The cruelest and saddest of NBA winters has struck again, this time pilfering the towering promise for the New York Knicks and their long-forsaken fans. For the first time in a generation, the Knicks were finally going to go about rebuilding the right way, refusing to settle for the quick-fix savior who would inevitably let them down and prolong their path to relevance with more frustration, pain and sometimes shame.
Kristaps Porzingis represented something different. He wasn’t some outsider coming to the rescue and to pocket big checks from owner James Dolan. He wasn’t some prodigal son, selling a homecoming story and hoping nostalgia could mask the failures. He was a homegrown hope. One of their own. Drafted and groomed to be a star. Destined to define the future as the reward for those many decades of agony.
But unlike Patrick Ewing, the legend whose presence the franchise has sought unsuccessfully to replace this entire millennium, Porzingis arrived with more doubt than hype in 2015. Porzingis created his own hysteria, defying the boos with a game so unique and mystifying for a 7-footer that Kevin Durant dubbed him “unicorn.” Though he hails from Latvia, Porzingis is New York. He’s got so much confidence, he’s dripping Swagu. He wants the pressure and scrutiny that comes from playing in the league’s most unforgiving and arguably most passionate city. He’s hunting greatness and has the work ethic, skill set and insane wingspan to possibly grab it.
That’s what the Knicks lost for likely an entire year, if not more, Tuesday night, when Porzingis crumpled to the floor in a heap after tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee. Porzingis had thrown down an impressive dunk over Milwaukee Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo — another European player with whom he is expected to own the league for years to come — but landed awkwardly, setting off one of the fastest transitions from exhilaration to exasperation.
All of Madison Square Garden fell silent as Porzingis clutched his knee and was assisted by his teammates off the court. Team president Steve Mills and general manager Scott Perry, the men responsible for executing the Knicks’ Porzingis-led path, both covered their heads in disbelief and immediately rushed to the back to check on the first-time All-Star who might not be able to play in the actual game until 2020.
For now, the wait won’t matter so long as Porzingis can return to All-Star form again. But when it comes to knees, there are no guarantees. Chicago Bulls fans surely never imagined that the league’s youngest MVP would never make another All-Star team and have his career crater before ever entering what should’ve been his prime. The Knicks were facing an opponent in the Bucks who have a young player in Jabari Parker who has already made it back from two ACL tears. But the Knicks don’t need Porzingis to come back and be OK, they need him to be what his talents and cockiness suggested he could become. They need him to be the player who gave New Yorkers another reason to be obnoxious fans, the basketball equivalent of the “27 rings” taunts. Or at least the player who could attract some generational talent to what has long been considered basketball Mecca.
This season has already been a brutal reminder of the frailty of team building, with injuries delaying and in some instances derailing teams’ plans for prosperity. Gordon Hayward broke his ankle on opening night, but Boston has recovered to take the top seed in the Eastern Conference for now. With Hayward, the Celtics would be running away with the lead. In the past few weeks, franchises have been sent into disarray with misfortune. In the midst of a career season that would’ve ended his run as the best player to never make a playoff appearance, DeMarcus Cousins ruptured his Achilles and stoked more fear with a New Orleans Pelicans franchise that is desperate to construct a winner around Anthony Davis. The Memphis Grizzlies have lost a coach and an identity without Mike Conley. The Washington Wizards are trying to make sure “everybody eats” without offending John Wall. Even veteran teams aren’t immune from the devastation, as the thrice-defending conference champion Cavaliers accelerated their abysmal play after Kevin Love broke his hand.
When the Knicks finally ended their unfulfilling marriage with Carmelo Anthony, Porzingis emerged as a willing landlord of the franchise’s fortunes, not intimidated by the failures of those who previously held that position. Since Ewing was dealt unceremoniously to Seattle in 2000, the Knicks have placed their hopes in Isiah Thomas, Stephon Marbury, Larry Brown, Mike D’Antoni, Amar’e Stoudemire, Anthony and Phil Jackson. Each situation ended badly, with sour feelings on both sides and millions of Dolan’s dollars gone to waste.
By going all in with Porzingis, the Knicks committed to letting him grow and accepting his flaws. They decided that through him, the Knicks would see what they could be if they followed the path of the league’s most successful franchises. The best organizations don’t pray for a savior. They draft a foundation, develop it and display savvy and shrewdness while adding complementary pieces. They become a destination by establishing a culture. Patience supposedly didn’t play well in New York where they demanded an immediate winner, but that practice only extended the suffering and dysfunction. Through no fault of their own, the Knicks have now entered a nightmarish phase of anguish and anticipation. All the positive platitudes about Porzingis being so young and determined that he’ll come back better and stronger can be calming as it relates to his recovery, but they provide no long-term comfort.
Porzingis will soon have surgery and enter a long rehabilitation period that will remove the Knicks from the playoff race for this season and next. Missing out this season was for the best because the Knicks could stand to add another high lottery pick — and potential star — to a young core that includes Porzingis and Frank Ntilikina. But for the Knicks the end game was always 2019, when they would have Porzingis, a real star, to promote as a building block for what should be a dynamic free-agent class. Now they must wait and hope that the future didn’t end before it really started. That this unrelenting winter of much discontent didn’t put the franchise on course for another reset, this time with an upsetting dose of what-could’ve-been.
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