NBA

Changing of the Guard in New York

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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.

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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.

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About Tommy Beer

Tommy Beer

Tommy Beer is a Senior NBA Analyst and the Fantasy Sports Editor of Basketball Insiders and has covered the NBA and basketball for the last 7 seasons

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