As he walked off the court at Madison Square Garden on Christmas Day, Giannis Antetokounmpo received the kind of ovation that’s normally reserved for the home team.
“This is why New York is so special. The energy, the atmosphere is great,” Antetokounmpo said after hearing the loudest cheer of the afternoon in the Milwaukee Bucks’ 109-95 Christmas Day win over the New York Knicks. “They’re not just cheering their team, they’re cheering basketball.”
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Knicks fans haven’t had many reasons to applaud their own team over the past three months. New York has lost nine of its past 10 tilts and owns the third worst record in the NBA. The Knicks seem well on their way to a fifth consecutive season of 50-plus losses.
Making things worse, their best player, All-Star big man Kristaps Porzingis, remains sidelined indefinitely while he rehabs an ACL injury. And it remains an open question as to whether Porzingis will play at all this season.
Knicks president Steve Mills said earlier this week that Porzingis was “a ways away” from returning to the court, nearly 11 months after his ACL tear.
The 7-foot-3 forward recently began working on the court with coaches, dunking and shooting pull-up 3-pointers, and he’s expected to be re-evaluated in mid-February.
Knicks head coach David Fizdale said he doesn’t expect Porzingis to return to practice any time soon. But he has been effusive in his praise of Porzingis’ leadership during this rehab.
“I’m so happy with him under the circumstances,” Fizdale said. “I know it’s killing him to not play. But he’s in there [at the practice facility] every day rooting these guys on.”
Much of that leadership occurs during practices and film sessions.
Knicks second-year big Luke Kornet describes Porzingis’ input as “honestly, more than you could expect” in these settings.
Rookie center Mitchell Robinson said Porzingis helped him recognize the proper angle to screen on a pick-and-roll and the best time to call one out on defense. Eighth-year center Enes Kanter said Porzingis called him in to a recent huddle when he was despondent and disengaged during a recent Knicks loss.
“Guys gravitate to that,” Knicks shooting guard Damyean Dotson said.
While Porzingis’ leadership is valuable for this young Knicks team, fans at Madison Square Garden on Christmas Day would have preferred he was on the court. But they should probably get comfortable with the strong possibility he won’t play this season.
“We’d love to see him play, but we also acknowledge that he is a really, really important part of the long-term future of this franchise,” Mills said last week. “And the one thing we’re not going to do is take any real risk with a 23-year-old player in his position.”
For what it’s worth, a group of a dozen executives, scouts and agents reached earlier this week expressed doubt that Porzingis would see the court during the 2018-19 campaign.
“Why would he come back?” one executive said.
The reason most often cited as an answer to that question: Porzingis can show potential free agents that he is healthy. An agent for a prominent 2019 free agent doesn’t believe that’s necessary, stating, “These guys know what he can do.”
Of course, Porzingis’ own future in New York is surrounded by a degree of uncertainty. The Knicks declined to extend his rookie contract before the season, so he will be a restricted free agent this summer. The smart money says the Knicks and Porzingis will reach an agreement this summer, but it’s foolish to see that transaction as a sure thing.
Knicks general manager Scott Perry said earlier this season of Porzingis and his representation, “They want to win … as do we. I think we both want to see a Knicks roster that’s going to be highly competitive for the long term.”
New York, of course, will have the tools to improve the roster this summer and start to build a sustained winner. The Knicks likely will have a top pick in June’s draft and can create enough cap space for a maximum free agent. So, they can fulfill their own vision and Porzingis’.
If that happens, perhaps Porzingis and his teammates — and not a visiting player — will get the loudest ovations from the Garden crowd next Christmas Day.