something about myself.
I’m an optimist.
Despite all the failure… Despite all the panic attacks and shit fits throughout the season… Despite the depression and anxiety and anger… Despite the unjustifiable highs and very justifiable lows of being a Knicks fan… Despite all that, at the worst moment in franchise history and one of the worst moments of my own life… I learned that I’m an optimist.
This isn’t a bit. This isn’t me convincing myself it will be okay, or actively choosing to take this route.
Once the dust settled, I was naturally optimistic.
And sure, maybe that’s pathetic and hopeless. Maybe it’s a coping method that my brain has tricked itself into. Maybe I’ll write all this now amidst the chaos, then three days from now find myself sitting alone in the dark and completely fall apart.
Or maybe this is my moment of clarity. Maybe stripped of all the clutter, my core principle is optimism. And maybe… just maybe… I’m right to be optimistic.
Fuck it, right?
Here are my angles…
The Joel Embiid angle…
The history of ACL tears in the NBA is grim. It’s rare to see someone return close to form, and virtually nonexistent to see them surpass their prior expectations.
But we’re also in a whole new world when it comes to recovery. Things are drastically different now than they were just two years ago. Surgery, rehab, diet, observation, training – everything has improved. We’re already seeing Zach LaVine and Jabari Parker, both one year removed from surgery, back and looking better than we’ve ever seen someone look right off an ACL injury.
Yes, Porzingis is 7’3″. And sure, we might not see him return with the same lateral quickness or leaping ability.
But he’s also not gonna shrink. He won’t lose his instincts or shooting touch. And I feel pretty confident saying he won’t get less competitive from this.
Why is this the Joel Embiid angle? Partially because of the injury correlation, yes. But mostly because of something he said last night. Because of “Summer Things”
Kristaps Porzingis basically has the next 20 months to do “Summer Things”. Even if he comes back to play the last two months next year–which I don’t think will or should happen since the Knicks won’t be remotely near contention by the time he could return this time next year–it’s a quick blip in what is now a twenty month rebuilding process.
Last summer, KP spent two months in Europe building up his strength and his game. Two months is not a lot of time, but showed immediately. From August 31st (the start of Eurobasket) through November 29th (the night Justise Winslow stomped on his ankle), he was one of the ten best basketball players in the world. He was going for almost 30 and 8 a night, leading the league in blocks, playing 35 minutes with enough energy to dominate in the fourth, and was singlehandedly responsible for a genuinely bad Knicks team being two games over .500 with him in the lineup.
But like I said: two months is not a lot of time. You can’t completely rebuild your body in two months. And even despite those noticeable improvements, the grind of the season caught up to him right around the same time Justise Winslow stomped on his ankle. He hadn’t had enough time to jump from where he was to where he needed to be physically.
He now has 20 months to fix things. To not only add muscle and bulk up, but also to rebuild his body dynamics from the ground up. To improve his fluidity and prepare for the grind of a season.
Yes, he’s limited by, you know, having to rehab a torn ACL. I understand that. The point here is that it’s 20 months of building from the ground up. There is no NBA season to break him down. And that’s all without mentioning the chance this gives him to improve the parts of his game he needs to work on – most notably in the post.
By the time we see KP on a court again he’ll have completely changed his physique. Maybe he won’t be as quick or as spry. But he’ll be more physically equipped to play Center. He’ll have an even better jumper, new post moves, and a better overall feel for the game. And yeah… he’ll still be 7’3″ with those incredible instincts and innate defensive timing.
The Steph Curry angle…
Without playing these last 27 games, and without playing at least the first 50 games next season, it’s virtually impossible for Porzingis to make an All NBA Team or win Defensive Player of the Year in either of the next two seasons.
Why does that matter?
Despite the injury, the Knicks can and will sign Porzingis to the max allowable extension this upcoming fall. I say allowable because without an All NBA or DPOY, he will only be able to start his extension at 25% of the salary cap, rather than 30%.
Why is this the Steph Curry angle? Because Steph Curry’s ankle injuries cost him a bunch of money when his first extension came up.
He got a 4 year, $44 million contract extension back in 2013. This was before he made a huge leap to MVP Curry – but that was still considerably less than his talent would demand. He got lowballed because of his questionable ankles and the risk in signing him.
For Curry himself, those injuries changed the way he approached his health and fitness and body dynamics and made him better in the long run – something I touched on with Porzingis in the Embiid section.
For the Warriors, that money not spent on Curry was used to help build the team around him. A significant portion of their movies–trading for and extending Iggy, signing Livingston, extending Klay and Draymond–were only made possible because Steph was making far below marker value. And yes, even with the unexpected cap spike last offseason, Curry making just $12 mil was still the difference in allowing them to sign Kevin Durant.
There are plenty of contributing factors that make this Porzingis situation different – one of which being the Warriors are neither cursed nor inept. I don’t think I have to go over every distinction here.
But the basic idea, from a salary and roster construct standpoint, is still that you need breaks like that in building a team.
KP making 5% less in 2019-20 might not seem massive. But it could be the difference between how much the Knicks can offer another max free agent. Shit, even if it’s just the difference in adding a bench scrub at $6 mil a year scrub vs. a Shaun Livingston type vet for $12 mil, that’s important.
The One Pronged Fork angle…
What this all come down to though, is what the front office does.
I mentioned at the top the Knicks fork in the road problem. At every opportunity, they’ve chosen the wrong path. On the few occasions where they’ve started down the right path, they’ve turned back around and went down the wrong one.
Before last night, the Knicks were pulling up their next fork in the road with tomorrow’s trade deadline.
For the first time in a while though, there wasn’t really a correct answer. Scott Perry was in somewhat of a lose-lose situation, even with a correct answer.
While the rational, correct choice would be to facilitate a tank by trading veterans for draft assets, it wasn’t that easy. Porzingis justifiably wanted to chase the playoffs. If Perry sold this week and gave up on the season, he’d risk fracturing an already tenuous relationship and open the door to Porzingis leaving as soon as possible. Standing pat basically send the same message. And even if he traded a few vets away, it’s not like the Knicks would drop far enough to justify straining the relationship. Remember: Porzingis blocked Giannis, hit a 30 footer, and dunked on Giannis in about a two minute span before the injury last night. There are five, maybe six other humans who could do that. Kristaps Porzingis was already too good for the Knicks to fall down to any better than the 8th best lottery odds.
Which meant that Perry was about to choose the wrong path again – even for justifiable reasons. He was planning to mortgage the future just to chase a playoff spot (one they likely wouldn’t get anyway). And even if he didn’t trade their first round pick this week, he’d still be ensuring it fell outside the top ten in what was realistically their last shot to get a top five pick to pair with KP.
Now the Knicks don’t have a choice. This injury didn’t just prevent that path – it cemented over it. The fork in the road only has one prong now.
And as wrong as it feels to say today… this might be the best thing that’s happened to them.
The Knicks have to sell and they have to tank. Kristaps Porzingis is out until at least next February. They’re not making the playoffs this season or next. They now have two chances to genuinely tank that simply were not possible before. They can justifiably bottom out knowing that their franchise center won’t truly be ready until the fall of 2019.
Now they can trade Lee and O’Quinn for draft assets without the downside of sending Porzingis the wrong message. Now they don’t have to trade draft picks to sell off Joakim Noah’s contract. Now they don’t have to overpay free agents this summer. Now they can truly, genuinely bottom out and rebuild.
The Knicks are only 5.5 games from the worst record in basketball as of today. Porzingis is done. They could be without Enes Kanter and Tim Hardaway Jr. for a few games. Courtney Lee and Kyle O’Quinn are reportedly being shopped for draft assets as we speak. And they just traded Willy Hernangomez today for a pair of second rounders (2020 and 2021) that could end up being in the low 30’s if and when Kemba Walker leaves Charlotte after 2019.
(Which by the way made this a million times sadder)
It’s not that much of a stretch to say the Knicks could “make up the ground” of 5.5 games and end up with a bottom three record. Without Porzingis, I can’t even definitively say that any of the nine teams below them are actually worse than the Knicks. If Lee and O’Quinn get dealt too? Sheesh.
I was afraid of the Knicks landing around 10 and trying to trade for a veteran to get better right away. Now that won’t happen.
I was terrified they’d dump that pick or a future first to get Noah off the books and chase overpriced free agents. Now that won’t happen.
I was prepared to go into 2018-19 with a mediocre team full of bad contracts locked in around Porzingis. Now that won’t happen.
I’ve been doing the Luka Doncic bit in the Hoops Roundup after Knicks losses all season. Short of a frozen envelope situation, it wasn’t realistic. Now they’re right there staring at a top three lottery pick with only one team in that range in real need of a point guard.
They’ve got about $78 million tied up between Kanter, Noah, Hardaway, Porzingis, Thomas, Baker, Ntilikina, and Dotson. Add in a first rounder and it’s somewhere between $82 and $84 million. With KP out until at least February there’s no incentive to win next year. They won’t chase free agents. And they’ll probably be bad enough to land themselves right back near the top of the lottery again in 2019.
What happened last night was awful… but it doesn’t have to be.
Yesterday morning we were staring down the barrel of another late lottery pick and more short-sighted moves. It was a path that, at best, would lead to a stretch of complete mediocrity. And if KP didn’t leave in two years, he’d tear his ACL two months into his new contract because it’s the Knicks.
Today there’s a very real path to bottoming out, bringing in a whole new staff (see ya Horny), drafting Luka Doncic, tanking through 2018-2019 as Luka Doncic and Frank Ntilikina go through their growing pains, and going into the Summer of 2019 with another top five pick (RJ Barrett, anyone?) and something in the range of $30-35 million in cap space (before doing something with the final year of Joakim Noah’s contract).
And when it’s all over… starting fresh in October 2019 with Redemption Tour Kristaps, Third Year Leap Frank, Larry Bird Jr. Luka, another top five pick, and veteran roll players Free Agent X and Free Agent Y.
And if that doesn’t work… well then we’re all pretty comfortable at rock bottom now aren’t we?
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