Carmelo Anthony was at the Knicks' practice facility, rehabbing from knee surgery, when a skinny teenager from Latvia arrived for a pre-draft workout. Anthony watched Kristaps Porzingis shoot, and turned to Steve Mills, the Knicks' general manager, with a question, Mills recalled in a chat with ESPN.com last week:
"Do you think we may draft this kid?"
The question could have implied a lot of things -- including the frustration a 31-year-old with aching knees might feel about the franchise, his franchise, banking his NBA twilight on an unknown not far removed from a regrettable cornrows phase. Mills decided total honestly was the best way to push through any tension. "Carmelo," Mills said, "if he's there, we probably will draft him."
Porzingis was there at No. 4, though not without some drama. The Boston Celtics were hell-bent on moving up to draft Justise Winslow and offered the Charlotte Hornets four first-round picks -- including one of Brooklyn's unprotected picks -- for Charlotte's No. 9 pick. But that was Boston's fall-back plan, sources say. The Celtics initially chased Charlotte's pick with the idea of sending it to the Knicks, along with Boston's No. 15 pick, to vault all the way into the Knicks' draft slot -- where the Celtics would take Winslow. Charlotte refused Boston's pitches, and the scenario died. The Knicks downplay their interest in Boston's offer, though it's fascinating to consider how the draft might have played out -- and which fan base would be chanting "POR-ZIN-GIS!" today -- had the Celtics swooped in for Winslow at No. 4.
"We listened," Mills says. "But we were never close."
The Knicks had no inkling Porzingis would be this good this soon. "We knew he'd be good," Mills says. "I don't think any of us expected this."
This has changed a lot of things for a beleaguered punch line of a franchise that has spent most of the past 15 years lunging from one plan to another with the addled hyperactivity of a toddler sprinting between plates of cookies. But should it change Anthony's place in the Knicks' long-term plans, or Phil Jackson's borderline religious devotion to an offensive system that looks outdated?
Had the Knicks wanted to trade Anthony, they just couldn't get the timing right. The 2012-13 season, when Anthony still had two years left on his mega-deal, would have been perfect, but those Knicks improbably emerged as a 54-win, 3-point-shooting, small-ball pseudo-contender. They had a real chance to make the conference finals, and you can't bust up a team that good -- not in a city starved for competent basketball.
The fragile ecosystem supporting that team collapsed the next season, and by then Anthony was on an expiring contract -- the low point of his trade value. The Knicks re-signed Anthony in summer 2014 to a five-year supermax deal with a no-trade clause that would carry him into his mid-30s.
Jackson dealt away Tyson Chandler about two weeks before Anthony signed that deal, and when the Knicks floundered last season, he seized the chance to cleanse the roster of Iman Shumpert and J.R. Smith -- two players Jackson and others inside the organization had deemed selfish. Suddenly, Anthony was part of an all-out rebuild, a situation that didn't really make sense for either side. Aging stars without rings want to win, and rebuilding teams don't need aging stars clogging their salary cap. Free agency offers the lure of of a quick-fix rebuild, but even the Knicks realize the city alone isn't enough to attract star players.
"Agents have told me there are a lot of players that feel really good about the Knicks, but they want to see things translate into something positive on the court first," Mills says.
"The city isn't enough for people," says Arron Afflalo. "Guys want to win. If you win, you can get exposure anywhere."
Porzingis is 19, and Anthony is 31. The timelines just don't overlap. The Knicks might as well start re-centering around Porzingis now, while they can still net some juicy assets in exchange for Anthony. It would be a handy way to restock the draft pick cupboard after barfing up their 2016 first-round pick in a laughable deal in 2013 for Andrea Bargnani.
And then something funny happened: Porzingis was really good, right away, and the Knicks were competing for a playoff spot within the beefed-up Eastern Conference. Madison Square Garden was buzzing again. The Knicks aren't close to contending, but if they hover around .500, perhaps they've found a vision to take to the next class of prospective free agents: a veteran star beloved among his peers, a budding phenom, a competent supporting cast featuring two dynamic young guards in Langston Galloway and Jerian Grant, and the league's biggest stage shaking once more.
"For the Knicks, we're in a pretty unique place -- we're not a taxpayer anymore," Mills says, chuckling. "We'll have cap room again. And the buzz that is happening here, with [Porzingis] and Melo, should certainly make us more attractive to free agents."
"I want to finish my career here," says Afflalo, who has a player option for next season. "Having a good young player and a winning team should help us get other guys."
The team has never really thought about trading Anthony, Mills says. "Never," he says. "Period." (Let's just say some around the league are skeptical the topic has never come up in the MSG boardrooms). Even as Greg Monroe, LaMarcus Aldridge and other stars rejected them last summer, the Knicks never lost faith in New York's gravitational pull -- provided that free agents can see at least some viable path to 50-plus wins.
"Our inability to pitch was overstated," Mills says.
Afflalo tried to maneuver his way to New York at last year's trade deadline, to the point that Denver was calling the Knicks to see if the two sides could accommodate him, according to Mills and Afflalo. When the Nuggets traded Afflalo to Portland instead, Afflalo and Robin Lopez realized they had mutual interest in coming to the Knicks.
Finding a workable Anthony deal is harder than you'd think. His no-trade clause limits the pool of suitors and takes out New York's leverage at the knees. Just tick through even the semi-realistic destinations:
• Los Angeles Lakers: They chased Anthony in summer 2014, and with Kobe Bryant now off the books after this season, the Lakers could snag Anthony and still have max-level cap room to chase another star. They could offer Roy Hibbert along with some combination of Julius Randle, D'Angelo Russell and Jordan Clarkson. The Lakers likely would want to keep two of those three young guys, and one of them might not be enough to entice New York -- especially because Clarkson, perhaps the most tradable of the three from L.A.'s standpoint, will be a free agent this summer -- just like Langston Galloway. The Lakers can't trade any first-round pick before their 2021 selection.
• Boston Celtics: A popular nominee among rival executives, because the Celtics could acquire Anthony, their alleged missing go-to guy, without hurting their current team. Even James Dolan would have to think about a package of David Lee, Brooklyn's unprotected 2016 first-round pick, and salary filler.
That pick could become Ben Simmons! Rebuilding around Porzingis, and without Anthony, would bring some short-term pain, but that pick is exactly the sort of asset that is worth some pain. The pick probably won't become Ben Simmons, of course. Brooklyn is bad, but it's hard to imagine them finishing behind Philly or the Lakers. Even in the worst losing scenario, they'll enter the lottery in third position -- with only a 15.6 percent chance at landing the top pick.
There is no evidence these teams have ever discussed a Anthony deal, per league sources. Boston likely wants a better gauge on where Brooklyn's pick might end up, and Anthony doesn't fit its developmental timeline -- or Brad Stevens' pass-happy style of play.
• New Orleans Pelicans: A package of Jrue Holiday, Ryan Anderson, and draft picks would work, but Holiday can't stay on the floor, Anderson's an impending free agent due a payday, and Anthony introduces the same timetable dissonance with Anthony Davis.
• Miami Heat: You could build some interesting deals around Goran Dragic or Luol Deng, but the Knicks would ask for Winslow, and the Heat would hang up. Miami is also over the luxury tax; it already dumped Mario Chalmers to duck harsh repeater penalties.
• Chicago Bulls: Ah, Anthony's would-be home. There is just too much health-related uncertainty surrounding Joakim Noah and Derrick Rose to build a deal that works under the league's salary-matching rules.
• Washington Wizards: If the Wiz decide that snagging Kevin Durant is a long-shot play, they could chase a sure thing by offering Nene, Otto Porter, and two first-round picks for Anthony. But they're all-in on Durant, and don't figure to change course.
• Houston Rockets: Now we're talking. An underachieving contender desperate to win before Dwight Howard can bolt. The four-man package of Ty Lawson (sunk cost on an expiring deal), Patrick Beverley (a perfect triangle point guard!), Terrence Jones, and Trevor Ariza matches the combined salaries of Anthony and Jose Calderon almost exactly -- a key bit of math synergy, because Houston is hard-capped. Toss in a Rockets pick, and you have the kind of mega-deal that makes both sides a little anxious.
You can see the conundrum: A realistic and fair Anthony deal is hard to conjure, and may require a number of delicate variables flipping into place at the same time -- including a third team to absorb extra salary. Porzingis is in many ways an ideal frontcourt partner for Anthony -- a big who can protect the rim on defense, and stretch the floor on offense, leaving the elbows free for Anthony's jab-steppy isolation game.
Striking a middle path in free agency may be the Knicks' best option after all. It won't make them a title contender unless they coax someone like Durant or Russell Westbrook, but there are worse NBA fates than signing a B-level guy who actually fits your team, pushing 50 wins every season until Anthony leaves, and developing the rest of the roster around Porzingis in the meantime. Get lucky with fringe signings, trades and health, and you could find yourself going headband-to-headband with LeBron James in the conference finals. Everyone needs to wait out the Warriors, anyway. (Seriously: Waiting out Golden State's run of dominance is already a topic of conversation among team executives.)
There is danger lurking along this path, too. The Knicks would enter free agency with all three frontcourt positions filled, meaning they'll trawl a limited slice of an already limited free-agent class this summer. Maxing out DeMar DeRozan, a mini-Anthony with a bamboozling pump fake, would make it difficult for the Knicks to come calling again for a max-level star in summer 2017 -- the summer of Westbrook, and many others -- unless they offload Lopez in the interim. Mike Conley is wonderful, but he's inching toward 30, and New York might be able to find a cheaper option like Brandon Jennings, Lawson, Greivis Vasquez or someone else via trade.
Spend too lavishly, and the Knicks could trap themselves into mediocrity. "Our goal is to build ourselves into a good team," Mills says. "And we can take it gradually. There is no urgency that just because [Porzingis] and Anthony make for a good pairing, that we have to go out, hit a home run, and land the guy that is going to takes us to the championship next year. That would be nice. But we're trying to build this the right way, over a number of years. That might mean spending all our room on one player. It might mean splitting it up among multiple players."
Before the Knicks decide where to go, they need to figure out what they have now. It's unclear whether this feisty bunch is even all that good, and its flaws very much reflect those of both its star and its maker.
The Knicks' defense ranks just below the league's average in points allowed per possession, and even sniffing average is an achievement for the post-2000 Knicks. More than that, they look like a competent, engaged defense when they aren't fouling everyone in sight.
Derek Fisher, easing into the coaching job now, has installed an ultra-conservative shell that mimics how Terry Stotts used Lopez in Portland. The Knicks hang back against the pick-and-roll, funneling defenders toward Lopez in the floater zone:
They want to turn every pick-and-roll into a 2-on-2 play so that the other three defenders can stick close to enemy shooters instead of darting into the paint to help.
It's one big trade-off: The Knicks will concede midrange shots in order to wall off the rim and swarm 3-point shooters. And it's kind of working! Only nine teams allow a lower percentage of shots from beyond the arc and the restricted area combined, per Nylon Calculus, and New York is defending at a borderline top-five level -- and holding its own on the glass -- when Porzingis and Lopez share the floor.
Porzingis is a talker, and he's proven rather spectacularly that he can hang with smaller players on switches:
And when the Knicks do help, they're leaving the right players -- and staying close to everyone else:
Unfortunately, they are also running up against the limits of their personnel. Calderon and the mercifully benched Sasha Vujacic can't stay in front of anyone; a bundle of New York fouls are emergency responses to drivers smashing through gaping holes at the top of the defense. Anthony has never really been up for chasing wing players, and he loves to swipe. The bigs are lurchy behemoths who hit people almost by accident.
Lopez drops so far back that teams can knife deep into the paint before meeting him:
Give speedy guards a runway that long, and they'll create something good. New York has allowed the eighth-most attempts from the restricted area, more than a team playing this style should give up. Teams have only hit 31 percent of wide-open 3s against New York, and that number is already trending up.
Still, the Knicks seem to know which shots they should discourage on defense. That makes their shot selection on offense even more puzzling. "It's the exact opposite on offense," Afflalo says, laughing.
This is the largest question hovering over the franchise: Should the Knicks really tether themselves to the triangle? We are barely a half-decade removed from the triangle ruling the league, but the NBA has changed a ton in that short span. The evolution has happened so fast, the severity of it almost doesn't hit you until you really stand back, like Dave Kujan from "The Usual Suspects," and look at the big picture.
No team has taken more midrange shots than the Knicks. Only two teams have attempted fewer shots at the basket. They rank dead last in both drives per game and fast-break points and are 22nd overall in points per possession. Mangled tweets aside, triangle teams aren't triple-averse; several of Jackson's peak Lakers teams ranked above the league-average in 3-point attempts.
But the league was only starting to embrace high-volume 3-point shooting then, and the triangle may not be able to keep up. "The triangle really sets you up for midrange shots," Afflalo says, "with all the pick-and-rolls in tight, the cutting, and the post-up work."
The triangle turns post players into scorers, and that isn't working so well. Lopez attempted 52 shots via post-ups all of last season for Portland; he's already 10-of-31 for the Knicks, with a sky-high turnover rate that comes from trying to thread passes through tight triangle spacing, per Synergy Sports.
Kevin Seraphin has had his moments, but he's 15-of-33 on post-ups, and has drawn exactly zero shooting fouls on those plays. (He seems to have recently discovered that he's allowed to pass, which is nice.)
You don't have to be a drive-and-kick 3-pointer machine to win in the NBA. The Warriors are 29th in drives, but they may be the greatest 3-point shooting team ever. Triangle teams pound the inside, and the Knicks compensate for some of their sub-optimal shot selection by snatching offensive boards and bullying their way to the line. Anthony is almost an ideal high-post triangle scorer, though he strangles the offense to jack tough midrange shots whenever he wants.
But Anthony isn't prime Jordan or Kobe, and none of the New York big men are in the same galaxy as Shaq, Pau Gasol, or an ambular Andrew Bynum.
Porzingis will be able to function in any offense, but it's impossible to examine his skill set without dreaming of how he would look in a spread pick-and-roll attack. As one opposing scout put it to me: You can count on one hand the number of big men who are lethal both diving to the rim and popping for jumpers. Porzingis should join the club, and that flexibility makes him an ideal piece around which to mold a team.
If he proves to be an elite long-range shooter, the Knicks can sign a more traditional center and build a menacing long-armed defense without compromising their spacing. Porzingis could spot up around pick-and-rolls for that center, just as Nowitzki sucked defenders out of the lane for Chandler's dives in Dallas. If the Knicks don't want to spend big on a center, they could use Porzingis more at that position. He could set picks, or lurk as a lob threat along the back line:
These are hard basketball questions about the Knicks' future. The most likely outcome might be the boring one: The Knicks keep the triangle, hang onto Anthony, and achieve stability as a good team -- but nothing close to a great one -- while gradually preparing for the post-Anthony era. And who knows: With a little more talent, the triangle could work as an antidote to small-ball and switch-heavy defenses.
The fact that we're even asking questions about the Knicks' future is a happy sign after so many years of wandering the wilderness. Porzingis is real, and he has already changed everything.
10 Things I Like and Don't Like
1. Kobe Bryant, leaving
I am honestly still processing this, even though we all knew it was coming. He just hasn't been a viable NBA player since tearing his Achilles, and he has been maddeningly unwilling to try the sort of supporting role in which he might still be viable. I will miss Kobe. We all will. He is one of the top 15 players ever.
Bryant announcing his retirement this far in advance is an undisputed win for the Lakers, who get to build their team going forward with clarity.
2. The Spurs' super-happy-fun-times bench
Want to see the most exciting basketball happening outside of Oakland? Flip to a Spurs game when Manu Ginobili, Boris Diaw, and Patty Mills take the floor together. These guys will toss the ball across the width of the court three times before the shot clock hits 15. They pass because they love to pass. They pass just to be mean, and they make defenses wonder what in the hell is coming next. They pass for no discernible strategic reason beyond pure joy. Mills never stops bobbing and weaving between screens and dribble hand-offs.
The Spurs average 3.45 passes per possession when these three scamps play, more than any team, and it's not even close, per SportVU data provided to ESPN.com. San Antonio has outscored opponents by 17 points per 100 possessions with these three on the floor.
I write it at least twice a year: Cherish Manu while he is here.
3. The Chris Paul transition veer-back
I don't care that I've given this non-play a "dislike" before. It reared its ugly head again over the weekend, when Chris Paul hit the brakes and caused Davis to rear-end him, and the NBA needs to have a serious discussion about labeling this dangerous trick a black-and-white offensive foul.
The NBA is obsessed with things that are not "basketball plays." That language permeates the debate about both flagrant fouls and block-charge calls.
This little thing that Paul, Westbrook and Kyle Lowry do is not a basketball play. It is the temporary suspension of normal basketball play to create artificial contact and draw a foul. In basketball, dribblers with an open lane to the hoop dribble through that open lane toward the basket. They don't slow down, veer sideways, and stick their butt into the way of oncoming traffic.
The competition committee has talked about cracking down on this play, sources say, and they should keep talking about it.
4. Andrew Nicholson, looking alive
Aside from a few random scoring outbursts, Andrew Nicholson during the Jacque Vaughn coaching era in Orlando reminded me of Droopy the Dog. He always looked kind of sad, and played with lethargic body language. Some guys just have that look baked into their genetic mannerisms, and it doesn't mean they're lazy or unmotivated; Sam Perkins and Eric "Sleepy" Floyd could rip out your soul.
But Nicholson has looked positively zippy since Scott Skiles entrusted him with a regular rotation role. He's draining 3s, rebounding at a career-best rate, and whipping extra touch passes around the perimeter. He even drove for an emphatic dunk against Boston on Sunday. Orlando is 3-0 since moving Victor Oladipo to the bench, and the new lineups -- both starters and reserves -- are killing it. The Magic are 9-8 with a positive scoring margin, and they are playing hard. Keep an eye on these guys.
5. Cleveland's gold throwbacks
This is one of at least three throwback jerseys around the league this season that feature checkerboard trimming, and I love them all. Gold is Cleveland's best core color, and they always look better when they emphasize it over the duller "wine" shade that looks too brownish.
6. Isaiah Thomas, deviating from the plan
A ton of Boston's pet sets start with Isaiah Thomas rocketing up from the corner, bolting around two or three screens, and taking a dribble hand-off from the last screener -- a high-speed pick-and-roll, basically.
But just when opponents are sitting on that, Thomas will abort the cut, and make a 90-degree turn into the paint with nothing but open space before him:
This dude is just delightful.
7. James Harden, stopping the Earth's rotation for no reason
James Harden is one of the league's best isolation players. It is generally a good thing for Houston when Harden stops the ball, surveys the defense, waits for some help defender to slide an extra step toward him, and then wings a bullet across the court to that guy's man (it would help if that teammate could hit a shot, but that's another story).
But too much Harden-ball can plunge the team into a morass of stagnation that demoralizes other players. One particular irritation: Harden loves to have a point guard screen for him, and feast on smaller defenders if the opponent switches. That's good isolation! Smart defenses catch on fast and stick a bigger guy on Houston's point guard so that the switch doesn't produce a size mismatch.
And yet, Harden still stops the ball as if he's sizing up a munchkin.
8. The Wiz, getting creative against Detroit's deadly pick-and-roll
The Reggie Jackson-Andre Drummond pick-and-roll is Detroit's lifeblood, in part because the Pistons don't really have anywhere else outside the occasional Marcus Morris isolation to generate offense. Opponents know this, and they are going to devise more creative schemes to snuff it out.
I liked how the Wizards had Jackson and Drummond playing 2-on-3 almost from the moment Detroit crossed half-court last week:
Bradley Beal is sitting in Marcin Gortat's lap before the Jackson/Drummond show even starts, and the way Beal and John Wall switch, with Wall sliding away from Jackson to guard Beal's man, feels very scripted.
9. Indy bigs, getting a little greedy
The Pacers are tearing up the league, and their small-ball lineups are on fire after a slow start. Paul George and C.J. Miles are human lava right now. Which is why it can be frustrating when Jordan Hill and Lavoy Allen jack midrange jumpers, even when they can see an extra defender rotating at them -- and abandoning an open shooter:
Balance is important; everyone needs to feel involved, and a big man doing the grunt work deserves an extra couple of touches. But Allen and Hill go through spells where they hunt their own too often.
10. The Greek Freak, cutting
The Bucks are a disaster on defense, but they've actually survived on the other end, in part because Giannis Antetokounmpo has learned to punish defenders who ignore him to muck up the lane:
Everyone drools over the Greek Freak's freaky physical gifts, but his advanced feel for the game as a passer and cutter has always been the best sign for his long-term development.