Knicks Searching for Answers

LAKERS 121, KNICKS 107

The day after, the Knicks had “a much-needed hard practice,” according to Courtney Lee. “It got a little chippy …  That’s what we needed.”

Courtney Lee talks to the media after a hard fought practice that he says was much needed for this team to succeed.

And that was just on the court.

In the realm of social media, team president Phil Jackson made his first comments in over a month when he referenced a Bleacher Report story on the Knicks’ situation involving Carmelo Anthony‘s uncertain future with the team.

“I learned you don’t change the spot on a leopard,” the Knicks’ president tweeted.

Jackson referenced Michael Graham, a former Georgetown big man whom he coached with the Albany Patroons of the CBA in the 1980s. Jackson wrote in his book, Eleven Rings, about his disappointment in being unable to reach Graham.

“Nothing I said made any difference,” he wrote. “Whenever I tried to talk to him, his eyes would glaze over and he’d retreat to some dark inner corner nobody could penetrate.”

Jackson’s greatest successes were based on manipulating the competitiveness of superstar talents like Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant. His belief was he could motivate Melo to buy into the team concept in the same manner.

So what is Jackson suggesting with that tweet?

“Here was a kid who was born to play basketball, someone who had enough talent to be a star in the NBA,” he wrote of Graham, “and yet despite all my sophisticated psychology, I couldn’t reach him.”

Melo can point to the 26 points on 10 of 17 shooting he posted in the ugly blowout loss to the Lakers as someone who showed up to do his job on a night not many Knicks can say they did. But the malaise this team is enduring over the last two months clearly goes beyond the box score and statistics.

“You’ve got to play with some pride,” a visibly angry Jeff Hornacek said after the game.

As I said on the postgame show, the Eastern Conference standings show the Knicks are just a couple of games out of a playoff spot. There’s plenty of time — and talent — to get that accomplished.

But body language, especially last night against the woeful Lakers at the Garden, suggest something else.

And here’s where we reach that moment of truth for a franchise. What is the most important priority? If you answered anything other than ensuring Kristaps Porzingis develops into a star, you would be wrong.

Knicks Carmelo Anthony Kristaps Porzingis Derrick Rose Home 122316

The pain this franchise had to endure to get that fourth overall pick to get Porzingis can not go for naught. This is a special young talent that still is all about potential and we saw glimpses of it in the first 32 games this season, when he averaged 20 points per game and was shooting over 40% from three-point range and averaging almost 2 blocks a game.

But the ascension to superstar status is a slow and steady climb. After dealing with an Achilles injury, Porzingis’ numbers have dropped off dramatically (14.1 points per game over the last nine) and his defensive issues have become a concern (4.6 fouls per game over his last nine).

But there is a bigger problem that has emerged and can no longer be ignored. Porzingis took a deep breath during his postgame address last night before opting to go there when he talked about “not being involved” in the offense early in games.

As he said it, Al Trautwig and I looked right at each other with raised eyebrows.

Whoa.

The numbers don’t lie. Early in the season, KP was getting almost 16 shots a game. Over the last three weeks, he’s getting just 12 a game. That doesn’t seem like a big drop, but it is when you are lost in the offense.

Porzingis wasn’t done there. When talking about the team’s problems, especially with poor starts, he said, “It’s kind of everybody for themselves a lot of times; both ends of the floor.”

The NBA has a lot of players who thrive in isolation basketball and the Knicks have two in Melo and Derrick Rose. But what we’ve learned about Porzingis — as we know about a lot of European players — is he is not someone who thrives in one-on-one basketball. He is most effective with motion and ball movement.

He admitted he was “more involved” in the fourth quarter, which is why his numbers improved later in the game. Porzingis has a comfort zone with Willy Hernangomez in the frontcourt and the Euros seem to thrive with Brandon Jennings‘ up-tempo style.

Speaking of Jennings, he is the one who boldly said, “If it’s a change that we need, let’s do it.”

So until there is some resolution with Melo’s situation, let us reintroduce something we suggested a few blogs ago: bring Porzingis off the bench.

With Lance Thomas aiming to return “hopefully within the week,” as he said at today’s practice, you can easily make the change. And here’s why it would work.

Still recovering from his injury, Lance Thomas shares a possible timeline for his return and how anxious he is to be able to help out his teammates.

The Knicks’ original starting five — with Rose, Lee, Melo, KP and Joakim Noah — is a -46 together on the court this season. They’re -17 in first quarters alone, which ranks them 24th among the 30 starting fives in the NBA.

But if you replace Thomas with Porzingis, that five-man unit has a +24 in 71 minutes on the court this season.

And Jennings with KP, Hernangomez, Justin Holiday and Mindaugas Kuzminskas have played 44 minutes together on the court this season and are +26 in that time.

Problem solved? Maybe, maybe not. But it’s worth a try.