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The Knicks’ Latest Savior May Be The Actual Savior

The recent history of M-V-P chants in Madison Square Garden is almost exclusively sarcastic. Recent recipients include but are not limited to: backup guard Ron Baker, disintegrating guard Derrick Rose, backup big man Quincy Acy, and Metta World Peace, in a game in which he played two minutes, went 1-for-3 from the floor, missed two free throws, and was a Los Angeles Laker. Now Knick fans are chanting for Kristaps Porzingis, and for the first time in a generation, they may have a point.

Porzingis scored a career-high 38 points in the Knicks’ 116-110 win over the Denver Nuggets on Monday, and New York is riding a three-game win streak. In Porzingis’s first season with the Knicks, he didn’t have a single 30-point game. Last season, his second in New York, he had just three. He has opened 2017-18 by scoring at least 30 in five of six games and, more important, has made it look like this is his new normal. It’s a soft week in the schedule, and the season still likely ends in doom. But that’s almost entirely beside the point if the 22-year-old, 7-foot-3 Porzingis can maintain anything like this early season form. If he can, the Knicks would no longer be building around potential: They’d be building around one of the best players in the league today.

Broadly speaking, there are two kinds of franchise-level prospects in the NBA. One has all the obvious grace and talent of a perennial All-Star right out the box and only needs to add rudimentary pieces to his game to grow into that role. These are guys like John Wall, Anthony Davis and Kevin Durant. The other tends to be the kind fans understand mainly through scouting reports and evaluators. This one’s talent is just as obvious, but there are questions about whether he can thrive as the centerpiece of a team and carry an offense. Paul George, Kawhi Leonard and Kristaps Porzingis answer roll call over here.

Coming into this season, Porzingis had played about 1,500 minutes without Carmelo Anthony on the floor according to NBAWOWY.com, and his stats in those minutes were nearly identical to when Anthony was on the floor. He had roughly the same usage rate, the same true shooting percentage, even took the same types of shots. That’s encouraging in a way — Porzingis didn’t fold without Anthony on the floor to draw the defense away — but it also implies that Porzingis wasn’t stepping into a larger role, even with the floor to himself.

Through six games this season, Porzingis looks more like a primary option. He’s shouldering a massive amount of the offense — 35.1 usage percentage — while improving his efficiency (57 true shooting percentage, up from 54.6 a season ago and 51.8 as a rookie). That usage percentage doesn’t even present the whole picture, though, because Porzingis’s turnover rate is so low1 that he’s a different category of volume scorer than other recent high-usage players. For a more direct comparison, his 33.1 field goal attempts per 100 possessions leads the league by a mile and would have nipped at Russell Westbrook’s heels last season. Porzingis doesn’t (yet) facilitate the rest of the offense the way players like Westbrook do, but for sheer scoring burden, he has entered the very upper crust.

Kristaps is carrying the Knicks
SEASON TRUE SHOOTING % TURNOVER % USAGE % FIELD GOAL ATTEMPTS/100
2015-16 51.8% 10.9% 24.6% 22.2
2016-17 54.6 9.7 24.3 22.8
2017-18 57.0 8.3 35.1 33.1

Source: Basketball-reference.com

He’s also increasingly comfortable using the threat of his jumper to get into position for easy shots in the paint, using up-fakes like a guard to take the ball from the top of the key into the post. That inflated usage rate didn’t happen by accident — it’s a reflection of Porzingis’s forcing his way into the flow of the game. Against Detroit in the home opener, Porzingis bullied his way into prime post position when he had a smaller defender on him — poor Stanley Johnson couldn’t touch that jumper with a tennis racket. Against Denver on Monday night, he pulled up from Steph Curry range and used the respect that those shots demanded from his defender to slash to the rim. His off-ball movement has become more purposeful, bringing him back into the action, not away from it.

After Monday’s night’s win, teammate Courtney Lee said: “He’s getting stronger and starting to understand where his spots on the floor are. Then it’s on us getting him the ball in the right place.”

Often, the right place for Porzingis is a spot that couldn’t work for any other player in the league. Sometimes this is subtle, such as when Porzingis lolls into the high post and his teammates can throw him an entry pass that touches the stratosphere. Other times, it’s more obvious:

There’s a long way to go from a three-game winning streak to playoff relevance. Part of that journey will include determining whether the Knicks can count on games like these out of Porzingis over the long haul. Another will be finding out whether Porzingis’s slippage on defense — he’s been merely above average this season,2 after being one of the best rim protectors in the league a season ago — is only temporary or a necessary tradeoff for this kind of offense.

Overreaction and delusion are mixed into the concrete at Madison Square Garden. Over time, Mike Sweetney bleeds into David Lee into Nate Robinson into Landry Fields. Linsanity comes and goes. Believing in the rise of Porzingis necessarily requires a reckoning with the decades of false hope the Knicks have wrought on their fans. But even the Knicks can’t unmake reality. Porzingis really is out there making those cuts, canning those threes, posting those Lilliputian opposing frontcourts into jelly. He really is matching hype to underlying analytic promise. And maybe, if everything breaks just right, that will be enough to get Knick fans a stronger MVP candidate than Ron Baker’s haircut.

Footnotes

  1. He turns it over on 8.3 percent of possessions.

  2. He has slipped in both the number of plays he challenges on defense and the effect he has on those shots.

Kyle Wagner is a senior editor at FiveThirtyEight.

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