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Everything Old is New Again?
Could the answer to this offseason lie with the franchise's former savior? Plus, news on Julius Randle and Jalen Brunson.
Good morning! I hope everyone had an enjoyable weekend. Today’s newsletter focuses on a player who we’re all too familiar with, and given New York’s dire need for more spacing in their offense, perhaps someone we’ll learn to love once more. Before we get to that topic though, we have some news…
🗣️ News & Notes ✍️
🏀 As first reported by Woj on Saturday morning and confirmed by the Knicks shortly thereafter, Julius Randle underwent arthroscopic surgery on his left ankle but is expected to be ready for camp in the fall. The surgery adds some vital context to Randle’s uneven showing in the postseason, even it may not explain or excuse his performance entirely. At the very least, I’d expect this surgery to quash any and all trade rumors involving New York’s two-time All-Star for the foreseeable future.
🏀 On a happier note, according to Marc Stein, Jalen Brunson is among the 12 expected roster members for Team USA at the upcoming 2023 FIBA Basketball World Cup, taking place between August 25 and September 10 in the Philippines, Japan and Indonesia. And finally…
🏀 We have a Finals! The Heat used a 32-12 run in the fourth quarter to seize control of the game and eventually hang on for a 111-108 victory. The series now shifts to Miami, where Game 3 will tip off on Wednesday night.
Everything Old is New Again?
September 20, 2000.
The day Patrick Ewing was traded to Seattle, thus ending the longest continued era of sustained success in the history of Knicks basketball.
It is often referred to as the most meaningful turning point for the franchise since June 18, 1985 - the day New York won the right to select Ewing in the first ever NBA draft lottery.
Since that fateful fall day in 2000, we’ve had several contenders for the most meaningful turning point of the last 23 years. January 4, 2004, when Isiah Thomas acquired Stephon Marbury, setting the franchise on a dire course that would take half a decade to undo. February 22, 2011, when they traded for Carmelo Anthony. May 18, 2013, when Roy Hibbert blocked Melo’s attempt at the rim, ending New York’s best chance at a title since Ewing. June 30, 2019, when the Knicks didn’t get Kevin Durant. And certainly June 30, 2022, when Jalen Brunson decided to bring his talents to the Big Apple.
I would argue that one date rises above them all: February 6, 2018 - the day Kristaps Porzingis went up for a dunk over Giannis Antetokounmpo and came down in a heap, tearing his ACL and forever altering the course of the franchise in the process.
It’s impossible to know how far off our present timeline things would would have veered had KP not gone down. Do they win enough additional games over the rest of that season to fall further in the draft lottery, possibly resulting in Mikal Bridges or Shai Gilgeous-Alexander falling in their lap? Do they still tank away the 2018-19 season, which is how they eventually ended up with RJ Barrett? Do they go all in on signing KD and Kyrie, or would they have instead pivoted towards more of a co-star for Porzingis - say, Jimmy Butler (or, in fairness, Kemba Walker)? Is Julius Randle still the backup plan if they strike out, or does positional overlap cause them to go in a different direction? And of course, if whatever the plan turns out to be ends up going up in smoke, does Steve Mills still lose his job? The possibilities are endless.
This is all to say that before he became Public Enemy No. 1 in New York City, Kristaps Porzingis was arguably the most important figure the organization had employed since Ewing himself.
There are a lot of reasons why that original perception changed, including the way KP handled certain off-court matters - an approach about which he has since admitted fault and essentially stated was due to bad advice. Even with those missteps, the pivotal moment remains that fateful night in February of 2018. That was the day the unicorn fell, and with him, the hopes and dreams of an organization that had been floundering ever since the Hibbert block nearly five years earlier.
Quite literally the entire organization, from the head of basketball operations to the coaching staff to nearly every player on the roster, changed over from that February night to the beginning of the #WeHere season just two and a half years later. Frank Ntilikina was the only holdover. Everyone else was fired, traded, or allowed to leave.
That’s how impactful the injury was, not only for the Knicks, but for Porzingis himself. You could argue that this past season was the first time he’s looked all the way back from an injury he says changed everything for him in New York, and that “if I kept playing, it would’ve been completely different.”
The proof is in the numbers, which were impressive across the board, both from an individual and a team standpoint. According to Cleaning the Glass, KP was Washington’s best player with a plus-8.5 efficiency differential this season - a number that ranked him in the 91st percentile league-wide. He made them a little better on defense but truly transformed their offense, from a borderline top-five outfit when he played to nearly the worst in the league when he sat.
Most of that improvement came in the half-court. In set situations, Washington’s offense improved by a robust 12.1 points per 100 possessions when Porzingis played. That ranked in the 99th percentile league-wide. The only high-usage player in the league who made a greater impact was Nikola Jokic.
Perhaps the truest testament to KP’s positive impact can be seen in the breakdown of Washington’s minutes with both, neither, or one of their top two stars. Via Cleaning the Glass:
KP on, Beal off: 1897 possessions, +2.2/100, 115.9 OFF RTG, 113.7 DEF RTG
Beal on, KP off: 941 possessions, -2.9/100, 114.8 OFF RTG, 117.7 DEF RTG
KP & Beal off: 2633 possessions, -7.6/100, 110.1 OFF RTG, 117.7 DEF RTG
KP & Beal on: 2420 possessions, +2.2/100, 119.2 OFF RTG, 117.0 DEF RTG
Regarding that last number, it’s worth noting that the top four lineups featuring both Porzingis and Beal together were all solid, with the most used quintet going gangbusters in 317 possessions:
Individually, Porzingis is coming off career highs in scoring (23.2 points), assists (2.7 a night) and efficiency (a 56.5 effective field goal percentage). All of these numbers together seem to be the result of finding not only the right pass/shoot balance, but in knowing when to fire away from deep and when to take advantage of mismatches inside the arc. His threes per 36 minutes (6.0) was the lowest since its been since his third season while his conversion rate on those threes (38.5 percent) was the highest its been since that lone All-Star campaign (39.5 percent).
The big difference is in his two’s, which he hit at by far the best clip of his career (55.9 percent) despite the fact that fewer of his made baskets were assisted than at any point since his rookie season. As he’s done for most of his career, KP did a fair amount of his damage from the midrange, where he took 45 percent of his field goals, hitting a very respectable 48 percent from that area.
Looking at the league’s preeminent big men (not to mention who has done well in the postseason), this would seem to be a good sign. According to Cleaning the Glass, Bam Adebayo led the way for centers with 59 percent of his shots coming from the midrange. That was followed by Deandre Ayton (57 percent), Joel Embiid (51 percent), Anthony Davis (46 percent), and just behind Porzingis, Nikola Jokic (43 percent). That’s five centers from the final eight teams, with the exceptions coming from Boston (where they have the ability to toggle between a traditional dive man and a pure stretch five), Golden State (where Draymond and Looney provide a different sort of offensive gravity, combining for nearly a dozen assists per 36 minutes) and New York, which was the only team to make the final eight (and really, one of the only teams left in the NBA) that plays 48 minutes worth of a traditional screen & dive center at one end and a scheme that keeps their big man tethered close to the hoop at the other.
We know that as long as Tom Thibodeau is the coach, the latter isn’t going to change. In his defense, employing a starting center who can deter shots at the rim isn’t an unsound strategy, even if the extent he goes to wall of the restricted area at all costs is fair to criticize. The point remains that if the Knicks are going to go in a different direction with their starting center spot this offseason, it’ll be the need for a more diverse offense that drives the move.
More specifically, it’ll be the need for spacing, as we’ve been discussing ever since the Knicks shot under 30 percent on threes over their 11-game postseason run. Conventional wisdom says that the RJ/Julius pairing will finally need to be broken up, but adding a true stretch five may be a way around that. They could also go whole hog and switch up both the center spot and another part of the starting five1.
Either way, this would be a radical shift, both from a personnel and a style perspective. More than any other single component, New York’s offense was built on second chance opportunities, and no one was more instrumental in that effort than Mitchell Robinson. Going away from perhaps the league’s best offensive rebounder and shifting to someone who grabs fewer than two offensive boards per game would be a radical change.
It may also be a necessary one. The Knicks were the best offensive rebounding team in the postseason this year but it didn’t prevent them from sporting the fourth worst playoff offense. Sure, ranking 15th of 16 teams in turnover percentage didn’t help matters, but neither did ranking 15th of 16 teams in overall efficiency, which recent history shows is a far better indicator of playoff success.
Just think: we marveled at the shot-making prowess of Jalen Brunson all season long, as he converted a robust 120.7 points per 100 shot attempts. Well, Kristaps Porzingis put up 126.0. Regardless of where he shot it from, he was a pillar of efficiency.
The Knicks need an injection of shooting, and more importantly, an increase in spacing for their plethora of paint attackers that need every extra inch they can get. Every realistic major upgrade is fraught with downside risk, and KP is no different. But for as much as he’s going to cost a lot and remain a very real injury risk, as an unrestricted free agent, a sign and trade wouldn’t cost the Knicks nearly as much by way of assets as a traditional star trade might.
Could they get him to agree on a deal that started at his max (roughly $40 million) and that descended by the maximum amount each season, ending up at something like four years and $140 million, perhaps with a partially guaranteed fourth year? The better question might be what they’d need to send to Washington in a sign and trade, and the answer would surely depend on whether the Wizards are rebuilding (i.e., blowing it up) or simply retooling.
(One asset that would seem to make sense to include in a potential trade, regardless of the other pieces involved: Washington’s 2024 first round pick, which New York owns with certain protections for the foreseeable future. Getting that pick back would free up new GM Michael Winger to operate much more freely moving forward.)
Who knows. This is probably crazy talk. But the history is there, and for a brief moment, so was the magic.
Can everything old be new again?
We’ll find out this summer.
See y’all soon! #BlackLivesMatter
Before anyone asks, no, the Knicks are not going to re-acquire Kristaps Porzingis to play the four, even if he did play over 1000 non-garbage time possessions alongside Daniel Gafford last season. Those units demolished teams on offense but struggled mightily on defense, giving up 116.1 points per 100 possessions. That’s not the real reason I don’t see the Knicks swapping out Julius for Kristaps though. As Ian Begley has reported, if Randle exits via trade - something that’s less likely with the announcement of this surgery, I’d argue - then it’s going to be for a major upgrade. KP doesn’t quite fit that bill.