It’s no secret that Kristaps Porzingis and the New York Knicks would be best served going forward if a sizable chunk of his minutes come at center. There’s never been a player with the 7-foot-3 Latvian’s blend of length and skill, and the league’s infatuation with small-ball naturally leverages that unique trait even further. One problem: New York’s only other worthwhile young player stands in the way of Porzingis fulfilling his stretch-5 destiny.
That’s a relative problem, of course. It’s certainly not like the talent-barren Knicks are better off without Willie Hernangomez. Any team would love to have a 22-year-old center who boasts size, touch and feel for the game, even if that meant complicating the development of its franchise cornerstone. New York has time on its side, too. Porzingis is several years away from his prime, and it’s tough for the Knicks to accurately foretell the future with Carmelo Anthony still on the roster anyway.
Point being, change will come between now and when New York needs to make a decision with regard to its pair of young big men. But that’s not to suggest Phil Jackson and company shouldn’t use this lost season to assess the viability of making Porzingis and Hernangomez the Knicks’ frontcourt tandem of today and tomorrow.
The former teammates for Baloncesto Sevilla of Spain’s ACB League shared the floor for 558 minutes this season, the second-most of any Knicks interior duo. Lineups utilizing Porzingis and Hernangomez posted an offensive rating of 104.0 and a defensive rating of 107.8, good for a net rating of -3.8. Those numbers aren’t encouraging on the surface but need the context of New York’s widespread dysfunction to be fully understood.
The net rating of Porzingis and Hernangomez is actually slightly better than the Knicks’ season-long mark, on the strength of defense that allowed just less than one point fewer per 100 possessions. The difference between Porzingis-Hernangomez and team-wide offensive ratings is even smaller. Big picture, there was nothing in 2016-17 that strongly favored or opposed the potential long-term success of both big men – which is actually a positive takeaway considering their youth.
Porzingis and Hernangomez have the natural tools to form an effective pairing – for short stretches, at least. Both are light on their feet for seven-foot types, and already possess the sense of timing and spatial awareness necessary to make traditional quintets work in the modern NBA.
With all due respect to Hernangomez, it’s Porzingis who makes this Twin Towers look semi-effective. How many seven-footers can draw help defenders, stretch the floor, and keep up with power forwards on the other end? He’s the original unicorn for a reason.
Porzingis, like all great players, affects the action even when he’s not directly involved in it–an especially important reality given the inevitable offensive constraints of old-school frontcourts. Hernangomez wouldn’t have space to catch and finish past Jusuf Nurkic, for instance, if the threat of Porzingis spotting up in the weak corner didn’t make Noah Vonleh hesitate to help.
It’s the subtle stuff that could allow Porzingis and Hernangomez to successfully coexist offensively. Both guys are willing passers, and Hernangomez has flashed the mid-range comfort that will help spread the floor around Porzingis ball screens and post-ups.
Notice how Gorgui Dieng refuses to leave Porzingis after a side pick-and-roll with Derrick Rose, by the way, opening up the driving lane that leads to Hernangomez’s open jumper.
Still, no amount of numbers and film is necessary to understand that New York’s offensive ceiling is higher with Porzingis playing alongside a rangy, sweet-shooting power forward. The only reason teams ever play traditional bigs simultaneously is to exploit the advantages their combined size presents, the majority of which come on the other side of the ball. And unfortunately for the Knicks, Porzingis and Hernangomez didn’t dominate the paint this season like David West and Roy Hibbert did for the bygone Indiana Pacers.
New York came away with just 72 percent of available defensive rebounds with Porzingis and Hernangomez on the floor, a number well below the team’s league-worst rate of 74.2 percent. It’s not like they showed anything on the offensive glass to make you optimistic that might be a one-year blip, either. The Knicks were a top-five offensive rebounding outfit this season but grabbed an inconsequential 23.4 percent of their misses when Porzingis and Hernangomez were up front.
Another issue is Hernongomez’s questionable ability as a rim-protector. Porzingis forced opponents into 44.2 percent shooting at the rim this season, the fifth-best mark in basketball. His longtime teammate, on the other hand, allowed slightly below-average 51.7 percent shooting under the same duress. Hernangomez will get better with time and experience but doesn’t have the reach or explosiveness to ever be much more than a mild deterrent for an attacker. And considering he’s not quick enough to check new-age power forwards, pairing Hernangomez with Porzingis prevents the latter from making his biggest possible defensive impact.
Going big simply doesn’t make sense if the players in question don’t actually play all that big. Porzingis is still easily pushed off his spots by aggressive defenders and frequently loses rebounding positioning, and Hernangomez doesn’t fit the profile of an enforcer who makes up for his fellow big man’s lack of physical mettle.
Porzingis and Hernangomez probably don’t make an ideal throwback frontcourt, basically, but they also don’t need to. New York’s years-long blueprint for contention around its franchise player won’t be scrapped to accommodate the promising debut of a rookie second-rounder. Porzingis is still destined to settle in as a center.
A team can’t have too much flexibility on the court or at the bargaining table, however, and Hernangomez’s emergence gives Jeff Hornacek and Phil Jackson another intriguing piece to help rebuild the Knicks. He could eventually be the defender who permits Porzingis the luxury of avoiding star centers, or the trade chip who brings New York some much-needed athleticism on the wing. There’s no telling what Hernangomez’s future holds.
One thing’s for sure, at least: What he and Porzingis showed in 2016-17 is reason enough for the Knicks to explore it further next season.
*Statistical support for this post provided by nba.com/stats