Wagner: Porzingis, ‘Melo, and Noah Could Be the Front Court the Knicks Have Waited For

When the New York Knicks created a seemingly formidable triumvirate of Amar’e Stoudemire, Carmelo Anthony and Tyson Chandler five years ago, they thought they had put together the most dominant front court in the NBA, worthy of making the Knicks legitimate title contender.

Things looked good for a while until injuries to Stoudemire and Chandler, along with several other issues, derailed the whole plan.

New York has been trying to get back to fulfilling its dreams of creating a front court to be reckoned with ever since. While it’s may still take some time for that to happen, the Knicks’ latest starting front court incarnation of Anthony, second-year Latvian forward Kristaps Porzingis and veteran center Joakim Noah provided an extremely optimistic glimpse of what that group may become for New York (5-6) this season during the Knicks’ 105-102 win over the Detroit Pistons (6-6) at Madison Square Garden on Wednesday night.

The obvious story of the night was Porzingis electrifying the Garden crowd with one impressive play after another, as he made eight straight shots (after missing his first) and scored 25 first-half points — including 16 of his team’s 25 in the second quarter — en route to a career-high 35 points, while adding seven rebounds.

But Porzingis’ heroics might have gone to waste without Anthony’s 22 points on 9-of-17 shooting (including 4-of-6 from 3-point range) and Noah’s game-high 15 boards, which gave New York a sizable 52-40 rebounding edge over Detroit. Thanks to Noah’s seven offensive rebounds, the Knicks also enjoyed 19-12 advantage in that area.

With New York up by five points at halftime, the Knicks’ starting front court had accounted for 75.9 percent (41 of their 54) of their points.

Noah didn’t score in the second half and Porzingis’ torrid first-half pace slowed after intermission. Meanwhile, starting point guard Derrick Rose scored 11 of his 15 points in the second half; his backup, Brandon Jennings, provided seven key assists in nearly 17 minutes; and reserve forward Justin Holiday added nine points and five rebounds in almost 24 minutes off the bench, and had a huge tip for an offensive rebound that helped to seal the win in the final seconds.

However, the game was mostly about what the Knicks starting front court was able to do, with Porzingis — for one game, at least — stepping out of Anthony’s shadow — with Anthony still doing usual his thing offensively, except in an unfamiliar complementary way, and with Noah doing what he does best, cleaning up the glass often, while anchoring the defense in the middle.

That formula could be a harbinger of things to come for New York, as the very agile and skilled, 7-foot-3, 21-year-old Porzingis continually improves, while the 32-year-old Anthony (in his 14th NBA season) and the 31-year-old Noah (who in his 10th year, was plagued by injuries in recent seasons), move increasingly toward the ends of their careers, even though both are still very effective.

A time will naturally come when the Knicks are Porzingis’ team, as he will eventually take that mantle from the nine-time All-Star and former NBA scoring champion Anthony. It could be next year or in a season to come thereafter.

Or it could be this season, while Noah is still in the productive part of his newly signed four-year contract with New York. If it’s that soon, then the way the Knicks beat the Pistons — with Porzingis stepping forward and leading the way, with Anthony taking a still very noticeable but much-needed backseat, and with Noah rounding out the starting front court with his hallmarks of solid defense, high energy and intensity, toughness and plenty of rebounding — could be something Knicks fans might get accustomed to seeing sooner than later.

In fact, they already seem ready for that evolution to take place. The crowds at MSG this season have been vocal in letting Anthony know when the ball sticks in his hands too much at times, in favor of better ball movement. And when Porzingis went to the foul line for some important free throws in the fourth quarter on Wednesday night, Knicks fans serenaded him with the same “M-V-P!” chants that they had often reserved for Anthony in the past.

Yes, “M-V-P” chants at MSG in the 83rd career game for the player who was booed by many of those same fans on draft night, 17 months ago.

Porzingis joked that it was much “too early” for those chants. “It’s a New York crowd,” he said. “They did the same thing last year when I had that 29-point game [his previous career high] versus Charlotte. All the support we got gave me so much energy.’’

But he appreciated the support, nonetheless. “It’s huge, it kept me going,” he said. “I got 25 at the half, and I knew I wanted to go for 40. I didn’t get 40, but I’m happy that the crowd was supporting me and giving me energy, and that we were able to get the win.”

Porzingis’ 13-for-22 night (3-for-7 from behind the arc) against the Pistons puts him at a healthy 49.7 percent, including 40 percent from 3-point range for the year. That’s 2.6 percent better overall and 4.9 percent better from 3 than Anthony is shooting this season.

Hard work in the offseason has started to pay off for Porzingis, who has increased his shooting percentages by about seven points overall and by roughly six points from 3-point range this year, from his rookie season.

“A lot of stuff I worked on in the summer came out too — some moves, without even thinking, instinctively they came out.’’

That’s a harrowing thought for the rest of the league, considering Porzingis — who by going over 20 points in six of his past seven games, has lifted his season average to 20.7 points, to go along with 6.8 rebounds per game — is still about 6-7 years from entering his prime.

As Rose noted of Porzingis, “To be so big, at 7-3, and the way he moves, it’s kind of crazy. [He’s] a unique player.”

Indeed, in a way that prompted one of the NBA’s best, Kevin Durant, to label Porzingis “a unicorn” last year.

Adding to the praise for Porzingis, Knicks head coach Jeff Hornacek said, “He’s growing day by day… you could see the whole package tonight. He was inside, he was outside, he was great.”

Regarding Porzingis’ first 25 points, which came on his first 11 shots, Hornacek added, “We love efficiency. If a guy gets 25 points and takes 25 shots, that doesn’t really help you out much. I think Kris is a smart player… he has a lot of confidence right now and his teammates have a lot of confidence in him. He’s obviously just probably scratching the surface of what he’s gonna become, so it’s gonna be fun to watch.”

While most were awestruck with Porzingis’ offense, Rose said, “his defense” when asked what impressed him most about Porzingis during the game.

“We know he can score the ball, but [he was] vocal [defensively], letting everybody know where he was, and using his size,” Rose added.

Still, on Porzingis’ offense, Rose said, “It’s crazy that in his second year, he’s able to play the way that he plays… he’s going out here and scoring 30, and he really don’t know the NBA yet. That’s scary.”

Anthony called the game Porzingis had, “brilliant,” while saying, “I thought he got it going. We spoon fed him tonight and he kept it up for the course of the game. For me, it felt good to see that and be a part of that tonight.

“He was in that zone… he had a bounce to him tonight. His confidence was through the roof.”

“We’re just kind of playing off of each other, him picking his spots and me picking my spots out there. When he has it going, we want to go through that. I appreciate when he do have it going, so I can pick my spots.”

For now, Anthony doesn’t seem to mind not always being the primary star, the way he’s been for his whole career, in New York, and in Denver before that.

Asked if Porzingis has opened the offense up for him, Anthony said, “We’re still working on that. I’d rather it be the other way around at this point… teams will always load up [on me] and double team me, and try to take me out of the game. He benefits from that.

“When it’s my time to do something, I’ll do it. But tonight was one of those nights where he had it going from the jump. We wanted to go to him in any mismatch that we was looking for. He put us on his back tonight and that is something I’m proud of.”

Anthony also appreciated Noah’s play.

“Noah, from the jump, his focus level got us going defensively,” he said. “He helped out everybody.”

Hornacek added of Noah, “We know he’s a great defender and he can solidify us back there.” [Detroit center Andre] Drummond (15 points, nine rebounds) made some shots… but Jo was making him work for everything. He was down on the pick-and-roll, he was able to retreat back so a guy didn’t get behind him. He makes passes… and just keeps bringing that energy that he always brings.”

While most will be talking about Porzingis’ scoring outburst, it was New York’s entire starting front court which carried the Knicks to victory.

Detroit head coach and team president Stan Van Gundy said, “Porzingis was fabulous and Carmelo was good. Noah’s effort dominated the game. He was great defensively… I thought Noah was as big a factor for them winning the game as much as Porzingis.”

Focusing more on the defense, Anthony said, “We always had a vision of what we wanted from our front court. Two 7-footers down there in the paint, defensively, can cause nightmares for teams, if everybody [on our team] is on the same page.”

Between that and the way Porzingis is taking over more offensively, so that Anthony doesn’t always have to anymore, the Knicks may soon have the type of dangerous front court they’ve been seeking for a long time.

About the Author

Jon Wagner

Jon has been a credentialed writer with New York Sports Day since 2009, primarily covering the New York Knicks and Hofstra men's basketball. He has also occasionally covered other college basketball and New York's pro teams including the Mets, Giants, Jets, Islanders, Rangers and Cosmos (including their three most recent championship seasons).Jon is former Yahoo Sports contributor who previously covered various sports for the Queens Ledger. He's a proud alum of Hofstra University and the Connecticut School of Broadcasting (which he attended on a full scholarship).He remains convinced to this day that John Starks would have won the Knicks a championship in 1994 had Hakeem Olajuwon not blocked Starks' shot in Game 6 of the 1994 NBA Finals.

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