NEW YORK — In a way, Kristaps Porzingis' ACL tear has clarified things for the New York Knicks. No longer is management worried about chasing a playoff spot. Instead, the team's priority is the future. Young players are getting starter's minutes. Scouting for June's draft has begun.
But there's another decision the Knicks will have to make after the season, one that could also be affected by Porzingis' injury.
This summer the 22-year-old Porzingis will be eligible for a contract extension. Officially billed the designated rookie extension, the contract is only available to former first-round picks as they enter their fourth NBA seasons, as Porzingis will come summertime, and can only be handed to one player per team.
The extension adds five years to the player's contract—keeping him with his current team for six more seasons—at a max salary worth roughly 25 percent of the team's salary cap, with the possibility of incremental raises along the way.
That translates to five years and about $157 million to keep Porzingis in New York through the 2024 season. In basketball terms, it would solidify Porzingis’s status as the franchise cornerstone for more than half a decade.
Of course, there are no guarantees Porzingis would accept the extension. His brother, Janis, who also serves as his agent, has said in the past that Porzingis prioritizes winning over money.
You can't misfire on max deals in the NBA and still compete. No matter how unicorn-like Porzingis can be, the decision of whether to offer him this extension must be carefully considered. The contract shouldn't be offered solely because Porzingis is eligible, especially given his recent ACL injury.
"He is obviously a very important member of this basketball team and this organization and part of this New York community," Knicks general manager Scott Perry told reporters after Porzingis' injury when asked about the extension. "We'll deal with that at the appropriate time."
But that time is soon. Here are the questions the Knicks should analyze before it arrives.
What are the Knicks' options?
There's nothing that states the Knicks must offer Porzingis the extension. They could instead wait a year, allow Porzingis to play out the 2018-19 season on his current deal (he'll earn $5.7 million) and then extend him a qualifying offer, which would make him a restricted free agent in the summer of 2019. Porzingis would then be allowed to shop around for the best offer (likely a max), but the Knicks would own the right to match any deal he signs.
Of course, the Knicks could also decline to offer Porzingis a qualifying offer, which would allow him to become an unrestricted free agent. This would not be wise.
What are the reasons to not offer Porzingis the extension?
There are two benefits. First is the obvious: the injury. Officially designating a player as your franchise cornerstone while he's rehabbing from a torn ACL isn't ideal. Waiting would provide the Knicks with time to better evaluate the injury and determine if and how it could hamper him going forward.
Holding off would also give the Knicks around $10 million more in cap room in the summer of 2019. If they renounce the rights to all their free agents, they'd have around $30 million in total. That would be enough to ink a star free agent to pair with Porzingis.
What's the downside to not offering Porzingis the extension?
As the Sixers learned during Sam Hinkie's reign, basketball players are human beings, not data points. Coddling isn't required, but emotions, relationships and reputations matter.
The Knicks have spent the past half-year trying to fix the damage wreaked by Phil Jackson—specifically, his alienation of Porzingis. Team president Steve Mills and Perry have made it clear that they view Porzingis as the foundation. But withholding an extension could burn the bridge that was just rebuilt.
As one scout put it when asked if delaying an extension and prioritizing the extra cap flexibility would be wise: "Not if you want to be a normal organization and attract free agents in the future and develop positive relationships with agents."
There are other ways for the Knicks to clear additional cap space. They could find a new home for Courtney Lee, stretch or buy out Joakim Noah, or even try to trade Tim Hardaway Jr.
What about the ACL?
"I'm no doctor, but I think the ACL surgeries we've seen a lot in professional sports now have gotten better and better," Perry told reporters earlier this month. "We've got tremendous confidence in our medical group here that he's going to make more than a full recovery."
Recovery times can vary, but according to Dr. Andrew Barr, a former director of performance and rehabilitation for the Knicks and the founder of Innovate Performance in Los Angeles, a typical recovery takes nine to 12 months. Of course, that doesn't mean Porzingis will return as the same player. His 7'3" stature—and all the issues that come attached to being so tall—puts him at more risk.
His injury history also needs to be taken into account. Porzingis missed 26 games over his first two NBA seasons before going down this year. He's dealt with sore knees and ankles. He's experienced pain in his back and his right, shooting shoulder.
Talent is great, but franchise players need to be durable too.
Can Porzingis evolve into the No. 1 guy on a championship-caliber team?
Prior to tearing his ACL, Porzingis was averaging 22.7 points per game to go along with a league-leading 2.4 blocks. He was launching nearly five triples a game—drilling 39.3 percent of them—and holding opponents to ridiculously staunch 49.2 percent shooting at the rim, the best mark among players who defended at least four such shots per game.
He's improved every year. He entered the NBA with a jump shot and not much else in his offensive arsenal. Last year he added some crossovers. This year he added a lethal post game.
His game is still lacking in certain areas (passing, most of all), and there are a few NBA executives and scouts worried about his durability and inability to elevate his team, going back to his pre-NBA days in Spain. He'll need to improve his court vision to transform into a true go-to option, one who could punish opposing double-teams and make his teammates better.
But most NBA insiders will tell you this: Porzingis is the type of talent teams spend years searching for. The Knicks played like a 43-win team with him on the floor and a 22-win one without him, according to the statistical website Cleaning the Glass.
Should the Knicks offer Porzingis a full extension this summer?
Break it down, and it becomes clear the Knicks don't have much of a choice.
The extra cap room? That would be nice, but it's unlikely to be a difference-maker. If a starry free agent wanted to join the club, the Knicks could figure out ways to make it work.
The ACL injury? It's concerning, but according to a league source with knowledge of these matters, the Knicks should have no issue inserting a method of protection into the contract. It's unlikely they could get away with loading it full of incentives and markers the way the Sixers did over the summer with Joel Embiid, a star who's missed multiple seasons with multiple injuries. But they'd still be somewhat protected.
Porzingis' durability is a concern—and will remain so for the foreseeable future. He's also got one more leap to make on the offensive end to be worthy of a franchise designation.
For the reasons outlined above, though, there's too much to lose by not offering him the extension. Doing so might be a risky proposition, but it's a risk the Knicks must take.