Kristaps Porzingis has been one of the best rookies of the early NBA season and perhaps the most surprising.
At 7-foot-3 and just 20 years old, Porzingis has been one of the New York Knicks’ best scorers, shooters, and defenders, leading the team in rebounds and blocks.
The production has been an unforeseen development, but the way Porzingis has played is already putting the Knicks and coach Derek Fisher in a tough position.
Porzingis has primarily been playing power forward, especially in the starting lineup next to center Robin Lopez, whom the Knicks signed to a $54 million contract this past offseason.
Porzingis, however, has shown such potential as a defender, given his length, athleticism, and surprising strength, that he can hold his own against other centers in the league. Playing Porzingis at center would also pay off on offense, where Porzingis is faster than most big men and gives the Knicks more spacing because of his ability to shoot 3-pointers.
Two of the Knicks’ 10 most used lineups feature Porzingis at center – one has been outscored by eight points per 100 possessions by opponents, but the other has been outscoring opponents by 36 points per 100 possessions.
According to NBA’s media stats site, Porzingis is performing better with Lopez on the bench. The Knicks’ net rating with Lopez on the bench and Porzingis on the court is 5.6, compared with 0.3 when the two share the court. Similarly, Porzingis’ true shooting percentage is six points higher with Lopez on the bench.
On Monday night in a loss to the Orlando Magic, the conundrum of Lopez and Porzingis showed itself down the stretch. With the Knicks consistently trailing by a basket or two, Fisher opted to play Lopez at center while Porzingis sat on the bench. While Lopez played well, he was routinely scorched by Magic center Nikola Vucevic, who shot 13-for-19 for 26 points.
After the game, Fisher told reporters of his decision to go with Lopez, “We like, physically, Robin’s size more with Vucevic.”
While there’s no proof Porzingis could have done any better, some people felt that the Knicks should have gone with Porzingis down the stretch to create a mismatch on offense and at least see whether he could defend Vucevic better than Lopez.
Some of this was encouraged by Porzingis’ strong showing against Sacramento Kings center DeMarcus Cousins in a December 10 game, when Porzingis guarded Cousins down the stretch, holding him to 42% shooting and forcing two turnovers.
Fisher has already acknowledged that this has become a problem, saying the Knicks weren’t built knowing Porzingis could play center this soon. The Knicks gave Lopez a big contract, but they also signed Kyle O’Quinn to a four-year, $16 million deal and gave Kevin Seraphin a one-year, $2.8 million deal. That’s three players fighting for playing time at center, not to mention over $70 million committed to players at one position.
For this season, Porzingis will most likely continue to see spot minutes at center while mainly playing power forward. Down the road, however, the Knicks will have to assess this ability, particularly with the long-term contracts of Lopez and O’Quinn. Granted, there will always be a need for other centers on the team, but if Porzingis is best used as a center, then the Knicks may have to decide whether the money being paid to Lopez and O’Quinn can be better allocated.