Tuesday’s game between the New York Knicks and Portland Trail Blazers at the Garden came down to the wire. There were over 20 lead changes, as momentum swung back and forth. The outcome wasn’t decided until the final possession, as the Knicks ended up pushing past and holding off Portland for a 107-103 victory.
One of the most interesting aspects related to the Knicks’ strong performance down the stretch on Tuesday was the lack of clutch contributions from Carmelo Anthony. In the second half, Anthony was just 2-of-12 from the floor and 0-of-5 from three-point territory. He didn’t score a single point in the fourth quarter, as he missed all three of his field goal attempts.
In years past, there was very little likelihood that the Knicks would have been able to register wins in close games without Anthony taking and making the vast majority of clutch shots. However, if Tuesday night was any indication, we are currently witnessing a changing of the guard in New York City.
Anthony arrived in New York on February 22, 2011. He’s been the best player on the team since the moment he held up that Knicks jersey in his introductory press conference. In his first game, he sealed a Knicks victory over the Milwaukee Bucks with a driving dunk past Carlos Delfino and a short, corner jumper in the waning seconds. Right from the very start the Knicks franchise, which had been desperate for a true superstar since Patrick Ewing left town, was his. The city adored him. The future was bright.
There have been plenty of ups-and-downs during Anthony’s time in the Big Apple. There have been drastic shifts in the front office and multiple head coaching changes. The roster has been turned upside down, and then flipped over again for good measure.
There has been only one constant since that February day in 2011: Carmelo Anthony was the face of the franchise and the team’s best player. Point guards and general managers and coaches have come and gone, but ‘Melo remained.
When was the last time Anthony wasn’t the best player on his basketball team? He was one of the top talents in America and obviously the best player on his high school squad at Oak Hill Academy. In fact, the year prior to that, he was the Baltimore Catholic League Player of the Year at Towson Catholic before he transferred to Oak Hill for his senior season.
In his one season at Syracuse, he averaged 22.2 points and 10 rebounds while leading the Orangemen to their first ever NCAA tournament title. Anthony was named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player Award.
He was Denver’s top gun from the moment he was drafted, leading the Nuggets in scoring his rookie season. Anthony averaged 21 points per game in 2003-04. No other Nugget averaged more than 14 points per contest. He continued to grow and improve as a player, and remained the alpha male in Denver until they dealt him to the Knicks.
Kristaps Porzingis was amazing once again in Tuesday night’s victory over the Blazers. He poured in a game-high 31 points, including a dizzying array of dunks and step-back three-pointers.
Porzingis has exceeded even the loftiest of expectations early in his career. After the first few weeks and months, it was clear that he was uniquely gifted. However, considering he was so slight of build and was still adjusting to living in America and playing in the NBA, most believed it would take him years before he grew into his game and his body.
It was assumed that Anthony would remain the team’s focal point and face of the franchise for the foreseeable future. Eventually, as his career was winding down toward the back end of his contract, Porzingis would have hopefully improved enough by that point so that ‘Melo would feel content passing the torch to his young protege.
However, there is an uncomfortable truth that New Yorkers have to now confront: Carmelo Anthony is no longer the Knicks’ best player.
While Anthony has slowed a bit (Carmelo’s regression is most painfully obvious on the defensive end of the floor), Porzingis’ game has developed at warp speed.
Porzingis is clearly the best all-around player in New York right now. KP’s intoxicating blend of length, athleticism, confidence and incredible skill has him playing at a truly elite level, despite the fact that he’s only 21 years old.
It’s his ability to contribute, and at times dominate, at both ends of the floor that truly separates Porzingis from his peers. He is the currently the only player in the NBA leading his team in both made three-pointers and blocked shots. And consider this: Last season, Steph Curry became the first player in NBA history to shoot above 50 percent from the floor, 40 percent from three-point territory and 80 percent from the free throw line, while attempting more than five three-pointers per game. Porzingis is currently shooting 50.2 percent from the floor, 39 percent from downtown and 78 percent from the charity stripe, while averaging 5.5 three-point attempts per game.
Over the Knicks’ last 10 games, Porzingis is averaging 23.6 points, 7.6 rebounds, 2.4 three-pointers, 0.9 blocks and 0.8 steals, while shooting 52.6 percent from the floor.
Over the Knicks’ last 10 games, Anthony is averaging 23.1 points, 5.9 rebounds, 2.3 three-pointers, 0.4 blocks and 0.7 steals, while shooting 46.6 percent from the floor.
The advanced metrics show an even greater divide. Porzingis’ 2016-17 PER currently sits at 22.2. ‘Melo clocks in at 20.1. Porzingis’ Real Plus/Minus of 3.43 ranks 15th best in the NBA this season. ‘Melo is 35th at 2.03.
A couple of other stats to consider: Over the Knicks first nine games this season, Porzingis averaged 50.3 touches per game, which ranked fourth on the team. New York was 3-6 through their first nine contests. Over the Knicks last five games, KP is averaging 75.2 touches per game, which ranks first on the team. New York is 4-1 over those five contests.
In 12 minutes of “clutch time” (which the NBA defines as the final five minutes of a game in which the point differential is five points or less) this season, Porzingis has attempted just one shot. He made it. He also has no turnovers and no free-throw attempts. Cumulatively, he has a 4.7 percent usage rate and 100 percent True Shooting Percentage in the clutch. In contrast, Carmelo Anthony has attempted six shots in clutch situations this season and, according to NBA.com, he has missed them all (0-for-6). Melo’s usage rate in the clutch is 30.6 percent, or roughly five times greater than Porzingis.
Everyone from fans to the front office to the coaches and the players knew that Porzingis passing Anthony in the pecking order would occur at some point down the road. It was widely acknowledged that ‘Melo was the present and KP was the future.
Only that’s no longer true. Porzingis is both. It’s all happened sooner than we expected.
Now, it will be fascinating to see how this all plays out. If the Knicks goal is to win games this season, do they need to make more of a concerted effort to get the ball to their most efficient scorer more frequently, especially late in the fourth quarter with the game hanging in the balance?
With that said, don’t expect any fireworks. One of the reasons New Yorkers have fallen head over heals in love with Porzingis is his unselfish attitude and modest, self-effacing personality. Porzingis has almost always said the right thing since responding to draft days boos with a smile and an innocuous quip about being happy to have the opportunity to win over New Yorkers. For a kid that could now easily view himself as the new ‘King of New York,’ he’s bashful even being mentioned as a potential prince.
Porzingis has also unfailingly deferred to Anthony, both on and off the court.
After Sunday’s win over the Hawks, Porzingis was quick to correctly credit ‘Melo as a crucial component to his own individual success.
“Without Melo, it would be much more difficult for me to get those 30 points, or 28,” Porzingis said. “People don’t realize that. But that’s how it is. He draws a lot of attention, and he’s the main focus for the other team. That opens up stuff for me. So without him, it would be much more difficult.
“I’m happy to have him and D-Rose and guys who are really aggressive driving to the basket, who draw so much attention for me to be able to get those wide-open looks and then attack. It’s good sometimes that we have that. Without them, it would be much more difficult.”
And he is 100 percent right. In many respects, Porzingis is blessed to not only play alongside a terrifically talented player in Anthony, but also a person who is comfortable in the bright lights of the big city. Anthony is the player whom reporters will run to for a quote when Phil Jackson says or does something that draws negative attention to the team. Anthony will be the one forced to face the music and will be asked the tough questions about unmet expectations if the Knicks fail to advance to the playoffs. Porzingis will eventually have to shoulder the responsibility that comes along with being the face of the franchise, but delaying this inevitability for as long as possible likely only benefits him and the Knicks long-term.
And to his credit, Anthony, by all accounts, has been a trusted and respected mentor to Porzingis. He’s taken the young Latvian under his wing since inviting Porzingis to his personal gym for workouts last summer. Recently, ‘Melo has been effusive in his praise of Porzingis. Earlier this week, Anthony acknowledged Porzingis turns him into a fan on a nearly nightly basis.
“I’m still in awe of kind of some of the things he does on the court. Like yesterday, he made a move and I’m like, ‘Damn.’ You know what I mean? I’m still like a fan of kind of his talent and his skill level,” Anthony said. “I always thought it would kind of take longer to get acclimated. He’s doing a great job with just kind of taking it day by day, still getting a feel for the game and figuring it out on the fly.”
Nonetheless, as Porzingis’ game continues to grow, so will his fame. How will Anthony handle the attention slowly shifting away from his side of the locker room? When the NBA universe starts recognizing Kristaps as the Knicks’ top talent, how will it impact Anthony? At some point, the Knicks will have to seriously consider running plays for KP on the final possessions of close games. Will it be a tough pill for the prideful Carmelo to swallow? It would be only natural for him to have a tough time adjusting to a new role, and a lower ranking in the team hierarchy.
Still, there are obvious advantages for Anthony and reasons he should embrace KP’s accession. ‘Melo is the most efficient and effective version of himself when is set up as a catch-and-shoot scorer. The offense tends to grind to a halt when he dribbles seconds off the shot clock in isolation attempts. He should embrace the space-and-pace brand of basketball espoused by Jeff Hornacek and powered by point guards Derrick Rose and Brandon Jennings, as well as Porzingis. As we have seen in summer’s past, “Olympic ‘Melo” is a force to be reckoned with.
There is no denying that ‘Melo remains an incredibly skilled player – one of the best offensive players on the planet. Still, playing alongside an emerging superstar in Porzingis will require a recalibration on his part.
After all, it’s been a very, very long time since Carmelo Anthony wasn’t the best player on his own basketball team.
Fixing The Chicago Bulls
Spencer Davies says the Bulls have a long way to go, but they’re taking steps forward. In year one without the former face of the franchise, that’s about all they can ask for.
Next up on Basketball Insiders’ “fixing” series is a stop in the Windy City.
In spite of the criticisms over last summer’s Jimmy Butler trade with the Minnesota Timberwolves, it feels like the Chicago Bulls at least have a sense of direction. Many members of the media—including this one—expected them to finish dead last in the NBA, yet they have 23 wins, with seven other teams worse off.
Obviously, the goal for the organization this season was to establish an identity and see what they had with their new cornerstone pieces. To a good extent, there’s optimism regarding those players because of the potential they’ve shown.
There’s still a good chunk of the year left, but the Bulls are 12th in the Eastern Conference standings with 15 games to go.
What Is Working
If it weren’t for the spectacular seasons by Donovan Mitchell and Ben Simmons, Chicago stretch big man Lauri Markkanen might be the Rookie of the Year. Even with some second-half struggles, the entire body of work is impressive.
The 7-foot Finnish forward continues to stay aggressive with a high usage and great mentality in snatching up those boards. It’s normal for a first-year player to go through those ups and downs. Add in a back injury that’s been bothering him as of late and the slump make a little more sense. Markkanen has shown the skill and consistent effort that it takes to be a mainstay in this league.
Bobby Portis is another member of the frontcourt who’s made a noticeable impact off the Bulls’ bench. In his third year, you can see the confidence continue to grow as a versatile offensive threat with a ton of touches. He’s taken a responsibility upon himself to lead the second unit and the proof is in the pudding. According to Cleaning The Glass, the team is a net plus-11.5 per 100 possessions with him on the court.
Second-year swingman Denzel Valentine has filled the stat sheet in multiple games as one of the most unselfish players on the roster. David Nwaba’s role from the beginning was to be a defensive menace and he’s come through for the majority of the year. Even two-way contract rookie Antonio Blakeney has shown flashes as a volume scorer in stretches.
Recently, Chicago has given a couple of cast-offs opportunities to display their skills. In 10 games, Cameron Payne looks as comfortable as he has in quite some time coming off a major foot injury. Noah Vonleh has been an effective late addition playing next to Portis and filling in for Markkanen. Let’s not forget that these two were lottery picks and are still in their early 20s.
What Needs To Change
Looking at what Kris Dunn and Zach LaVine have done, it’s been a mixed bag. With that being said, there’s clearly untapped potential between the both of them.
Dunn proved in very little time that the narrative of him being a lost cause was far from the truth. Hoiberg’s trust in him to be Chicago’s floor general has gone a long way. He’s been in attack mode with the ball in his hands, has seen his outside game get better and has been bothersome with his length defensively. It hasn’t resulted in wins, but remember—it’s this group’s first season together.
As for LaVine, it’s difficult to judge where a player is using a 23-game sample size. Yes, it’s a good amount of playing time, but let’s not forget he’s coming off a devastating left ACL tear. His defense has been subpar, but the bounce seems to still be there. The jumper is on and off, but he hasn’t been bashful at all. Starting the year off fresh in 2018-19 will benefit him.
Speaking of next season, the goal for the front office of Gar Forman and John Paxson should be simple—get younger. Currently, Robin Lopez is the highest paid player on the Bulls and he’ll have one year left on his deal going into the summer. The same applies to Justin Holiday. These are two veterans who could contribute on teams ready to win now, and it would be logical to part ways considering the direction the franchise is going.
Focus Area: The Draft
Due to the Nikola Mirotic trade on February 1st, Chicago acquired a first-round draft pick from the New Orleans Pelicans. That gives them two chances to add to their young talent pool in the upcoming 2018 NBA Draft.
Typically you’d go with the best player available when you’re slotted in the top ten, but the Bulls should feel good about their backcourt and the power forward position. What they really are lacking are reliable shooters and perimeter defenders, as well as a player with a bulldog mentality.
Chicago doesn’t get to the free throw nearly enough and they don’t convert looks that they should. Considering a true wing is amiss, it’d be the ideal scenario for Michael Porter Jr. to fall right into their lap. The Missouri freshman just returned after missing basically the entire season with a back injury. He was a top name coming into the class because of his size and could be a steal with the eighth selection.
If Porter Jr. doesn’t make it to them, Miles Bridges would make for a heck of a consolation prize. Unlike Porter, he has a more muscular frame at 6-foot-7, 230 pounds that allows him to bully the opposition. There’s a relentless nature and fearlessness about him that will translate to the next level.
Using that Pelicans pick, the Bulls would be happy to see Duke sharpshooter Gary Trent Jr. fall to them in the early-to-mid 20s, but that seems more unlikely with Anthony Davis continuing to carry New Orleans to new heights. If they end up selecting towards to the back end of the first round, Arizona junior guard Allonzo Trier could end up being a good fit as well.
Focus Area: Free Agency
Entering the summer, Chicago doesn’t have too many decisions to make on the contract front.
The trade exception from the Butler deal expires on June 22nd. If it’s not used by then, the amount will be renounced if the team goes under the salary cap. The deadline to present Noah Vonleh and David Nwaba a qualifying offer is June 29th.
Everybody’s going to keep an eye on LaVine because of restricted free agency, but the Bulls have indicated they prefer him to be a part of their core. They’ll in all likelihood look to bring him back on a long-term contract. If he doesn’t approve of the terms, he can always choose to play on his qualifying offer and bet on himself.
Chicago has to decide whether or not to guarantee Paul Zipser’s $1.5 million salary for next season by July 18th. The extension deadline for Payne, Portis, and Grant is the day before the first day of the 2018 campaign and team option deadlines for Dunn and Markannen come on Halloween.
There probably won’t be too much activity on the Bulls’ part regarding free agency. The focus will lay on improving their young core and getting guys who are just getting on the upswing in the pros. There are talents out there who fit the bill. It just all depends on what comes from the draft.
All in all, Chicago has a long way to go to get back into the postseason conversation, but they’re taking steps forward. In year one without the former face of the franchise, that’s about all you can ask for.
NBA Daily: 76ers’ Ben Simmons Enters Rarefied Air
Philadelphia 76ers guard Ben Simmons passed Magic Johnson for second in rookie triple-doubles.
As the Philadelphia 76ers continued their playoff push with a come-from-behind victory over the woebegone New York Knicks Thursday, rookie Ben Simmons joined some NBA legends in the record book. With his eighth triple-double of the season, Simmons passed Magic Johnson for second all-time in triple-doubles among rookies. According to ESPN’s Ian Begley, Simmons is only the third rookie to record 1000 points, 500 rebounds, and 500 assists.
After the win over the Knicks, Simmons told reporters that the process for him has been to disregard the expectations thrust upon him as a scorer and focus on his ability to contribute in a variety of ways.
“I try not to get carried away with what people say,” said Simmons. “People want me to be a scorer or a player that I’m not right now. I can score the ball, but I can also rebound and pass the ball. I’d rather do that and do what I’m pretty good at than force things.”
Simmons was clearly aware of the gravity of what he had accomplished in the postgame locker room. He spoke with reverence of the legendary players his name will always be associated with, including Oscar Robertson, whose record of 26 triple-doubles as a rookie may never be challenged.
“It’s surreal knowing the game’s been played for a long time,” said Simmons. “So many greats have been through. I’ve set a record with Magic and Oscar Robertson, which is surreal to me.”
Before the game, Knicks coach Jeff Hornacek described how Simmons’ combination of size, speed, and court vision make him especially difficult to guard.
“He’s got the speed, he’s got those long strides and he’s got the vision as a passer to pick you apart,” said Hornacek. “You’ve got to kind of collapse and kind of create a wall to not let him get in [the paint], but then he goes ahead and throws it out to the shooters that they have on his team.”
Begley also quoted 76ers coach Brett Brown during the pregame discussing how Simmons’ assignment to the point guard position was debated within the organization.
“I’m so pleased that the organization, he, the coaching staff, had the courage to try him as a point guard,” said Brown. “Because, let’s face it, that was highly scrutinized.”
It seems it was the right decision, as Simmons’ 507 assists easily leads all rookies. Lakers point guard Lonzo Ball is second with 325 while Dallas’ Dennis Smith follows with 289, De’Aaron Fox of the Kings has 262 and fellow Rookie of the Year candidate Donovan Mitchell of the Jazz has 236. Simmons leads the 76ers with 7.7 assists per game and is third in scoring with 16.2 points, trailing leading scorer Joel Embiid (23.6) and veteran shooting guard J.J. Redick (16.6). His 7.8 rebounds per game trails only Embiid (10.9) for the team lead.
The 76ers are currently sixth in the Eastern Conference, but could easily move up with only three of its final 15 games coming against teams in playoff position. Philadelphia trails the third-seed Pacers by a mere two games, so home court advantage in the first round is definitely in play. Meanwhile, Simmons said at a practice over the weekend that he hasn’t experienced a rookie wall.
“I don’t think there’s a wall,” said Simmons. “I wake up every morning and I love what I do. You’re going to have great games and you’re going to have some bad games, but that just comes with it.”
With history notched into his belt and no signs of slowing with the playoffs looming, Simmons’ All-Star snub could look even more ridiculous as time passes. Magic posted an eerily-similar 18 points, 7.3 assists and 7.7 rebounds per game as a Lakers rookie. He was an All-Star starter and became the first rookie to be named NBA Finals MVP.
Fixing the New York Knicks
How can the Knicks build a contender around Kristaps Porzingis?
The City That Never Sleeps. The Big Apple. The World’s Most Famous Arena. All home to the New York Knickerbockers.
When the Knicks are competitive, the basketball world is better for it. The NBA thrives when the Mecca is packed night in and night out. However, that’s not the reality of this rendition of the Knicks.
Sitting at 24-44, the Knicks are without their best player for the rest of the season, and are plummeting down the standings. On the bright side, with a star player already in-hand, a home run in June’s draft could move past the Knicks’ misfortunes into the next era of competitive New York basketball.
So, without further ado, let’s fix the New York Knicks.
What is Working?
To reach the point the Knicks have this season, it means not much of what they planned coming into this campaign is working. Granted, New York didn’t account for a season-ending injury to Kristaps Porzingis.
In a season that’s over before it’s actually over, the most important thing for that particular club is evaluating what they have for the next season. In that regard, certain players for the Knicks are helping their case as being fixtures for the future in New York.
After signing Trey Burke from the G-League, the former lottery pick is proving himself more than capable of contributing quality NBA minutes off of the bench. In-season finds and rediscovering talent like Burke is a positive note for new Knicks brass Steve Mills and Scott Perry can hang their hat on during an otherwise disappointing season.
Along with Burke, the development of last year’s lottery pick Frank Ntilikina is crucial. Ntilikina’s season has had its ups and downs, as most teenagers experience in their first go around with an NBA year. But the Frenchman currently leads his team in steals and has shown flashes of being a future elite wing defender in this league.
Jeff Hornacek, despite not having a full arsenal of talent at his disposal, is still taking this season to implement his system. Predicated on winning the rebounding battle and moving the basketball, two of the lone categories the Knicks actually rank in the top half of the league, Hornacek’s style of play should become more effective upon Porzingis’ return (much like their early season success).
It’s been a rough year in New York, but take away the franchise player from almost any team in the NBA and the results would surely be disappointing. Not all hope is lost for the Knicks.
What Needs to Change?
The Knicks need to evolve with the rest of the NBA.
Simply, they take too many two-point jumpers. That’s not where the rest of the league is trending. Today’s game is based on the three ball, and simple math proves three points beats two points every time.
A lot of that comes down to personnel. The Knicks only have three players who attempt three shots from deep a game — Porzingis, Courtney Lee, and Tim Hardaway Jr. Porzingis is effective when he’s on the court, Lee shoots 41 percent from downtown, but Hardaway Jr. shoots below the league average at 31 percent.
While the Knicks aren’t built right now as a team who can fire away from beyond the arc, they need to address that the best they can moving forward, or risk getting left behind in the rapid change of the game.
Equally, learning to take care of possessions needs to be a point of emphasis for New York as well. In fouls and turnovers, the Knicks rank 20th and 22nd in the league, respectively. For a team that doesn’t possess the firepower that many of the teams around the league do, making the most of their chances is going to go a long way.
Focus Area: The Draft
Thanks to Phil Jackson, the Knicks already have their franchise player in Porzingis.
And because of Porzingis’ injury this year, the Knicks have another chance in the draft lottery to add a big piece next to their star.
Ntilikina has shown signs of growth this season, but there’s no indication thus far that he’s a star caliber player capable of being Porzingis’ second option. If the season ended today, the Knicks would be picking ninth in the draft (barring some lottery magic). But New York is just two games out of jumping into the top-seven and having a chance at nabbing one of the projected elite talents in the draft.
Because of the Knicks’ situation of having just one star player, they aren’t in a position to be drafting for fit. Their game plan heading into the draft process is to identify the best talent available for where they will be drafting, and take that player regardless of position.
In other words, despite drafting a point guard last year in Ntilikina, should a talent like Trae Young or Collin Sexton be available when the Knicks are on the clock, they should take a long, hard look at selecting a player of that caliber.
To take the Knicks to the next level, Porzingis needs star caliber help. New York’s next best chance at getting their unicorn that player is in June’s draft.
Focus Area: Free Agency
The biggest elephant in the room this summer comes in the shape of Joakim Noah’s contract.
On the hook for $18,530,000 next season, the Knicks need to figure out how to shed the big man’s even bigger cap hit.
Back in January, the team and Noah came to an agreement that he would no longer be involved with the club in any basketball-related activities. While that’s a plus for the on-court production, Noah’s still collecting a paycheck. If the Knicks want to have cap flexibility to make productive moves when it comes to filling out the rest of their roster for the future, addressing Noah is the first priority in doing so.
After Noah, the Knicks have a few boisterous contracts that don’t allow them much maneuverability come summertime. Lee is on the hook for over $12 million, and Hardaway Jr. is going to cost over $17 million. While Lee has been productive this season, he’s 32 years old, and that type of price at that age isn’t ideal for a team that’s rebuilding.
Shedding some of the bigger cap hits with an eye on future summers to use the New York draw as a pitch to free agents may be a crucial decision Knicks’ brass will have to make if they want to field a more talented roster around Porzingis, Ntilikina, and whichever college star they come away with in June’s draft.
While this season is a wash for the Knicks, they have a star player already on their roster, which is more than a lot of teams in a similar position can say. That alone could help speed up their rebuild should they execute the other areas they need to effectively.