Saturday, June 27, 2015

Defending the Kristaps Porzingis Selection

This year I really devoted a lot of time into the NBA Draft, not just becoming more familiar with the prospects but also trying to become more familiar with the way NBA executives think in regards to the draft. I think it paid off some as I successfully picked 6 out of the top 10 picks right which is pretty good considering the domino effect of the draft. On a popular draft forum days before the draft, I asked what would be the best fit for Kristaps Porzingis considering all factors. I specifically mentioned in my original post that I didn't think the Knicks or Lakers would be the best fit mainly because their fan-bases would want someone more known and expect to be in win now mode. I also mentioned that Melo would have some qualms about it (BOY was I right), which is also why I was against giving a max contract to a player on the wrong side of 30 on a lottery team because how it would affect decisions like this (But that's a different argument). Anyways, hopefully after having time to get over their disappointment and doing more research the Knicks fans feel better about this selection.

Why Porzingis Made Sense

This is very simple, he was considered the 4th best prospect in the draft and was picked 4th. If either of the top-3 prospects had fallen to the Knicks, they would have selected one of them over Porzingis. If Knicks fans want to be mad at anyone, take your anger out on 76ers' GM Sam Hinkie, who seems to have little interest in team-building at all. New York hired Phil Jackson to make them a winner, give him a chance to do his job. Melo might not like this, but the Knicks best chance at success was always going to be in 2016-17 opposed to this year. When you're picking in the top-5 in the draft you have to favor upside more than NBA readiness. There's no point in picking a player you project as simply good in the top-5 of the NBA draft. Good NBA players are easily obtained. You could get a Corey Brewer-ish player for a 2nd round pick. You can find a Brandan Wright or Al-Farouq Aminu for the minimum if you do your due diligence. If you want to spend a little more money you can get a Trevor Ariza, or Finals MVP Iggy. Guys like that are easily obtainable in the NBA, at least in contrast to stars. Porzingis does represent a risk, but he also has high reward potential which you look for in the top portion of the draft.

There's real excitement amongst talent evaluators about Kristaps Porzingis, he just seems different than most international prospects. For one, he's prepared his whole life to be an NBA player. He speaks fluent English and is knowledgeable about American culture growing up in the social media and widespread internet age. Communication is vital in sports, and there have been lottery picks that could barely speak English, Porzingis has a vital advantage which should help ease some of the cultural transition that international prospects face. He also seems very self-aware, he knows about the international players that have failed to live up to their draft status, and he embraces the challenge of proving himself to be different. Lastly and probably most importantly, he wants to be a good NBA player. That's a very underrated aspect. Some European prospects didn't care too much about the NBA, and in the back of their minds they knew they could return to Europe and make great money playing closer to home. Porzingis legitimately wants to be in the NBA and that matters. (Check out the Grantland Series on him)

I'm aware of the stat that since Yao Ming was drafted in 2001, no international lottery pick has been an All-Star, but that is extremely misleading. For one there has only been 19 and in some years no international prospects have even been selected in the lottery. It also doesn't acknowledge how in recent years we have improved European scouting. In the earliest years, Peja Stojakovic, Dirk, and Pau Gasol didn't even appear on every teams draft boards. The Bulls had the 2nd and 4th pick in the 2001 Draft and could have had any prospect they wanted. I read a story where the GM said their scouts told them not to even bother evaluating Pau Gasol. Following the success of those players and hoping to avoid the same mistake, teams drafted prospects they knew very little about in hopes they could get the next superstar. Now we have more information about how to compare international prospects besides just size and shooting ability. We know the difference in comparing a player that plays in the Spanish ACB league (considered the best league outside the NBA) opposed to a player that plays in a lower level Finnish league. There has also been several All-Stars drafted just outside the lottery or lottery prospects who were around fringe All-Star level. When a sample size is as low as 19, it's hard to get a true statistical evaluation.

New York fans would have rather had Justise Winslow, Cauley-Stein or Stanley Johnson and they probably would have improved the team next year more than Porzingis, BUT there are serious concerns about all those players as well. Cauley-Stein lack of offense means that he has to be a consistent ALL-NBA level defender to justify his selection. Stanley Johnson, despite his athleticism won't be able to stay on the court if his shooting doesn't improve. Justise Winslow is the new Mr. Intangibles, the last prospect that was as highly regarded in that sense was Michael Kidd Gilchrist and as prospects they aren't drastically different (In his defense we'd value Kidd Gilcrist more if he was around pick 10 instead of 2). All of those guys would have helped on the defense end more, especially in year-1 but offense and defense is not equal in the NBA. It's not even close really. If it was Mark Eaton, Ben Wallace, and Marcus Camby who by every metric, traditional and advanced are considered elite defenders and have the award recognitions would be easily considered Hall of Famers (Wallace may have the best chance) but they aren't. Defensive Box-Score Plus/Minus rate them as the 3 best defenders ever. You don't believe its value? Well Offensive Box-Score Plus/Minus rates LeBron, Jordan, CP3, Magic, as it's top 4. It's an extremely insightful (not perfect) statistic. We just had an MVP who is the worst defensive player in his teams rotation, and a MVP runner-up who improved his defense from atrocious to below average. Kristaps Porzingis could be a 20pt scorer, and that same belief is what got D'Angelo Russell picked 2nd despite his defense.

This brings us to Melo, and his desire to win now. Melo already made that decision last year. Houston, Chicago, and Dallas represented strong win-now possibilities. He may have lost a couple dollars, but Houston and Dallas were both offering him over $20 million a year and Chicago was around that mark. He chose New York for the maximum money (not blaming him) and now he has to trust Phil Jackson to make the best decisions. I'm not a fan of players being GM's. They want the input and the credit but they don't get the backlash when the decision do not pan out. In the past Phil may have traded that pick for an NBA All-star type player that needed a new change of scenery but teams rarely make those type of trades anymore in part because contracts are so short that good players always seem on the verge of free agency. You don't give away a top-5 pick for a player you could lose in a year. I think more than anything Phil realized that Melo isn't as good as he or some Knicks fans think he is. Don't get me wrong he's an all-star and future Hall of Famer, but not all Hall of Famers are equal; there are levels. LeBron, CP3, and Wade are the transcendent stars from Melo's generation, while Joe Johnson, Chris Bosh, Melo, Deron, and Amare are below that. Dwight Howard falls somewhere weirdly in between those tiers. The first group (Wade in his prime) are a good draft pick, and free agent signing from having your team in the mix, especially in the Eastern Conference. The latter group needs a player equal to or better than them or a very balanced-developed roster or else they're competing for the lower seeds or in the lottery. With the first group you feel like this year could always be your year, with the 2nd group you have to keep more of an eye towards the future. That's not to knock them at all, it's simply the truth. Kristaps Porzingis could be the star of the 2020 Knicks, and to Phil Jackson that was more valuable than a short-term boost of Justise Winslow or Stanley Johnson for Melo. Phil is also aware that Melo is now 31, at age 27 you roll the dice with him (which is what the Knicks did by the way) but now you want to win with him while protecting your future as well.

The Knicks only hope of being good next year was convincing Marc Gasol to come to New York, and that is still a possibility. Phil Jackson stayed true to his draft board and picked the best available "Prospect". That's smart because if the Knicks do land a top-tier player in free agency, they could then package Porzingis in a trade and he has pretty high trade value. Or they could keep him and groom him as their next star, the point is the Knicks have given themselves more flexibility. It makes me agree somewhat with Phil when he said he did a good job this past year, except I don't believe that after winning less than 20 games, he should be openly boasting just yet. Ultimately this off-season will be judged as the moment the Knicks turned things around or the moment when continued to be "the Knicks". Kristaps Porzingis will go a long way in deciding that. Good luck.