The Thunder look like they’ll be fun, and good. The Knicks are of course neither, but in last night’s 105-84 loss they were bad on a level that still managed to surprise. If you are a team with a hopeless season ahead of you but a small gaggle of bright young players, you might just invest in their future. You might, for example, play wily, cheap center Willy Hernangomez for more than just two garbage-time minutes. You might not dredge up floppy-haired Ron Baker to be the first guard off the bench—while playing lottery pick Frank Ntilikina just seven minutes—especially if the task at hand is guarding Russell Westbrook, something I never really want to see Ron Baker do again except on forensic-style surveillance cam footage. You might not play Lance Thomas—who is theoretically a usable cog for some actually ambitious team and should be flipped as soon as possible—long and hard enough to degrade whatever trade value might be left in him.
At least one obvious thing was done right: Kristaps was permitted to cook, and it was glorious. He dropped 31 points and 12 rebounds, and one notable block after his former mentor Carmelo Anthony tried to take him one-on-one. This was a nifty move by a newly liberated Melo, and he would’ve gotten away with it too, if not for that meddling eight-foot wingspan:
Porzingis did not submit an especially efficient night—11-of-25 shots, including 2-of-6 three balls—but the 22-year-old looks ready to shoulder the brand-new burdens of a No. 1 scoring threat with Melo gone. Whatever work he put in during the off-season couldn’t have hurt: Porzingis looks even more crafty with his footwork. Play after play I’m reminded that this long oaf is capable of slipping into some shockingly narrow spaces with ball in hand. He faked Patrick Patterson out of his socks. He split defenders with a neat two-step. Especially enjoyable was the way he worked Paul George here, staying patient, dancing around him, creating some breathing room with his big bony elbows so he could bank it in:
The primary concern about Kristaps this season is that it may deepen some of his mild black-hole tendencies. (Not that this is super-meaningful after just one game, but his usage rate of 35 percent last night currently puts him sixth among all players playing more than 20 minutes a game.) With no other Knick capable of breaking double figures besides Enes Kanter, and apparently no guard capable of prying open play-making possibilities or just even generally dribbling the ball, Porzingis was forced to create everything that needed to be created, and that entailed a good deal of chucking.
He airballed two three-pointers early in the shot clock with Paul George closing out; tried shooting a flat-footed nine-footer right over an outmatched Russell Westbrook and bricked it; frequently forced the issue by muscling his way into the lane, only to find himself in a thicket of limbs, with passing routes open but totally ignored. Both these plays start out promising, but end in very worrisome ways:
This is definitely not the off-balance floater you want to see Porzingis shooting with the entire Thunder defense draped all over him, and with two solid shooters, Tim Hardaway Jr. and Frank Ntilikina, idling on the arc. When Kristaps puts the ball over his head it’s already in the lower stratosphere; he should have no problem sending the ball where it needs to go.
This much is obvious: When there is an enormous dude with good handles trundling through the lane, entire defenses will collapse to impede his progress. Whether he can find ways to use this to his teammates’ advantage is perhaps the most interesting question of Zinger’s career. Thus far, aside from some brief flashes of interior passing with his pal Willy, it does not appear to come all that naturally to him.
Sometimes I’m not even sure what path’s more desirable. Should Porzingis be allowed to shoot whatever he wants, and steadily test out his offensive limits, knowing that the season itself is moot? So long as it doesn’t rot his brain permanently, maybe that’s not such a bad thing, and it may well be what we end up seeing over the course of this season. But there’s also the parallel, pleasant universe where the Knicks can tank to their hearts content while still building some simulacrum of a good, collaborative basketball team they want to be in the (very) distant future. That’s probably too much to ask from a franchise that continues to employ Kurt Rambis.