Frustrated Porzingis Searching for His Mojo

5 Thoughts on the Loss:

1. Kristaps Porzingis looks worn down. His eyes are dim like the headlights of an old car that needs jumper cables and a fresh battery. He gave an honest effort in a physical battle with LaMarcus Aldridge and the Spurs, that can’t be denied. But by the end of the game, he was exhausted.

He fouled out after 34 minutes in the second game of a back-to-back that saw him play 39 minutes in Chicago.

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He’s tried to avoid talking about his frustration with how he’s defended and getting hit on the elbow as he shoots. He’s tried not to complain about how often he is hit, pulled and shoved in the paint. He’s a 7-footer who developed a post game and that comes with the territory.

But there needs to be a change to this mentality or KP will never get his mojo back.

First, let’s acknowledge that since he had the ankle and knee injuries, he has not been the same player that dominated the league over the first quarter of the season. He averaged 27 points a game on 46% shooting and 40% from three in the first 20 games. Then came the ugly ankle injury, which he suffered on a hustle play in a freak accident, on Nov. 29 against the Heat.

Five games later, he felt a tweak in his knee in Brooklyn against the Nets on Dec. 14. Another two games were lost and he returned to an 0-for-11 performance in the win over the Celtics. While the Celtics always play KP tough, it was clear he wasn’t right.

In the five games since he returned from the knee injury, Porzingis is shooting 34.4% from the field and 27.3% from three. His average over that time is 18.6 points per game.

He’s not moving like he did early on for obvious reasons and with the way teams are manhandling him in the post, it’s clear he needs to be more active in moving and using screens than playing Melo-ball on the post. The game isn’t all about how fast you play, especially not for big men. But perhaps KP will get more out of playing faster and utilizing what makes him the “unicorn” that he’s been labeled: his athleticism.

KP can fill the lane on the break and finish. But we rarely see him use that same skill set in the halfcourt. According to NBA tracking statistics, KP averages 4.47 MPH on offense. Compared to other star forwards, that’s a little slower than the standard of comparable players such as Kevin Durant (4.61) and Giannis Antetokounmpo (4.53), but it is faster than LeBron James (4.01) and, of course, Carmelo Anthony (4.13).

Could KP benefit from cutting and curling more on the wing for catch-and-shoot situations and pounding less on the post where double-teams close in on him? Both require effort, but one is less bruising than the other. Plus, with the defenses focused so much on him, they’ll be chasing more which could open up the other side of the floor for his teammates.

It’s at least worth a try.

We should also point out that no one is feeling the effects of playing without Tim Hardaway Jr. more than Porzingis. He has been out since KP’s ankle injury. That’s 14 games for the team and 10 for Porzingis. He’s shooting just 40% from the field in those 10 games without Hardaway Jr. Defenses no longer have to keep an eye on Tim and his quick-strike ability.

Recently I’ve heard someone say of Porzingis that there needs to be “more workhorse and less show pony” but I don’t think that’s the issue. This isn’t a lack of effort by KP, this is simply him wearing down under the weight of responsibility. Not to mention injuries.

2. You know what else would help Porzingis? Pulling defenders out of the paint with the three-point shot. But the three-ball is just not something this team utilizes. They take the fewest threes per game in the NBA (21.7) and use the three-point shot at the lowest rate (only 26.5% of their shots are from beyond the arc) of any team in the league.

When asked if he wished his team took more threes, Jeff Hornacek smirked.

“Of course,” he said.

His teams in Phoenix relied heavily on the three-point shot. He, himself, was a terrific three-point shooter in an era before the three-ball became such a big part of the game.

So why is it the Knicks do not use the three-pointer as a weapon?

“Some of them we’re passing up,” he explained. “Others we’re not getting the penetration sometimes to kick it out.”

And there it is. So much of today’s game that involves the three-point shot is based on kick-outs on drives. The Knicks don’t have anyone who can get into the paint and create movement on defense that opens up shots for shooters.

The Knicks have a few good three-point shooters, such as Courtney Lee (43%), Doug McDermott (40.8%), Porzingis (37.6%). In fact, those three are among the best in the league in catch-and-shoot three-point shots. Lee makes 45.3%, McDermott hits 42.4% and Porzingis is at 40.2%.

The best in the league is Klay Thompson and Kyle Korver, who hit 46.4% of catch-and-shoot threes. But in today’s NBA it’s less about percentage and more about volume. What good is shooting over 40% from three if you’re only taking two or three a game?

“On our break,” Hornacek said, “we’ve got to be able to let it fly.”

Here’s another area where the absence of Hardaway Jr. is felt. While he doesn’t shoot a high percentage of catch-and-shoot threes (36.1), he certainly isn’t shy about letting it fly. Hardaway Jr. takes 7.2 threes per game, which by far leads the team. Despite missing the last 14 games, his 152 three-point attempts this season still lead the team. He has 11 more attempts than Porzingis and 17 more than Lee.

One aspect that could unlock the team’s three-point ability is a catalyst to break down a defense for more kick-outs and more transition threes. This might be the most important need on the wish list before the trade deadline.

3. Frank Ntilikina had a nice game in his first head-to-head battle with his countryman and childhood idol, Tony Parker. Ntilikina had 9 points and a career-high 11 assists along with three steals in 31:43. The two spoke on the court afterward.

Ntilikina quietly said the experience was “exciting” but quickly added, “We lost, so it kind of makes me feel sad.”

Good answer. One thing we’ve learned about this kid so far is he is all about being aware of the team first than himself.

Before the game, Parker raved about Ntilikina’s potential as a 19-year-old and added: “I don’t know if New York will be patient.”

As frustrating as it can get during a losing streak, we have to keep reminding ourselves that this is a 19-year-old rookie who is learning on the job. And yes, he’s learning.

“I’m still far from where I want to go,” he said, “and where I feel I can be.”

4. Let’s talk more speed analytics here. Earlier we talked about Porzingis playing faster in the halfcourt offense to see if it can free him up for easier scores and less physicality. Is Ntilikina another player who needs to speed it up?

It is not an exact science. The NBA’s tracking data reveals those who play fast, but wouldn’t you say John Wall is one of the fastest players in the NBA? If that’s true, the tracking doesn’t tell us this. In fact, Wall is one of the slowest point guards in the league, according to the data, at an average of 3.71 MPH in games and 3.83 on offense.

Even Melo (3.79) plays faster.

But that could be the result of the Wizards’ offense. They are 12th in the league in Pace (97.2 possessions per 48 minutes) so they’re not exactly a walk-it-up type of team.

The point I’m trying to make is this isn’t a one-size-fits-all type of argument.

In Ntilikina’s case, however, it’s worth considering, especially with how much Hornacek implores his team to play faster in transition. If Frank’s favorite player is Tony Parker, then perhaps he should emulate him a little more with the ball.

Parker, since returning from his offseason injury, is still one of the fastest guards in the league at 4.76 MPH overall and a blazing 5.11 MPH on offense. Ntilikina is tracked at 4.39 MPH and 4.74 on offense. Could Ntilikina look to push the ball more often and attack? Yes. Is that part of his game right now? No.

But that should start to become part of his mentality as he makes the transition from the European game to the NBA. His unselfish mentality — the instinct to look for teammates rather than his own offense — can also be counter-productive. Sometimes it’s also unselfish to attack more so the defense has to focus on stopping you, which opens up opportunities for your teammates.

The catch is he has to have the ability to score when he’s in attack mode. Ntilikina needs more confidence in his handle and his finishing ability at the rim. That may take an offseason of work before it becomes part of his game.

The other player who you’d love to see playing faster is McDermott. This season he is working on being that guy who is in constant motion and available for quick catch-and-shoot situations in the mold of Kyle Korver.

McDermott this season is averaging 5.05 MPH on offense, which is outstanding. Korver, for instance, averages 4.84 MPH on offense. Klay Thompson averages 4.91 and Danny Green is 4.93.

J.J. Redick, when healthy, has been great for the 76ers. He’s flying around the court at 5.14 MPH on offense.

What do they all have in common? They’re all shooting over 40% on catch-and-shoot threes. That’s a great weapon to have.

5. After an exhausting slugfest with the Spurs, the Knicks have another Battle of the Big Men on Saturday night with the Pelicans and Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins. The Knicks are built for these matchups with Porzingis and Enes Kanter, so it should be interesting. The Pelicans score a lot but they also give up a lot of points as well.

Cousins is having a monster year with 26.1 points, 12.3 rebounds and 5.3 assists per game, while Davis goes for 25.7 points and 10.3 rebounds with 2.0 blocks per game. Davis has spent more time around the basket while Cousins has become an inside-out threat with 6.3 three-point attempts per game.

So, who guards whom? Do you put KP on Davis — two long, athletic players — and have Kanter pound with Cousins? Sounds legit, until Cousins moves Kanter away from the basket on the perimeter and that takes your best rebounder out of the paint.

This game will be all about one-on-one battles because the minute you help off, that could lead to easy scores. The Pelicans, with Rajon Rondo, move the ball as well as anyone in the league and shoot the ball very well.

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