Sports

Kristaps Porzingis Does Not Need to Play Center—Yet

The Knicks are getting flak for not playing their young star at his best position. But for once, the team seems to be doing something right.
Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

The New York Knicks drafted Kristaps Porzingis with every intention of making him a power forward. Sure, Porzingis stood 7-foot-3 and had a reported 8-foot wingspan, but he was rail thin and, given his professional performance in Spain, it seemed unlikely he'd ever be enough of a force on the defensive interior to play center, either in the immediate or the long-term. And so, he would be the Knicks' Dirk Nowitzki: a floor-stretching big man capable of making opponents junk their defensive game-plans, but that nonetheless needed cover from a more traditional center. Nodding toward Porzingis's expected positionality, the Knicks followed up his selection by signing three centers (Robin Lopez, Kyle O'Quinn, Kevin Seraphin) in free agency.

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But by December of his rookie season—29 games into his career—it seemed worth asking whether Porzingis' best position might already be center. In two months' time, Porzingis emerged as an elite rim-protector, blocking multiple shots in 16 of those 29 games and swatting six or more in three of them. His shooting also played better at the "five," creating more space for Carmelo Anthony and the rest of his teammates to operate. The results, both early and throughout the rest of his rookie campaign, were clearly in favor of him playing center.

Nevertheless, the Knicks came right back the next season and decided that Porzingis was still a power forward. They traded Lopez to Chicago in the Derrick Rose deal and let Seraphin walk to the Pacers, but they committed $72 million over four years to Joakim Noah so that he could play center alongside KP, and also signed both Willy Hernangomez (drafted in the second round the year before) and Marshall Plumlee. As a result, Porzingis played even less center during the 2016-17 season than he did as a rookie. While the team's performance during those minutes was worse than it had been a year prior, that was mostly because the team was worse as a whole. They were still better with KP at the five than at the four.

With Carmelo now gone for good and the team firmly committed to building around Porzingis for the long haul, one might that that the Knicks would also be ready to commit to playing him at what seems to be a much more advantageous position. Alas, that is not the case. The Knicks have even more centers on the roster this season than they did a year ago (Noah, Hernangomez, O'Quinn, Enes Kanter), and it sure seems like Porzingis will spend even less time playing the five once again.

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This is disconcerting. Even more disconcerting to a large cohort of Knicks fans is that, just like Anthony did, Porzingis openly prefers playing a position at which both he and the team are less effective. "I think it's better for us," Porzingis said recently, per the New York Daily News. "Me at the four, especially if I'm playing against a non-shooting four, I can do a lot. When I'm playing against the five, I'm fighting with the big a lot of times and I'm wasting a lot of energy. Obviously, offensively I have an advantage at center, but I'm just more comfortable playing at the four."

Coach Jeff Hornacek appears willing to indulge KP on this, though the way the roster is constructed does seem to play a role in that thinking. "With our roster, and with a lot of centers that we have, I don't anticipate it a lot," Hornacek said of using Porzingis at center for stretches of the game. "We have situational times that when we maybe need a little bit of a defensive team, he's at the five. Offensively, again, I think we can open up the court occasionally and go small. A lot of these teams are doing that now, so that's a possibility."

So, to recap: when the Knicks need a defensive team, then they can go to KP at the five; because obviously Kanter and Hernangomez and O'Quinn do not provide anything in the way of defensive coverage for their Latvian star. And if they want to open up the court offensively, then they can go small with KP at the five; because none of those guys can space the floor either, and not a one of them brings enough playmaking to make up for their lack of stretch. (And because Joakim Noah's best position is probably "suit-wearer" at this point.) Better on offense and better on defense…but they're not going to do it a lot.

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Earlier in the preseason, Hornacek let on that despite using Porzingis at center for a few minutes during that night's game, the team hadn't even practiced the configuration to that point. He did, though, allow himself to admit that one of KP's stated reasons for feeling more comfortable at the four— being able to protect the rim if he's guarding a non-shooter, per the Daily News —is mostly erroneous.

"At the five, he's probably around the basket a little bit more," Hornacek said. "He can come from the weak side at the four spot and block shots and help us out defensively, but most of these teams in the league have outstanding shooters at the four spot; so, if he's running to block a shot, there's going to be somebody open."

But Hornacek and the Knicks are going to run him out there at the four anyway, mostly because of the roster construction but also because it's what KP seems to want and they can't run the risk of pissing him off any more than they did last year. Porzingis is extension-eligible next summer and if the Knicks think they've seen what full-on disaster looks like after the Phil Jackson debacle, just wait and see what happens if Porzingis turns down an extension and says he plans to take the qualifying offer because he's not happy playing for them.

The plan, then, is to appease him. And you know what? It's really not that big a deal.

Look how happy Porzingis is to be sharing the court with a center. Photo: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports.

Yes, the Knicks will likely be better offensively and defensively this season if Porzingis plays center. And yes, Porzingis himself will likely be more effective offensively and defensively if he plays center this season. But first of all, the Knicks probably don't want to be better at anything this season other than losing. And second of all, Porzingis could continue playing 25-ish percent of his total minutes at center between now and the end of his probable max extension, and it could still wind up being his primary position over the course of his career.

The kid just turned 22 years old! He's going to be in the league for 10-15 more seasons barring injury, and he won't hit his physical prime until sometime around 2022. If he spends the next couple years playing power forward most of the game, then moving to center when opposing teams downshift late (which is happening more and more anyway), it's not the end of the world. Even the NBA's best four that sometimes plays five (Draymond Green) doesn't actually do it all that much. Granted, his team is awesome and doesn't actually need him to play center that much and he's not 7-foot-3, but the Warriors' primary reason for not making Draymond their full-time center (too much banging) is similar to (one of) the reason(s) why Kristaps doesn't want to do it.

And really, that's fine for now. Let Porzingis play the four and figure out how to be a No. 1 offensive option. Let him get comfortable with both the idea and the physicality of becoming a full-time center over the course of the next couple seasons. As he grows into his body and has to devote more of his energy to carrying the offense, it'll eventually become clear that being closer to the basket more of the time is the way he can make the most impact on defense; and if the league keeps shifting toward the perimeter, maybe there won't be all that much banging and physicality at the position by the time he's ready to become a full-time five anyway.

It's understandable, given the Knicks' history of screwing these kinds of things up, to want to freak your geek out whenever they're not doing something exactly the way they should be. For the first time in a while, the team seems to understand that the immediate results aren't all that matter. The evolution of Porzingis is what matters. And the Knicks seem to have an implicit understanding that the evolving NBA will push him to center anyway. There is no need to rush that process.