It's Time to Stop Stalling and Move Kristaps Porzingis to Center

Yaron Weitzman@YaronWeitzmanFeatured ColumnistDecember 25, 2016

NEW YORK, NY - DECEMBER 20:  Kristaps Porzingis #6 of the New York Knicks looks on during a game against the Indiana Pacers on December 20, 2016 at Madison Square Garden in New York City, New York. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2016 NBAE  (Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images)
Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

NEW YORK — For all the promise the New York Knicks have shown this season—a 16-13 record, one of the top marks in the Eastern Conference—they're still a team littered with flaws.

Their defensewhich has allowed 107.5 points surrendered per 100 possessions, the NBA's sixth-worst markhas been atrocious. Their mediocre offense is putting up 104.6 points scored per 100 possessions and ranks 14th in the league.  

They and the Memphis Grizzlies are the only two NBA teams with winning records and negative point differentials, though the record of 2.9 points per 100 possessions that the Knicks are being outscored by suggests theirs might be a bit of a mirage.

Yet there's still much to like about these Knicks, still reasons to feel optimistic about their chances going forward. They have two top-25 players in Carmelo Anthony and Kristaps Porzingis. Derrick Rose seems to be getting more comfortable by the day. Also, they play in the lowly Eastern Conference, where mediocrity is rewarded and time is not of the essence.

But if the Knicks plan on challenging the Toronto Raptors and separating themselves from the Charlotte Hornets, Boston Celtics and the rest of the East teams idling in the middle of the pack, some tweaks must be made.

Luckily for head coach Jeff Hornacek, the answer is right in front of him; all he needs to do is pull the trigger on giving Porzingis more minutes as the lone big man on the floor.

It's not just that Porzingis' future is clearly at center, serving as a sort of hybrid version of Dirk Nowitzki, Draymond Green and Rudy Gobert: floor spacing and playmaking on offense, rim protection on defense. It's that the Unicorn is everything a team could want from its big man, especially as he continues to add muscle to his rail-thin 7'3", 240-pound frame.

"I'm very impressed with what I see from him," Los Angeles Lakers forward Luol Deng told Bleacher Report. "I think a lot of times, when rookies come into the league, they get all the praise and pressure from New York.

"He's done a good job just working on his game. He's a lot better this year. They're doing a good job working on his talent. He's one of those players that's always a mismatch and is going to keep getting better."

Thing is, sliding their star over to the 5 could solve many of the Knicks' current issues as well.

Take the woeful defense, for example. Porzingis has emerged as one of the league's top rim protectors this season. He's swatting away 1.8 shots per game and, more importantly, holding opponents to an ugly 41.5 percent shooting at looks near the rimthe top mark among the league's big men who see regular playing time.

"His length always bothers people," Deng added, just a few days after watching Porzingis reject seven shots against his Lakers. "Before that game, we spent a lot of time talking about being careful around him near the rim."

The problem is that 62 percent of Porzingis' minutes on the court have come alongside another big man, according to Basketball-Reference.com. That means he's spending a major chunk of his time and energy awkwardly chasing stretch 4s along the perimeter as opposed to camping out near the rim. 

"We have three capable centers in [Joakim Noah], Kyle [O'Quinn] and Willy [Hernangomez], [who] played really well in Denver, so if we play KP more at the 5, it kind of takes away those minutes for those guys," Hornacek said recently.

"They're kind of splitting those minutes anyway, but you know, [playing Porzingis at center is] an option that we've gone to a couple of times, and sometimes it's worked and sometimes it hasn't been great."

Hornacek's logic is sound. The Knicks are deep at center, and Porzingis is also not yet ready to absorb the nightly beating that comes with playing the position.

Still, a bit more flexibility from New York's coach in this area could work wonders for his team. Just look at the reasons their defense has been so bad.

Only four teams are allowing a higher rate of free throws; just one is allowing more shots at the rim. And while Porzingis and Co. are doing an admirable job at defending these close looks, the penetration is hurting in other areas, namely the offensive glass, where New York is getting killed. Only one team is allowing more second-chance points per game.

There are certainly myriad reasons behind these issues. But constantly chasing dribblers from behind would seem to be at the top of the list.

That leads to reach-in fouls from guards and hacks at the rim from bigs. It forces the aforementioned bigs to slide over or Porzingis to fly out to the perimeter, leaving opponents free to attack the offensive glass.

"You box out, you're under the bucket, [and] it puts a lot of responsibility on the guards," O'Quinn told Bleacher Report recently. "I'm sure if you look at the numbers that guards have a lot of rebounds on us."

It's no coincidence that some of the Knicks' best defensive lineups have come with Justin Holiday, the team's best backcourt rebounder, on the floor.

Giving Porzingis more run at center wouldn't necessarily clog all these leaks, but it would make them less severe. Not surprisingly, Porzingis is often the one responsible for the dribble penetration or open look.

His perimeter defense has improved over the season. But as the clip below demonstratesin which Porzingis is pulled away from the basket and unsure where to standhe's still more comfortable, and effective, guarding from the back line.

"Just being a little more relaxed defensively," Porzingis told Bleacher Report recently when asked about his improvement as a rim protector this year.

"Even at the beginning of the season I was too worried about my own man and not really being there for my team, to block shots and protect the rim and see what I could do. Just seeing what's going on and being in the right spot all the time, and then once the play is going on, I can be ready for the block. So I figured that part out a little bit."

So why has Hornacek been so hesitant to make the change?

"Sometimes the problem is when we take those guys out," he said. "Our protection at the basket isn't as good. It puts a bigger emphasis on our guys outside to have to stop the penetration, not let guys get in there. KP can block shots in there, but his man is then doing stuff on the weak side, so I think we're better in the long run when we have two big guys back there, KP and somebody else, defensively." 

Lineups with Porzingis and Noah are surrendering 106.2 points per 100 possessions and corralling just 74.5 percent of opponent misses, a number that would rank toward the bottom of the league. 

Noah has been one of the league's worst starters this season. He's been weak and slow on defense, and teams are leaving him open on the other end of the floor. But lineups with O'Quinnwho has this year emerged as a legitimate rotation playerand Porzingis haven't fared much better: 106.8 points allowed per 100 possessions, 75.1 defensive rebound rate. 

There's no question that upping Porzingis' minutes at center would make the offense more potent. It would open the floor for Anthony and Rose to attack while allowing Porzingis to go to work on lumbering centers. It would give the Knicks better floor balance, which would help limit opposing fast-break points—Only six teams are allowing more than the Knicks. 

This doesn't mean Hornacek should completely abandon two-big-men lineups, but embracing small ball could offer the Knicks a path out of mediocrity.

Because we all know the Knicks' bright future revolves around Porzingis playing center.

That could be the key to unlocking the potential of this Knicks team too.

     

Knicks Insider Notebook

Ron Baker, the Next Roald Dahl?

If you're reading this, then chances are you're a pretty big Knicks fan. And if you're a pretty big Knicks fan, chances are you're familiar with Ron Baker as a player and the basics of his backstory.

Born in the small town of Hays, Kansas (population: 20,510). Four years at Wichita State. Undrafted in the summer, then signs with the Knicks in June. Impresses during Summer League and during the preseason and is now the team's third-string point guard.

Also, he has a great head of hair.

If that all sounds like the type of stuff kids' books are made of, well, you're right. Baker, it turns out, is the author of You're Too Big to Dream Small, a children's book, with illustrations, detailing his life story. 

"It's a story for kids, to help them realize that if you like something, be passionate about it and don't be afraid of chasing your dreams," Baker told Bleacher Report. 

Baker said the idea came from the book's publisher, Kraken Books. He said the company sent him a copy of another book it put out and told him his life story would be perfect for the material it likes to publish. 

"Now, with me in New York, the book's doing even better," Baker said. He added that he was happy from a business perspective but also because he feels his story is one kids can learn from. Friends too.

"Yeah, I give friends copies all the time," Baker noted, with a smile. "They get really annoyed. Ask if I signed it."

Of course, he usually does.

     

15 Knicks, 15 All-Stars?

The NBA changed its All-Star voting rules recently. Players now have a say in who the game's starters are, and they can now vote for themselves. 

Does that mean that every player on the Knicks roster will receive one vote?

"You'd be a fool not to vote for yourself," O'Quinn told Bleacher Report. "For sure I'm doing that."

Anthony, who said he's not a fan of the new system, added that he'd vote for himself too. 

"I don't see why not," he said. "If the president can vote for themselves, why can't we vote for ourselves?" 

Others on the roster aren't as eager.

"Why would I do that?" Lance Thomas asked. "It'd be embarrassing. I'd get one vote."

Told that O'Quinn said anyone who doesn't vote for themselves is a fool, Thomas smiled. 

"I'm more realistic about my own abilities," he said.

     

All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. All stats from NBA.com and accurate as of Dec. 24. 

Yaron Weitzman covers the Knicks, and other things, for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @YaronWeitzman and listen to his Knicks-themed podcast here