When the Knicks finally traded Carmelo Anthony last offseason, both he and the organization itself viewed it as an opportunity to get out from under a cloud. With the Oklahoma City deal, Melo joined a contending team that already had two All-Stars and left the club that fumbled his prime — one that then gladly handed the keys to the franchise to 22-year-old Kristaps Porzingis.
For awhile, that experiment was going swimmingly. Porzingis averaged 30 points per contest through his first 11 outings of the season, a highly impressive, if clearly unsustainable, rate. Yet that hot start to the campaign probably camouflaged something that’s come into clearer focus as both the big man and his team have cooled down: For all the trouble New York went through to move on from Anthony and his ball-dominant tendencies, Porzingis launches many of the same heavily contested shots that prompted so much head-scratching and frustration among Knicks fans.
Going into the Knicks’ nationally televised game in Utah Friday, Porzingis has taken far more heavily contested jumpshots than any other NBA player this season. The majority of those attempts come from the antiquated midrange part of the floor, where New York continues to take more shots than any other team despite the firing of team president Phil Jackson, who insisted on using an unpopular triangle offense. Porzingis takes more than seven shots a game from midrange, the NBA’s second-highest mark; more than Anthony, who considers that area his sweet spot. Perhaps most eye-opening of all: according to Second Spectrum data, Porzingis is tied for the league’s fourth-lowest1 quantified Shot Quality (qSQ), which measures the likelihood of a shot going in if taken by an average player. To put that into context, last season, Porzingis ranked 71st-lowest in the NBA by this measure, while Anthony had the NBA’s fourth-lowest shot quality profile during 2016-17.
In other words: Kristaps Porzingis’s shot selection has essentially morphed into Carmelo Anthony’s.
|Player||Shot Quality||Rank (lowest)||Shot Quality||Rank (lowest)|
“The stars in this league take tougher shots because defenses are focused on them. He’s 22, he’s going through that for the first time, and teams are gearing up on him, and not letting him spin or get a clear opportunity to pass the ball,” Knicks coach Jeff Hornacek told me before a recent game.
Without Anthony to worry about, defenses have aggressively seized on Porzingis. A little more than halfway through the season, he’s already been double-teamed in the post 79 times (about twice a game), the fourth-highest total in the NBA and more than he faced during his first two seasons combined, according to Second Spectrum. This effectively is a way of daring him to make a quick, accurate pass to the right man — which is not his strength.
Porzingis turns the ball over nearly twice as often as he records an assist, and averages fewer assists per game than any of the other players who rank among the NBA’s top 10 in post-ups. If opponents don’t double him, they will often crowd him on the catch, force him to put the ball on the floor, and bring a help defender so he’s forced to see two bodies.
The latter strategy, in particular, has worked well since Porzingis still lacks the physicality he needs to push some defenders — even small guards, who give up 6 or 7 inches — off their square.
In theory, you could argue that Porzingis is better equipped to take the sorts of shots Anthony did because of how much taller he is, giving him clearer looks at the basket. But despite being the NBA’s tallest player,2 Porzingis’s midrange jumpers have been blocked more often than anyone else in the league. (Anthony is tied for third.) The budding star has an unusually low average release point of just over 9 feet on his midrange attempts, the third-lowest among the league’s 46 volume shooters,3 according to an analysis run by senior data analyst Matt Scott of STATS SportVU at FiveThirtyEight’s request.
Porzingis is the first to acknowledge that he began rushing his offense too much after the blistering pace he set to begin the season. “I think now I’m starting to realize it doesn’t need to be that way,” he told ESPN’s Ian Begley. “I can just let the game flow and see what happens. I can make the right play and not force and try to get those numbers.”
No one would be foolish enough to write off Porzingis at this juncture, for his Melo-like shot selection or any other reason. This is his first year as the primary option — he wasn’t even the second banana last season, when both Anthony and Derrick Rose averaged more shot attempts per game — and aside from Tim Hardaway, Jr.,4 he has no other teammate that qualifies as a true playmaker. He plays within the offense more than Anthony did. (Almost two-thirds of Porzingis’s 2-point baskets are assisted, while just under a third of Anthony’s 2-pointers in New York were.) And Porzingis provides enormous value as a rim protector, even when he’s not doing well on offense.
Similar to Anthony, Porzingis can be lethal when teammates get him the ball in scenarios that allow him to make quick decisions off the catch. Hornacek’s best weapon to do that — playing Porzingis at center as part of a five-out lineup — deserves more spin, and would help things flow a bit more. Outside of that, the Knicks have been good at setting up these looks in transition, when Porzingis is trailing a play and can simply square up to shoot from the top of the key. Porzingis posts a whopping 56.7 percent effective field-goal rate when he shoots within two seconds of getting the ball, a rate that puts him in the same stratosphere as Kevin Durant or Anthony Davis as far as efficiency is concerned. But he becomes the equivalent of one of the two or three worst shooters in basketball, around 40 percent, when he attempts a shot after holding it for any more than two seconds. (More evidence of this: his 0.73 points per possession in one-on-one situations rank last among the 33 NBA players who isolate at least twice a game.5)
New York’s made an effort to run plays for Porzingis — they run about 19 off-ball screens for him per 100 possessions, according to Second Spectrum, up from 10 last year — though it doesn’t always result in a touch, because of all the defensive attention he’s facing. “Even if I’m not open, it means someone else is open,” Porzingis said. “When we’re in movement, those are good plays for us.”
This maturation process — figuring out how to create separation when defenses load up on a single player — was the one Anthony spent the most time helping Porzingis with early in his career.
The pair often played one-on-one at practice, and every couple minutes, Porzingis would stop the game to ask Anthony for advice with certain moves. “[Working with him] has been fun,” Anthony told me back in 2015. “For me, it’s knowing that one day I’ll be gone, and somebody else will be here. And he’s the future.”
For New York’s future to be brighter than its cloudy past, they’ll need Porzingis to navigate this stretch and learn how to find better shots than the ones Anthony feasted on as a Knick.