Kristaps Porzingis is, in stretch big prototype Kevin Durant’s own words, “a unicorn in this league.” The 7-foot-3 Latvian stretches the floor offensively and shrinks it defensively like few others, which makes him the ideal center in an NBA that is increasingly “going small” and employing players up a position.
NBA heads have been pleading for the Knicks to play Porzingis at the 5 position for some time now, and there isn’t a New Yorker alive who doesn’t want to see that happen. Except, it seems, Porzingis, who pled his case for playing the power forward position to reporters, via the New York Daily News:
“I think it’s better for us,” Porzingis said Wednesday. “Me at the 4, especially if I’m playing against a non-shooting 4, I can do a lot. When I’m playing against the 5, I’m fighting with the big a lot of times and I’m wasting a lot of energy. Obviously, offensively I have an advantage at center, but I’m just more comfortable playing at the 4.”
A few gripes with Zinger’s position here, if I may.
The Knicks played Porzingis at center roughly 20 percent of the time last season, per nbawowy.com, and the results were a mixed bag of not-so-great nuts. Offensively, they were tremendous, scoring 111.9 points per 100 possessions with him at the 5 — the equivalent of Houston’s top-10 all-time output a year ago. Defensively, though, they were atrocious, allowing 114.6 points per possessions in such situations, which would easily rank as the worst defense in NBA history over a full season.
Still, that’s no argument for playing Porzingis at the 4, because the Knicks were outscored by a wider margin (3.1 points per possession) regardless of what position he was playing. Why not unlock the possibility of an elite offense and hope more seasoning for Porzingis as a rim protector, improved defensive schemes and a roster full of still-developing defenders can solve those issues over time?
The biggest argument against Porzingis’ logic is his stance on the “non-shooting 4,” a position that is being phased out of the league. Almost every team now employees a regular stretch forward. Take the Cleveland Cavaliers, for example, who recently announced Tristan Thompson’s move to the bench in favor of bumping Kevin Love up to center and inserting Jae Crowder into the power forward position.
If Porzingis still prefers defending the 4 against those players, they will pull him away from the basket, where he ranked among the league’s best rim protectors last season. Opponents shot just 44.2 percent against Porzingis at the rim in 2016-17, per Synergy Sports, which ranked just below perennial Defensive Player of the Year contenders Rudy Gobert (43.8 percent) and Draymond Green (43.9).
Yes, Porzingis is a post mismatch for smaller defenders, but he creates equal matchup problems for opposing centers, who he can lure away from the basket and either shoot over or take off the dribble. Injury concerns over Porzingis playing a more physical brand of basketball are real, but by avoiding the 5, he is removing from consideration the very thing that makes him so special — his versatility.
Plus, less Porzingis at the 5 probably means more center minutes for the likes of Joakim Noah and Enes Kanter, which … good luck with that. Listen, nobody’s asking the Knicks to play Porzingis solely at center. They will and should utilize Porzingis alongside fellow budding young big Willy Hernangomez. The Knicks don’t project to be a playoff contender anyway, so why not experiment with Porzingis in the middle, surrounded by Frank Ntilikina, Tim Hardaway Jr., Doug McDermott and Michael Beasley?
Otherwise, they’re just robbing Ball Don’t Lie’s resident New Yorker Dan Devine of his plea to owner James Dolan and coach Jeff Hornacek: Make the Knicks fun again. It does seem as though Hornacek isn’t as averse to playing Porzingis at the 5 as the Zinger himself is. As the Daily News noted, the Knicks did slide Porzingis to center for a four-minute stretch with McDermott and Beasley taking turns at power forward — hardly a large enough sample size to make any determinations about its success.
“I hadn’t planned on it, but the way the game was going I said, ‘Let’s just give KP a couple minutes at the five and go small,’ ” Hornacek told reporters. “We hadn’t practiced that.”
Wait, what? You hadn’t practiced that?!?! What are we even doing here?
Knicks fans have seen this rodeo before. The call for Carmelo Anthony being bumped up to power forward echoed in New York ever since a 2012-13 campaign that forced him into that position due to roster constraints and an injury to Amar’e Stoudemire. Anthony led the league in scoring that season, the Knicks overwhelmed opponents with him at the 4, and they won 50 games for the first time since their late-1990s heydays. Their 111.1 offensive rating that season was the highest in franchise history.
Anthony, of course, will now start at power forward for the Oklahoma City Thunder.
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