It’s a new era in New York City, and the Garden has been absolutely rocking.
The New York Knicks have won six of their last seven games in which a certain budding superstar has suited up; over that stretch, they had the league’s seventh-best net rating (4.7), and third-best offensive rating (110.6).
What’s more, along with the Charlotte Hornets, they’ve beaten the Cleveland Cavaliers in Quicken Loans Arena (demolished, really), Denver Nuggets and Indiana Pacers – all teams that expect to qualify for postseason play, and one with legitimate championship hopes.
This run of excellent form by the Knicks may be somewhat surprising, considering the team’s slow start and the fact they traded away former-savior-of-New-York-City-basketball Carmelo Anthony in the offseason, but maybe it shouldn’t be.
After all, despite Phil Jackson’s best efforts, they do still have Kristaps Porzingis.
The Latvian big man is setting the league aflame thus far in 2017-18. Through 10 games, Porzingis is putting up 30.0 points, 7.5 rebounds, 2.3 blocks and 1.9 three-pointers per outing, while shooting 51.2 percent from the floor, 38.0 percent from beyond the arc and 83.6 percent from the charity stripe.
He’s setting career-best marks in efficiency too, slashing an impressive 55.6 effective field-goal percentage, along with an even more eye-popping 60.7 true shooting percentage.
And he’s doing so with teammates assisting on merely 60.9 percent of his field goals, the lowest margin of his three NBA seasons.
Porzingis has been asked to carry this rendition of Knicks basketball, and he’s been more than up to the task. His ability to score from all over the floor, no matter the situation, is what sets the 7-foot-3 specimen apart from his counterparts.
Isolate him on the perimeter with your best defender? That’s fine. According to Synergy Sports, Porzingis is producing 0.93 points per possession (PPP) in one-on-one situations – an above-average success rate.
Defend him with wings to neutralize the advantage his quickness provides against traditional big men? That’s cool, too. Porzingis is scoring 1.02 PPP when posting up – by far the most effective mark of his career, and one that places him in the NBA’s 73rd percentile. (It’s clear how much stronger he’s gotten since the end of 2016-17, but more on that in a bit.)
And if it’s an off night for the unicorn, one in which his iso game fails him and the post-up buckets won’t drop, head coach Jeff Hornacek can just place him in a variety of pick-and-rolls and tell him to go to work.
The Knicks’ power forward is dropping an astounding 1.45 PPP as the roll man, the league’s third-best clip, behind only roll-men extraordinaires Clint Capela and Rudy Gobert.
Where Porzingis differs from those two, and other traditional roll men, is in the way he finishes dives to the rim. Both Capela and Gobert need to get all the way to the bucket, or, at the very least, within five feet of it, to complete their forays into the paint.
On the other hand, if the restricted area is crowded with defenders when Porzingis rolls, which is often the case, as the 22-year-old stud has played alongside another big man 97 percent of the time this season (per Basketball Reference), he can simply pull up from mid-range and knock down short jumpers, instead of crashing into heavy traffic.
Despite New York’s lack of competent point guard play, the future All-Star still dominates in situations that usually require a strong floor general, such as the pick-and-roll, thanks to his mixture of length, athleticism and timing.
Oh, and his absurd shooting prowess certainly doesn’t hurt either. Porzingis leads the NBA in pick-and-pop efficiency at 1.67 PPP, successfully converting 60 percent of such looks.
What’s even more encouraging is how the Latvian handles added pressure late in games. Among players with at least four appearances in clutch situations (five-point game with fewer than five minutes remaining, according to NBA.com) and with a usage rate higher than 30 percent in that time frame, Porzingis has the league’s highest net rating at 45.
That means the Knicks are outscoring opponents by a preposterous 45 points per 100 possessions in clutch situations with their young star in the game, which is almost unfathomable.
We saw it in their win against the Hornets.
With the score tied at 111, Porzingis and rookie lead guard Frank Ntilikina ran a simple pick-and-roll. Dwight Howard and Kemba Walker defended it well, so the floor-spacing big man decided to take a few steps back and launch a 27-footer.
Nothing but net.
Later, with the Knicks still up one and the clock winding down, New York ran a pick-and-pop between Tim Hardaway Jr and Porzingis. Because Walker was defending Ntilikina (who has five made threes on 19 attempts this year), he smartly abandoned his assignment and helped Malik Monk chase the seven-footer off the three-point line.
Porzingis beautifully faked a pass to his rookie teammate, put his head down and drove right past his 6-foot-3 defender, eventually laying in the dagger finish.
Though he makes it look easy, the sequence was far from that. No one is going to mistake Monk for an elite defender anytime soon, but even so, he’s got extremely quick feet on the less glamorous side of the ball; a 7-foot-3 human being shouldn’t be able to blow by him just like that.
Porzingis’ added strength has partly played a role in his auspicious start, as exemplified on that play. He puts his shoulder into Monk and keeps him in no-man’s land through the entire drive, until he’s able to rise for the finish.
Along with his much-improved strength, the freakish shot-blocking floor-spacer has cut down on the foolish fouls that used to plague his career. Last season, Porzingis averaged 3.7 fouls per contest – the second-highest mark in the NBA. This year, he’s all the way down to 2.9 fouls per 36 minutes, by far the lowest rate of his career.
The only area Porzingis hasn’t shown much improvement is with his distribution, as he’s totaled merely 10 assists in 10 games, to 25 turnovers. His 0.4 assist-to-turnover ratio is the league’s sixth-worst rate among players to average at least 20 minutes.
Though he does need to improve his floor vision (he almost always looks to score instead of setting up teammates), he’s still deadly effective as a point-scorer. Even without passing, Porzingis boasts the NBA’s 10th-most offensive win shares, outpacing the likes of Karl-Anthony Towns, DeMarcus Cousins and Blake Griffin.
Overall, more than anything, to succeed in the Big Apple, you need an equally big personality. The city has chewed up and spit out many emerging stars before Porzingis, and it’ll do so after his reign is one day over, too.
But the pressure doesn’t get to him.
And that – along with his absurd skill level and otherworldly physical traits – is going to help the unflappable third-year player reach even higher peaks in New York City for years to come.
You can follow Frank Urbina on Twitter @frankurbina_.