The answer is simple: Figure out the best way to develop Kristaps Porzingis, or in cliched sports parlance, it's time to toss him the keys to the car. Helping Porzingis morph into the franchise player so many believe he can become is crucial to the Knicks emerging from the darkness that has engulfed all of Madison Square Garden since the turn of the century.
Thing is, Porzingis isn't in this alone. Franchise players are fostered, not born. It's up to teams to bring them along. So far, the Knicks have failed.
On the surface, Porzingis' numbers look fine: 18.1 points, 7.3 rebounds and 1.9 blocks per game. He's drilling 37.2 percent of his three-pointers. He's still a 7'3" center with a guard's skillset. He's still 21. He's still the dazzling unicorn New Yorkers and the NBA love.
Yet there's no getting around the feel that Porzingis' sophomore campaign has been disappointing. His player efficiency rating has actually dropped from last year, according to Basketball-Reference.com. He is second in the league in personal fouls committed per contest. There are games when he looks just like another tall guy on the court, a player who struggles generating clean looks for himself and whose output doesn't stand out. Statistically, the Knicks offense has been better with Porzingis off the floor. (Some lingering injuries have no doubt played a role in this as well.)
"It seems like there are times when he floats a little bit and isn't engaged," TNT and NBA TV analyst Grant Hill told Bleacher Report. "I feel like he can do more, and we're all itching to see that."
Take, for example, Porzingis' game in the post. This season, he's faced the same tactics that Dirk Nowitzki did early in his career: Teams are slotting smaller and stronger defenders onto him (the Boston Celtics often tab the 6'4" Marcus Smart) who are quick to stick with him off the bounce but can also get up in Porzingis' chest and push him off his spot.
Post play was a major focus for Porzingis' over the summer, and early in the year, that work was paying off. Lately, not so much. His moves on the block are often choppy. He'll zig and zag before chucking up a contested off-balance heave. The results have been ugly, too: The .79 points per post possession he's averaging on the year place him in the league's 22nd percentile, per NBA.com.
"He was more aggressive getting the ball in the post area and making a move, (but) there was still a couple of times that I'd like him to…just come across and take the shot and not do all the spins and the dribbles," Knicks head coach Jeff Hornacek told reporters after a recent game.
But seeking out and taking advantage of a mismatch is not a one-player job. It's on the head coach to instill that into his system, and to implement the necessary schemes.
So, say Porzingis is told to screen for a dribbler, which the defense counters by switching, which leaves a smaller guard on Porzingis. Hornacek this season has made it clear that he believes it's Porzingis' job to then get position in the paint and make himself into a target. That's true, but there are also tactics that can be deployed to help him, and by proxy the team. Maybe a ball-reversal to get the defense shifting. Maybe another big man flashing to the high post.
"You can't just say, 'Go down to the post,'" one scout, who's also a former Dallas Mavericks assistant coach, told Bleacher Report. "When I was with Dirk (Nowitzki), one of the things we really drove into the team was creating and taking advantage of mismatches. It has to be drilled in."
That has not been the case with the Knicks this year, especially when Porzingis shares the court with Carmelo Anthony and Derrick Rose. He's finishing fewer possessions than he did last season. The only consistent shots he's getting are long catch-and-shoot jumpers off pick-and-pops.
He's sixth on the team in isolation plays per game. He's only averaging 0.69 points per isolation take (putting him in the 25th percentile), but a lot of those forced one-on-one attempts have come after him going multiple possessions without touching the ball.
Also, isolation play isn't his game. That Porzignis has thrived while playing with the Knicks' relentless second unit as opposed to the lethargic starters is no coincidence.
Porzingis prefers to keep the ball swinging. He thrives off quick-hitting pick-and-rolls. These are positive attributes, not tendencies that should be limiting him. The ball doesn't stick in his hands (his 1.43 seconds per touch average is one of the lowest on the team). His ball-handling is most effective when he's able to attack an off-balance defense closing out hard to the perimeter.
"You can see how much stronger he is compared to last year on those drives, too," TNT and NBA TV analyst Steve Smith told Bleacher Report. "He's no longer getting bumped off on them."
And let's not forget the other end of the floor, where Porzingis has proven himself to be one of the NBA's premier rim protectors; the 44.5 percent that opponents are shooting at the basket against him is one of the NBA's top marks. Sure, there are times where he's slow on his rotations (mostly a result of him standing up straight as opposed to remaining in a defensive stance), but that's also him following his instincts, which are to retreat to the paint. That's what the Knicks should have him doing. Instead, Hornacek has spent the majority of the season playing Porzingis at power forward, where he's forced to chase smaller players around the perimeter.
The good news for the Knicks is that they've already gotten past the hard part. That they have a player like Porzingis, a wunderkind who by all accounts is all a basketball savant eager to work and get better, means they're ahead of the championship curve.
The next step, though, is recognizing how high Porzingis' ceiling is, and doing everything they can to help him get there. That means building systems around him and tailoring schemes towards his strength. Only then will Porzingis realize his potential, and only then will the Knicks finally begin to turn things around.
All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. All stats from NBA.com unless otherwise noted and accurate as of March 9.