Kristaps Porzingis needs to improve his defense for the Knicks to reach their peak (and his).
Written by The New York Basketball Observer
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Editor’s Note: This was written before the 2016–2017 All-star selections were made. While some irrelevant information (whether or not Porzingis will be an all-star) has been purged, there will still be some notes that clarify the timing of this piece relative to it’s published date.
In many of the Knicks’ broadcasts, both nationally and locally, Mike Breen, Jeff Van Gundy, Walt Frazier, and many others have called Porzingis a “future all-star” but, how soon in the future will that praise come to fruition?
Plenty of media analysts, radio hosts, and basketball writers have deemed the Knicks franchise property of Porzingis’ in the years to come. The conservative pundits will tell you that Carmelo Anthony is soon to lose his top dog spot (assuming he continues to play in New York) in the coming years, while the more brazen basketball hipsters will tell you that has already happened. Porzingis is an exciting player, a budding star, and a promising talent, but he’s not yet a superstar, not an all-star, and not yet the best player on his team (sorry hipsters). I don’t want to spend much time comparing Porzingis and Melo, but it’s a little disrespectful to write off a guy who has proven, if nothing else, that he’s one of the best scorers the league has ever seen. As is the theme of this article, and as Porzingis will need to learn, there are a lot more skills that need sharpening to make a great player out of a talented one. Even a player like Carmelo, as great a scorer as he is, needs to bring so much to the table just to make his team competitive. Often ridiculed for his defensive lapses, he is living proof that scoring alone can’t get you too far in the playoffs, or even rack up W’s at the rate he would like. One fundamental thing Melo has done throughout his career which has enabled him to score the ball at will is staying on the floor.
Porzingis got off to a hot start in the 2016–2017 season, improving in most areas from his rookie season, but while minor injuries have sabotaged his rhythm at times, his decision making and consequential foul trouble has disrupted his rhythm just as much.
So what kind of player do the Knicks want? What kind of player do Knicks fans want? The guy who will bring out the celebrities, endorse their favorite products, and give them a few highlights each night, or the player who will add several wins per season to your record? More importantly, how do we distinguish those 2 players and how can the future all-star become the current superstar?
Much like the Knicks as a unit, he simply has to defend better. Often the final puzzle piece in most good teams, and certainly the final lasting criticism of this current Knicks squad is the consistent defense. Easy to say, for most, but where exactly does Porzingis fall short? He is a 7-foot-3 Power Forward, as no TV analyst will let you forget, and his athleticism for his size is special, which again has been noted to death. I could give some diagnosis into what I think he could do better or how he can improve one thing or another, but instead of having the arrogance to think I am somehow more qualified than the coaches that work with him daily, I will do my best to try and just give my insight into what he is struggling with, and not my guess at how to fix it. I’m confident that his coaches and his team are aware of his shortcomings, but he’s so often praised by fans (and rightfully so) for his many talents and gifts, that his struggles are sometimes glossed over or ignored by casual observers.
The most glaring criticism I have seen in Porzingis’ game is his inability to stay out of foul trouble.
While I would like to focus only on the current season, this was a year-long battle for Porzingis in his rookie year, one that he never really conquered. To his credit, this is an issue seemingly all rookies struggle with at first, especially those who see big minutes, but it has been only recently this season that the trend has seemed to head in the right direction.
So, what’s been causing the foul trouble, specifically? For a 7-footer, you will find yourself defending in the paint quite a bit, and in Porzingis’ case (more so this year than last), defending opposing 5’s. The foundation of individual defense with an emphasis on staying out of foul trouble generally comes down to 2 golden rules: stay on your feet (especially for defending guards), and go straight up (especially for defending bigs). Porzingis has struggled with both.
Above, Porzingis positions himself in a defensive stance which would be fundamentally sound had his arms gone straight up at a 180-degree angle. Instead, this quasi-defensive stance catches Porzingis not only with his arms coming down into the defender to draw an easy foul, but really strips him of his strengths which include his mobility and his rim protection. To make matters worse, in this particular clip, Porzingis defends Anthony Morrow with this tactic while backpedaling. One other slight advantage to the “straight up” tactic is the potential for a charge, but of course, this is negated by moving backwards. By not jumping, he attempts to limit the probability that he will be whistled for a foul, all the while, decreasing the likelihood of blocking the shot. Again, this is an effective alternative to trying to block a shot if you go straight up. Porzingis’ chances of blocking a shot, or at least intimidating the shooter, decreases greatly for the greater good of staying in the game and not drawing the foul, only he forces officials to whistle him by bringing his arms down at an angle onto the offensive player.
Below is an example of Porzingis doing the opposite. In circumstances where he should stay on his feet and either concede the basket to the offense in lieu of a more costly foul, Porzingis leaves his feet and creates the worst-case-scenario of vulnerability. This lack of defensive discipline almost always results in a foul call, but worse than that, exposes Porzingis to players jumping into him, undercutting him, or landing beneath him and exposing him to possible injury, not to mention the additional threat of a three-point-play.
Another frustration for fans of the Knicks or fans of Porzingis is that he is physically capable of being above average as a defender. Porzingis is not Draymond Green or Tristan Thompson, able to play and defend the Center position and switch onto a point guard for the duration of a possession and hold his own. He doesn’t have to do that and he can still be great just by using his physical tools and a better approach. Porzingis, while slender, can rim protect against 5’s, but is certainly prone to foul trouble once they are deep in the paint with their back to the basket. Fronting a 5 is his best tactic and soliciting help on the catch, but he absolutely has to use his length and quickness to his advantage. Porzingis is able to contain on a 5–1 or 4–1 pick and roll, but this of course is a Knicks schematic issue where they mustn’t commit to the switch so easily, but instead ice and contain the pick and roll (explained). Below, Porzingis shows that he is well-equipped to defend face-up big men who try to put the ball on the floor. Porzingis is quick enough to contain an elite all-star player like Paul Millsap and long enough to contest a step-back jumper from about 12 feet.
The foul trouble that has plagued Porzingis this year hasn’t all been self-inflicted. As I mentioned, there are some schematic deficiencies that put Porzingis at risk. Derrick Rose (below), as part of the formerly mentioned pick-and-roll defense, must do a better job in the following clip to contain Jeff Teague without switching. Not only does Rose need to fight for position over the screen with more enthusiasm, but in this clip, the ball is actually bobbled, giving Rose plenty of time to recover, but instead putting Porzingis in a lose-lose situation. This is something I have to imagine the coaching staff sees and recognizes, but this cannot manifest itself on the court for the sake of Porzingis’ growth.
Directly above, Porzingis again shows an inexplicable lack of commitment to a double team on Demarcus Cousins. It’s hard to watch that clip knowing that the Knicks have been lit up by analysts and their own head coach for lack of defensive effort. The decision to double is not a bad one. Cousins is a mismatch for any defending player and the undersized Kyle O’Quinn certainly had his hands full, but if Darren Collison lures Porzingis in just a little more with a head fake, a hard drive, or a pass fake, The Unicorn is far enough from Kosta Koufos that he could catch an easy lob for two points.
And then there’s this.
If this were a youth league and I were the coach, Porzingis’ dad would have to fight me after what words would be exchanged following that play. This is nothing more than a frustration play after a missed shot, an absolutely useless personal foul where Porzingis hadn’t even left his feet before the ball was in the rebounder’s possession. This is a terrible foul for anyone, but for someone whose growth may be stunted by his inability to stay on the floor and out of foul trouble? Unacceptable.
Sure, it’s true that there are a million other variables at play in Porzingis’ growth and success. Those range from his health, the organization and the soap opera that it can be, the players around him and the habits of the team instilled by staff and coaches, and plenty of other things that he can’t control. His other skills and attributes could be discussed, his offensive inconsistency, his decision-making, and plenty of factors play a role in his growth as a player, but truthfully, it should start on the defensive end. Not unlike the emergence of any great team, the other elements of the game are all affected by defense. To stay on the floor, to gain a rhythm, to avoid being a liability, to help his team, the Knicks have to fix the defense. I feel like I’ve heard that before…