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The Knicks Would Be Crazy To Trade Kristaps Porzingis

New York is not a place where hope lives long.

On the eve of the 2017 NBA Draft, Knicks president Phil Jackson appeared on the team’s MSG Network to explain why the team was entertaining trade offers for Kristaps Porzingis, the best young prospect the franchise has seen since Patrick Ewing. Not that there are many contenders for that particular throne. And while Knicks fans understandably don’t extend much benefit of the doubt to Jackson and the front office, trading a player like Porzingis is practically unheard of, especially for the reasons that the Knicks are considering trading him.

Tension between Porzingis and the Knicks rose following a missed exit interview following the season; Porzingis’s brother has acted as an intermediary since. But the rift goes all the way back to the 2015 draft, when Jackson reportedly preferred Duke center Jahlil Okafor for, let’s say unconventional reasons. Following the season, Jackson expressed concerns about Porzingis’s ability to stand up to a full season’s schedule, and bizarrely complimented him for going a full game without taking a 3-pointer. Jackson has openly antagonized star Carmelo Anthony for months, which frustrated Porzingis, who sees Anthony as a mentor. And with the team president in open war with his two best players, the Knicks have held pre-draft workouts accentuating the Triangle offense — a system neither quite fits, and which likely precludes the Knicks’ selecting top prospects such as De’Aaron Fox.

According to ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne, the Knicks, who currently hold the No. 8 pick, have been in touch with every team that has a top-5 pick, and are looking for one of those picks in addition to a talented young star. For instance, Ian Begley reports that potential Phoenix deals include Dragan Bender or Marquese Chriss along with the No. 4 pick. But even in the best case scenario, the sort of young player the Knicks could get from the teams in the top five accentuates the trouble with trading a player like Porzingis.

Prospects like Chriss or Julius Randle of the Lakers or even Jaylen Brown on the Celtics all have potential, but it’s uncertain whether they’ll fulfill it and become playoff-caliber starters. And that uncertainty goes double for whomever the Knicks draft, whether it’s Jackson’s reported favorite, Kansas’s Josh Jackson, or the big man the team has reportedly eyed as a Porzingis replacement, Arizona’s Lauri Markkanen. Porzingis has room to improve as well, but fulfilling potential is much less in doubt — he’s already incredibly valuable on the floor.

Alonzo Mourning Joe Smith
Brevin Knight Kevin Johnson
Carlos Boozer Michael Beasley
Chris Webber Mike Miller
Elton Brand Rasheed Wallace
Gilbert Arenas Ronnie Brewer
Hedo Turkoglu Stephon Marbury
James Harden Terry Cummings
Jason Kidd Wayman Tisdale
The small list of young, good players who were traded

Since 1980, all players who were traded in the first three years of their career, younger than 23, and ranked in the top 100 of Win Shares through their first two seasons.

Dealing a young player who has made an immediate impact is exceedingly rare. Next to this paragraph is a list of every player since 1980 who was traded in the first three years of his career, despite being 22 or younger (Porzingis is 21) and ranked in the top 100 of Win Shares through his first two seasons.

Win Shares aren’t an absolute measure of a player’s worth — Porzingis trails the marks set by fringe NBA players such as Josh Childress and Nenad Kristic through two years — but they’re good enough to give us a broad peer group. For the most part, a team only parts with a promising young player when its hand is forced either by the salary cap or by the player himself.

Webber, for instance, had negotiated an opt-out into his rookie deal, and forced a trade due to disagreement with coach Don Nelson. Elton Brand, traded after his second season, was a flight risk at a time before restricted free agency gave home teams an advantage in retaining players. As one of the most valuable rookies ever drafted, Kevin Johnson was traded by the Cavaliers — the worst franchise of the decade — as part of a lopsided deal for Larry Nance and Mike Sanders. Arenas was a second-round pick and restricted free agent. He flipped a coin to decide where to sign; the coin came up Washington and spawned a new rule. You know about James Harden.

Under slightly different circumstances, Jackson would have the right idea. The Knicks have needs at virtually every position; talent-poor teams are supposed to roll large assets into smaller ones in the hopes of turning one potential star into two or three starters. But Porzingis isn’t just a prospect. He’s the sort of concrete asset that teams like the Knicks should be turning their organization inside-out to make happy.

Porzingis’s offensive numbers flattened out in his sophomore season, which may seem like reason for concern. But underneath modest gains to his overall shooting percentage, Porzingis made improvements in key areas. He scored much better around the rim, improving from 57.6 to 70.1 percent on shots from 0 to 3 feet, and from midrange, improving from 40.5 to 48.2 percent from 10 to 16 feet. This was offset by a nosedive on his percentage on long 2s, but he also took fewer of those shots in his second season in favor of more 3-pointers as he adjusted to the NBA 3-point line. Still, he was a good but not exceptional offensive player in a year when fellow young, big stars Karl-Anthony Towns and (especially) Nikola Jokic had breakout seasons.

But while Porzingis has untapped potential on offense, he’s already one of the best defensive players in the league. Here’s a chart showing the defenders who affected opponents’ shot value the most in the regular season1:

POINTS AGAINST DEFENDER
DEFENDER EXPECTED ACTUAL DIFF. DIFF. PER GAME
Draymond Green 1066 866 -200 -2.64
Rudy Gobert 1078 903 -175 -2.16
Anthony Davis 839 700 -139 -1.86
Kristaps Porzingis 812 691 -121 -1.84
Hassan Whiteside 885 764 -121 -1.57
Myles Turner 1014 890 -124 -1.53
LaMarcus Aldridge 706 596 -110 -1.53
Andre Roberson 871 758 -113 -1.43
Giannis Antetokounmpo 811 706 -105 -1.32
Which defenders hampered opponents’ shooting the most?

Regular season 2016-17. “Expected” value is what a shooter would make against an average defender.

Source: NBA

Though he isn’t as well known for his defense as peers on this list, his production stands alongside that of some of the best defensive players in the league. Meanwhile, Towns was ranked 79th, and Jokic was 479th out of 485. In an environment where teams are increasingly packing a few specialized skills into their big men, Porzingis’s ability to protect the rim, score inside and stretch the floor make him ready to contribute to a contending team right now, today, even if he isn’t quite ready to carry an offense.

In sum, Porzingis’s production outpaces his hype. That makes his place on the trading block something familiar to Knicks fans: a reality even more nightmarish than advertised.


VIDEO: Why the No. 1 pick is such a valuable crapshoot


Footnotes

  1. These values are based on the NBA’s player-tracking data, which covers shot location, defender location and other variables. The “expected” value is what a shooter would make against an average defender given shot distance and the time on the shot clock, and the actual value is the result that the listed defender allowed.

Kyle Wagner is a senior editor at FiveThirtyEight.

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