About an hour before Carmelo Anthony was traded to the Oklahoma City Thunder, Kristaps Porzingis posted a photo of himself, earbuds in, peace sign up, announcing his return to New York.
While he was somewhere over the Atlantic—ostensibly—Porzingis became the face of the Knicks. The tall weird kid from Latvia, who only two years earlier was drafted to a crowd of confused and semi-horrified Knicks fans, was suddenly the cornerstone of the franchise Phil Jackson presumably hoped he’d become.
So here we are, three weeks away from the beginning of the season. Phil Jackson is probably somewhere in Montana smoking some reefer and tooling around on his iPad. The Knicks will play the Thunder in OKC to start the season, creating one big circus for the New York media to kick off the season before they return to New York with all eyes on Porzingis.
It felt like a longer time coming than it actually was, but the result is still pretty wild: At only 22, Porzingis is the best and most famous member of the 2017-18 Knicks, and he’s going to be required to shoulder an off-the-court load usually reserved for a veteran. Take a tour of this roster. Forget the merits and struggles of each individual player on a minute level and ask yourself this: Who is going to take more questions about the team and its future than Porzingis?
Porzingis swears he’s ready to handle the team without Melo. Knicks beat writer Frank Isola ran into Porzingis at a restaurant a couple days ago and the Latvian sensation said:
“Carmelo was a mentor to me. He was a big brother from day one. I texted him to tell him I appreciated that I was able to learn from him. Having him around was important for me. I respect him a lot. I also told him that if he doesn’t bring his Rolls Royce with him, I’ll take care of it.”
The big brother/little brother dynamic seems to fit, as it’s a real little brother thing to ask to borrow the Rolls.
But really, this didn’t come out of the blue. Carmelo and Phil were openly battling throughout basically Jackson’s tenure with the Knicks; Porzingis, showing impressive grit for a kid still pretty new to the league, blew off his employer in his exit interview.
By all accounts, Carmelo was a gracious subject for New York reporters. There was a lot of shit he surely didn’t want to face, but based on this last week’s coverage of the trade by Knicks beat writers, he seems to have treated them well. Porzingis got two seasons watching his “big brother” handle the Knicks circus. That’ll come in handy.
And yet, Knicks beat reporters are nothing if not aggravating. Usually, that antagonism is turned toward team ownership and executives, but this is New York, baby. There’s enough drama to go around. The question at hand, then, is how long until Kristaps snaps. It seems inevitable, right? He left last season feuding with his bosses, and no matter how irrelevant the team proves to be on the court, the papers need quotes and they need headlines, and and no one really cares to hear from the likes of Courtney Lee.
To make things potentially worse for everyone, the NBA just approved changes that will now give the top three teams equal opportunities in the draft lottery. This means teams won’t have to be quite so bad to be bad enough to get a shot at the top pick. Depending on where the Knicks find themselves in the standings, what’ll stop them from holding a guy like Porzingis out for a couple weeks for some vague injury as a “precaution”? How would Porzingis handle something like that? How would you do it if you were 22 years old, spending just your third year in a foreign country, stepping out day after day, with all the pressure on you to make the public happy while your employers piss away yet another year of your career?
Then imagine a day when some courtside assholes have spent all game taking out their Dolan-centric anger on you, and the team has lost again, and you’re getting poked by a tabloid reporter whose editor is on them to get you to say something interesting and the guy who shielded the rest of the team from this stuff for the last six years is off in another time zone.
Porzingis might handle it all just fine; he wouldn’t be the first. He also wouldn’t be the first to have no idea what to do in the center of basketball hell.