After starting the season a surprisingly decent 17-14, the New York Knicks have since lost 18 of 24 games. Following a stunningly good 15-5 start at home, New York has since dropped six of its last seven games at Madison Square Garden. And with a 103-89 home loss to the Milwaukee Bucks (30-23) on Tuesday night, the Knicks matched a season-worst four-game losing streak while falling a season-high nine games under .500, at 23-32.
But all of that is dramatically dwarfed by what New York lost with 8:50 left in the second quarter, when star forward Kristaps Porzingis — the Knicks’ fourth overall pick in 2015, who in his third NBA season, was preparing to play in his first All-Star game in less than two weeks — took a bounce pass in the paint from teammate Kyle O’Quinn, drove the lane and dunked over fellow star forward Giannis Antetokounmpo to give New York a 31-30 lead.
In an instant, the sellout Garden crowd went from deliriously happy to silent.
Antetokounmpo’s long wingspan made Porzingis extend a little farther from the basket than he had planned. Although he completed the dunk, New York’s franchise player landed awkwardly. Laying on the ground by the baseline, under the eerie hush of a suddenly muted throng of fans, Porzingis immediately clutched the back of his left knee with his left hand while banging his right fist on the MSG floor three times with force, out of a mixture of deep frustration and intense pain.
As Porzingis rolled onto his back, still holding his knee with the Knicks’ medical staff attending to him, the home crowd saw New York’s future flash before its collective eyes.
Moments later, Porzingis limped gingerly off the court with some help and Knicks fans nervously waited for an update on the 7-foot-3 Latvian’s condition, caring far more about that than seeing Milwaukee go on a game-turning 45-15 run spanning the second and third quarters, to lead, 75-54.
It wasn’t known until after the game that a hospital MRI revealed New York’s worst fears — that Porzingis had torn the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee to sideline him for the rest of the season and quite possibly, for a good portion of next year.
There was some irony that the extremely athletic and supremely talented Antetokounmpo (23 points, 11 rebounds, six assists), who has earned the nickname “The Greek Freak,” was involved in Porzingis’ injury since Antetokounmpo (who turned 23 on Dec. 6) had become the youngest player ever to score 400 points over the first 15 games of a season earlier this year, before the slightly younger, 22-year-old Porzingis supplanted Antetokounmpo in that accomplishment with his own MVP-quality start to the season this year.
While the Knicks eventually lost their way without Porzingis, they didn’t do so at first, as Porzingis’ dunk ignited a spurt of 10 straight points for New York, including the last eight on four straight made shots from forward Tim Hardaway Jr., who initially started 0-for-4, to extend a four-game shooting slump to 5-for-37. Although Hardaway Jr. momentarily ended that stretch with his four makes in a row, he missed his last five shots, to go 9-for-46 (19.6 percent) over his past four games, including 1-for-20 from 3-point range. That stretch included missing all 14 of his 3s in to games against the Bucks, who beat the Knicks by two points in Milwaukee on Friday night.
As if things weren’t bad enough for New York with Porzingis’ injury, Hardaway Jr. was kicked in the same spot in his left shin where an earlier injury caused him to miss 22 games this season. In addition, starting center Enes Kanter (who with team-highs of 19 points and 16 rebounds, recorded his six consecutive double-double) took a shot in the mouth in the same area he had been inadvertently hit during practice several days earlier. Kanter, whose lower lip was badly swollen, will undergo a 45-minute oral surgery on Wednesday.
However, the ailments to Hardaway Jr. and Kanter are nothing compared to what’s in store for Porzingis and the resulting effect on the Knicks for now.
Despite New York’s initial run after Porzingis left, the Knicks eventually suffered without their best player.
Head coach Jeff Hornacek said, “I think when K.P. went down, it deflated us some… when he went out, that’s a big part of the things we do and we were unable to sustain the earlier part of the game when he was not in there.”
Hornacek added, “K.P. has missed a few games [with other, more minor injuries this season]. Our record has not been great (2-6, counting a win over Miami when Porzingis left after just three minutes with an ankle sprain) when he’s not out there. He’s part of what we’re trying to build around. A lot of stuff, we try to run through him.”
Even before learning how long their leader might be out, Porzingis’ teammates were as dejected as Hornacek at seeing Porzingis writhing in pain on the Garden floor.
“It was tough,” Kanter said. “I can’t even describe in words, it was just a terrible feeling.”
Looking back at the whole season, Hardaway Jr. said, “It sucks. I think about [when] we had our groove in the beginning of the season and what if K.P and I [weren’t hurt]? It’s just a hard pill to swallow right now.”
Starting shooting guard Courtney Lee added, “It’s tough. K.P. does a lot for us, especially on the offensive end and there are a lot of plays we run through him, so when he [went] down, it kind of got stagnant out there. Everybody was looking at each other like, ‘What are we going to do?’ instead of just going out there and competing.”
As if there is some sort of curse on LeBron James’ All-Star team, Porzingis became the fourth player (joining DeMarcus Cousins, Kevin Love and John Wall) to miss a lot of time with a significant injury since James selected his squad as a team captain under the NBA’s new All-Star Game format, which is in the first year of departing from the more traditional game pitting the Eastern and Western Conferences against each other.
Although Porzingis would have loved a chance at defending his 2017 Skills Challenge championship and playing in his first All-Star Game the weekend after next, those are the least of his current worries.
Whereas some athletes can return to action in as little as six months after an ACL tear, the normal timeframe for a young NBA player is roughly one year before being able to resume normal basketball activities. Some can take even longer, like Porzingis’ ex-teammate, Derrick Rose, who once took 16 months at age 23 to return after an ACL injury.
Porzingis could also look to the opposing bench on Tuesday night for another, more encouraging example, where the Bucks had 2014 second overall pick, 22-year-old, fourth-year forward Jabari Parker, playing in his third game this season after sitting out for about a year with his second ACL tear. His first ACL tear, to the same knee, occurred as a rookie, after which Parker was able to play 76 games the following season and 51 games the year after, at a highly productive level following a sidelining of 10 months.
THE NEGATIVE VIEW
Seeing the bad side to Porzingis’ injury is easy, especially for a fanbase which is set to see the Knicks miss the playoffs for a fifth straight season, one which had already (and even more so, now) figured to be New York’s 14th losing season in the past 17 and the team’s 45th in a row without an NBA championship.
After living through one incompetent regime after another over a long period of time, with little hope for the future, Knicks fans were finally pinning their faith on seeing New York build a true contender around a potential Hall of Famer in Porzingis. Instead, there are now the unexpected fears that perhaps Porzingis, like so many others before him, won’t remain the blossoming superstar-in-the-making that not only Knicks fans viewed him as, but which the rest of the NBA projected as well.
Given New York’s history, it’s quite understandable for Porzingis’ ACL tear to be seen as yet another in a long line of “Here we go again” moments for a franchise that at many points couldn’t get out of its own way with awful personnel decision making and terrible contracts, and at others, seemed to have no luck at all if it didn’t have bad luck.
Of course, even if Porzingis — who given what he’s shown already, figures to remain undeterred in spirit and work ethic while eventually working very hard to rehabilitate and get back to growing significantly as a player — is ultimately fine physically, he will likely have to overcome the mental hurdles of being able to trust the stability of his soon-to-be surgically repaired knee, in order to further develop his career in the way that he, his team and his fans have always hoped he could.
That could have a further negative trickle-down effect, particularly for last year’s eighth overall pick, 19-year-old French rookie point guard Frank Ntilikina, whose development with Porzingis might be stunted for a while until Porzingis is ready to play with Ntilikina again.
Then there’s the building part of the equation. Not just Porzingis building his strength back to where it needs to be after his surgery, but it might be a lot more difficult for the Knicks to lure key pieces via future trades or free agency to place alongside Porzingis if those potential add-ons don’t trust Porzingis’ health.
All of these and more are valid concerns for those who viewed Porzingis as the biggest answer to New York’s myriad of longtime problems finally coming to an end.
THE POSITIVE SPIN
Yet before Knicks fans get too depressed over the three letters they never wanted to associate with Porzingis’ knee, it’s possible that in the much longer term, the injury could prove to be a blessing in disguise.
With New York’s record, the Knicks were likely lottery bound even had Porzingis remained healthy for the rest of the season.
Now that New York’s season appears realistically over, the Knicks might have more impetus than they otherwise would have to make some trades by this Thursday’s trade deadline — with valuable veterans like Lee, Kanter, O’Quinn, forward Michael Beasley or last year’s All-Rookie Team selection, Porzingis’ good friend and former teammate overseas, center Willy Hernangomez — for some possible draft picks or better pieces for the team’s longer-term future.
Using one or more of those players as part of a package, the Knicks might also be able to convince a contender to take a bad contract, like the remaining part of the bloated four-year, $72 million deal underperforming center Joakim Noah is collecting while currently being away from the team as he continues his dispute with the coaching staff over a lack of playing time.
Whether or not any of those type of moves occur, the Knicks, with Porzingis and Ntilikina (if he becomes the future star point guard New York hopes he’ll become) as their potential future cornerstones, were only in the beginning stages of what would have been a process several years in the making anyway.
Banking on the idea that he’ll return to form, keeping growing his game and stay healthy from this point, Porzingis wouldn’t have entered his prime for about another six years, at about the age of 28, at which point Ntilikina would still only be 25. That’s plenty of time to make several moves that could mold the Knicks into a contender, even if New York can’t acquire the assets they’ll need from the tradable pieces they have right now.
In terms of getting immediate help from the next draft, Porzingis’ injury (along with Hardaway Jr’s. ailments and struggles) could not only lead Hornacek to finally (albeit reluctantly until now) give in to playing his youth more and seeing what he has in some of his younger, more seldom-used players, but it could sink the New York’s record enough that the Knicks might land a high draft pick and a very key future player to add to a presumably fully recovered Porzingis and a more seasoned Ntilikina down the road.
New York presently owns the 10th-worst record in the league, in a virtual tie with the Los Angeles Lakers. After that, are the NBA’s worst eight teams, all of whom are separated by just 1½ games, beginning with Brooklyn, which is only four games worse than the Knicks and Lakers, with New York having 27 games left.
It’s highly conceivable that with the Knicks’ struggles even with Porzingis before, that New York could now end up with a very high draft pick while at the same time be in good position to learn more about some of their younger players over the remainder of the season. With Porzingis likely to miss at least the first month or two next year, New York could even fall deep into the lottery and get yet another high pick and quality young player in the 2019 draft as well.
Thus, viewed in the short-term, Porzingis’ freshly torn ACL reasonably means depression and panic among Knicks fans. But viewed through the lens of a few years out, it’s very possible that Porzingis, if and when he’s back to where he was and even more — and Ntilikina — could have an even more talented young core with which to grow into legitimate contenders in the Eastern Conference.
On the surface, it feels like a case in which the Knicks finally get a young, star player, and now he’s hurt badly, so now what?
But looking a little deeper, youth — with Porzingis and Ntilikina as young as they are — some cap flexibility in the not-too-distant future and other valuable assets are all still on New York’s side. There’s still potentially a bright future. It just may take a little longer for Porzingis and the Knicks’ to get there.