Kristaps Porzingis Is a Lock Superstar, but How Secure Is Knicks' Future?November 8, 2017
NEW YORK — The funny part is that this wasn't even one of Kristaps Porzingis' better games. Last season a 28-point outburst on 10-of-15 shooting would have been met with song and dance. This year? It just lowered his season scoring average.
But that's the sign of greatness, right? The ability to dominate games while picking your spots. And, of course, to get buckets when they're needed most, which is exactly what Porzingis did Tuesday night at home against the Charlotte Hornets. He scored seven points in the game's final two minutes and thirty seconds, erasing a double-digit second-half deficit for the second consecutive game and leading the New York Knicks to a 118-113 win.
Afterward, head coach Jeff Hornacek couldn't help but fawn over his star player's latest exploits, particularly a shot clock-beating, driving finger-roll he finished to extend the lead to three with just 11 seconds remaining in the game.
"That shot there was, gosh, just another sign of the greatness that's becoming," Hornacek said. "He didn't get panicked. He knew exactly what was on the shot clock. He knew that he could get there and still get the layup off.
"That was a super smart play, rather than just try to shoot a fadeaway jump shot."
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The victory was the Knicks' sixth in seven games. Most had pegged them for the bottom of the lottery, but they are now 6-4 and sit in fifth place in the Eastern Conference.
That's what the presence of a bona fide star will do for a basketball team. Just 10 games into the season, Porzingis has proven himself to be exactly that. He's averaging 30 points, on 50 percent shooting, 7.5 rebounds and 2.3 blocks per game. The 8.8 points he's averaging in the fourth quarter are second in the league; LeBron James is No. 1. That's the company Porzingis keeps now.
Porzingis' emergence elevates the Knicks to a position some teams spend years—or more—trying to reach. They have a star, the kind you need to win championships in the NBA. That's the hard part of team-building, meaning the Knicks are now ahead of the curve.
Of course, that will only remain the case if they can keep Porzingis in town.
In an interview with Sporta Avize (via Eurohoops.net) published last week, Porzingis' brother, Janis—who also serves as one of Kristaps' agents under Andy Miller of ASM Sports—suggested the 7-footer may reject a max-contract offer to put pressure on the Knicks organization.
"The most important question here is this: What do you really want to achieve in your career," Janis said. "Because money—if Kristaps performs at least on his normal level—is gonna come. We are more focused on some other values and not just to quickly sign a new contract so we can collect the money. That's definitely not our goal, so we won't be feverishly counting minutes or counting points. You can't escape the reality, and the Knicks must also see that."
Now no matter what his brother hints at, chances remain high that Porzingis signs the extension the Knicks are certain to offer him this coming summer.
For one, look at the basic economics.
Based on current salary-cap projections, the Knicks could offer Porzingis a five-year, $156.6 million deal, which could rise to nearly $188 million if he makes an All-NBA team in 2018-19. That extension would begin following the 2018-19 season, where Porzingis is slated to be paid $5.7 million. If Porzingis declines to sign an extension and takes his qualifying offer in 2019-20, he'd earn around $7.5 million rather than the $27 million he'd make under an extension or if he signed a max offer sheet as a restricted free agent.
If he accepts his qualifying offer, he'd become an unrestricted free agent in 2020-21. However, the Knicks would still own his Bird rights, which means they'd have the ability to offer him more money and one more year on his contract than anybody else. In total, he could earn an additional $4.86 million over the first four years of a deal with the Knicks compared to any other team, and $40.5 million more in total, and that doesn't even take into account the risk that someone his size—Porzingis has already dealt with nagging injuries through his first two seasons in the league—faces.
What Janis' comments do show, though, is that Porzingis clearly isn't messing around. That was evident when he skipped out on his exit meeting this past spring, a move Janis confirmed was political.
"That wasn't an emotional decision," Janis added. "It was a logical next step for us, without which we would've been in one situation, but now after we did it—we are in another."
Porzingis understands the power that comes with being the face of a franchise. Like most of today's superstars, he has no problem wielding it.
Porzingis downplayed his brother's comments, telling reporters last week: "I think fans know I'm here in New York, I love New York and I see myself as a Knick for a long, long time. And I think they shouldn't be worrying about that."
More important than his word, though—and perhaps even more valuable than the millions of dollars the Knicks can give him that other teams cannot—is the basketball position he now finds himself in.
"It's surprising, but they're actually in pretty good shape," a Western Conference scout recently told Bleacher Report.
There's Porzingis, who's averaging a ridiculous 30 points per game on 50 percent shooting. Considering this is his first year as the team's primary scorer, he could soon be considered one of the top 10 players in the league. Then there's rookie point guard Frank Ntilikina, he of the 7-foot wingspan. Ntilikina may not boast Porzingis' star potential, but he's already the Knicks' top perimeter defender despite being just 19 and missing most of the preseason with a groin injury.
|Porzingis' Next Contract Options|
|Based on $108M salary-cap projection for 2019-20|
His offensive game is raw—he's averaging just 4.5 points and shooting only 26.3 percent from deep—but he has fired some beautiful passes and has a natural feel for the game.
The Knicks also possess their 2018 first-round pick. Adding another lottery pick to the Porzingis-Ntilikina core would give the Knicks one of the more intriguing young rosters in the league.
And, as the scout added, "They are in the East." The path to the playoffs isn't exactly cluttered.
Porzingis could become frustrated by the Knicks free-agency prospects. It's going to be difficult for the Knicks' front office to recruit another superstar to play alongside him. Too much of the cap room is tied up in players like Joakim Noah and Tim Hardaway Jr. (earning a combined $126.6 million over the next four years) and Courtney Lee (three years, $36.8 million). But there are ways around that, such as the stretch provision or trying to attach one of those players to a different asset as part of a deal.
It's all likely to come down to the team's leadership, which is where Knicks fans should feel most at ease. While team president Steve Mills and general manager Scott Perry haven't yet proved themselves brilliant basketball minds, they already have changed the atmosphere around Madison Square Garden.
New voices were brought into the front office. Perry is a congenial man friendly with many people around the NBA. Mills has already made sure to squash rumors that his head coach, Jeff Hornacek, was on the verge of being fired. No one has tweeted disparaging comments about Porzingis.
These may sound like basic and obvious management qualities. But in this post-Phil Jackson world, they're revolutionary.
This still could blow up any moment. With James Dolan at the helm, nothing is safe. Porzingis could always demand a trade after signing his extension, similar to the way Kyrie Irving forced himself out of Cleveland with two years left on his deal.
But the smartest thing the Knicks can do now is to continue along their current path. For the first time in a while, the future is looking bright.
Make sure it stays that way, and both sides will enjoy a long and fruitful marriage.
Yaron Weitzman covers the Knicks and NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow Yaron on Twitter, @YaronWeitzman, and listen to his Knicks-themed podcast here.