NEW YORK — Kristaps Porzingis’ time in New York started the same way this chapter of his professional career closed: with drowning boos from a disapproving crowd.
Little does he know that the boo fest — which began during the national anthem, matured into “K-P sucks!” and evolved into other insults that would make the most ornery New Yorker blush — isn’t nearly as bad as things would be if Porzingis remained a Knick.
Clearly, that “Once A Knick” slogan didn’t apply to the current Dallas Maverick in the eyes of fans who felt the sting of rejection once it was revealed Porzingis — disgruntled with the direction of the franchise — wanted out while rehabbing his debilitating ACL injury.
Better to return under the cloud of pseudo-controversy than to be a nightly disappointment, a $100 million man unfit to fulfill the dreams of the most desperate Knicks fans. Debating the merits of whether the Knicks trading Porzingis was fruitful is irrelevant to this conversation, although he represented the one marketable piece others might want to play with.
But being the nightly attraction, expected to lift the Knicks from their 20-win seasons was a task too large for him.
Franchise talent, yes. But franchise player?
There’s a difference, as minute as it appears.
Consistent health is one, and Porzingis’ unique body type makes it hard to trust he’ll hold up in the long run. He’s also in a climate where patience is in higher order in Dallas than it would’ve been had he stayed in New York.
He played well Thursday night, although he didn’t stand out in the 106-103 Knicks win. He was 7-of-17 from the field for 20 points and 11 rebounds, punctuated by a tip dunk following a Luka Doncic miss to tie the game before the end of the third quarter.
The game was waiting for Porzingis to put his stamp on it, to shove all of the nonsense back in the Knicks’ faces. But when given the chance, he played hot potato with the ball, flopped on the next play and tossed up an off-balance jumper that had no chance.
The moment belonged to Marcus Morris Sr., who hit a step-back triple with 13.4 seconds left to break a tie at 101.
“It’s the first time I’ve seen the Garden like that,” said Morris Sr. “We’re trying to turn this around. We’re looking to get wins. Someone called, said it was my Knick moment. Hopefully it’s not my last.”
The Knicks have myriad issues that won’t be solved by spirited wins against Dallas, so they could only take so much solace in someone else’s misery for once. And those problems probably wouldn’t be solved by Porzingis’ presence, either.
He’s good enough to help a turnaround, but not great enough to spearhead it.
Porzingis had a few “Knick moments” and his gifts are as advertised, but the combination of an expected maximum contract extension with his stair-step recovery would’ve produced inconsistent results in the immediate and not enough wins in the long run.
From the moment a rookie Porzingis unexpectedly spun off then-Hawks forward Paul Millsap on a fast break to send Madison Square Garden into a frenzy following an easy dunk, he was thrust into immediate superstardom and became the franchise savior.
But he seems so much more comfortable in a supporting role to Doncic, the man who Knicks coach David Fizdale claimed could be the best European player in NBA history, better than incumbent title-holder Dirk Nowitzki.
It wasn’t intentional shade but unspoken in Fizdale’s comment was: “better than Kristaps Porzingis.”
Not that Dallas is Siberia, but it certainly isn’t the cauldron of New York, where a once-smitten relationship was bound to turn sour. Porzingis can go through the seismic ups and downs without the constant scrutiny, largely because he’s still the new kid in town. It happens to them all, most recently to Carmelo Anthony — the rare star who wanted to carry the torch in New York and is just now finding work with the Portland Trail Blazers for a final curtain call.
“I don’t know if [booing] was fair or not,” Porzingis said afterward in a soft-spoken tone that seemed to conflict with the departure demand that emanated from his brother in a quick meeting with Knicks brass last season.
“It’s what [fans] know. It’s what they heard. I don’t think about it too much. It is what it is.”
He seemed to try to embrace being the villain first, smiling when he heard “Traitor!” and “Go back to Latvia!” from the upper reaches of the Garden.
But from 300 feet, it was clear this was not the homecoming he expected, perhaps wanting to feast on a Knicks team mired in turmoil in the early weeks of the season. Those seeds were planted the day they traded Porzingis with the unfulfilled promise of bonafide superstars coming months later.
“It was really tough for him,” Doncic said. “The way he handled it, he’s just so professional. I think he didn’t deserve it. He gave a lot to the Knicks. They booed him at the draft. He didn’t deserve this from my point of view, but he handled this very professionally and I’m really proud of him.”
Doncic seems fit for it all, the attention off the court and the responsibility to excel on it. Doncic shook off early clanks to toss feathery jumpers that barely caught net in an exhilarating sequence that prompted admiration from the Garden crowd.
But the fans saved their best (worst?) for Porzingis, who couldn’t make them eat their words and will probably find it difficult to make them have seller’s remorse if he doesn’t develop into more than a tantalizing talent.
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