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The nightmare scenario has unfolded at Madison Square Garden. New York Knicks All-Star forward Kristaps Porzingis has suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee, the result of an awkward and devastating landing after a dunk early in the second quarter of Tuesday’s game against the Milwaukee Bucks.
With just under nine minutes to go in the second, Porzingis curled around an elbow screen from point guard Trey Burke, slid in behind veteran guard Jason Terry, took a bounce pass from center Kyle O’Quinn and went up for a dunk. Fellow All-Star forward Giannis Antetokounmpo raced over to try to contest the shot. Porzingis got the dunk, but he came down hard on his left foot and immediately recoiled, dropping to the baseline and holding his left knee in evident pain as he writhed on the ground:
Knicks coaches and medical personnel came over to attend to Porzingis on the baseline. After a few minutes, he limped back to the locker room, leaving the Madison Square Garden crowd — as well as team president Steve Mills and general manager Scott Perry — in stunned silence, fearing the worst.
Knicks management’s reaction to the Porzingis injury pic.twitter.com/pGzUIpGIf3
— N/A (@World_Wide_Wob) February 7, 2018
Kristaps Porzingis (left knee injury) will not return and is undergoing further evaluation.
— NY_KnicksPR (@NY_KnicksPR) February 7, 2018
Knicks star Kristaps Porzingis is undergoing an MRI on his left knee tonight, league source tells ESPN.
— Adrian Wojnarowski (@wojespn) February 7, 2018
That further evaluation revealed the news no Knicks fan — no basketball fan, really — wanted to hear:
Medical Update: An MRI confirmed that Kristaps Porzingis tore the ACL in his left knee.
— NY_KnicksPR (@NY_KnicksPR) February 7, 2018
The 22-year-old star’s ascent must now be put on hold. There’s no official timetable for his return as yet, but he will undergo season-ending surgery that puts a cruel and premature end to a campaign that saw Porzingis come into his own as one of the emerging faces of the league.
Porzingis averaged 22.7 points, 6.6 rebounds, a league-leading 2.4 blocks and 1.2 assists in 32.4 minutes per game in his third season, shooting 44 percent from the field, 39 percent from 3-point land and 79 percent from the foul line. He earned the first All-Star selection of his career due to his rise as the Knicks’ No. 1 option; during the captains’ draft in this year’s new All-Star format, leading vote-getter LeBron James chose Porzingis to be part of his team.
Porzingis is the fourth 2018 All-Star to succumb to injury before the midseason exhibition, meaning NBA Commissioner Adam Silver will have to select another injury replacement after tapping Paul George to step in for DeMarcus Cousins, Andre Drummond to replace John Wall, and Goran Dragic to replace Kevin Love. Porzingis was also scheduled to defend his title as the winner of last year’s Taco Bell Skills Challenge at this year’s All-Star Saturday event at Staples Center; he’ll have to be replaced there, too.
Losing Porzingis absolutely craters any hope New York had of sticking around and grinding its way into the East’s eighth and final playoff spot. The Knicks sit at 23-32, in 11th place in the East, five games behind the eighth-seeded Philadelphia 76ers. They’ve been the worst team in the league for more than a quarter of the season, going 6-17 since Christmas; that was with their best player available, and they just lost him. This season, for all intents and purposes, is over. Next season’s off to an awfully rocky start, too. After surgery, Porzingis will embark on months of grueling rehab, and while returns from ACL procedures vary, many of recent vintage have ranged from nine to 14 months. It’s time to look ahead.
As it stands, the Knicks have the 10th-worst record in the NBA, 5 1/2 games ahead of the Dallas Mavericks and Atlanta Hawks in the race to the bottom that will determine which team gets the highest odds of landing the No. 1 pick in the 2018 NBA draft. With Porzingis gone, the Knicks look like a prime candidate to sink like a stone in the standings just by virtue of a lack of top-end talent. New York should conduct its business this week accordingly.
To whatever degree the Knicks had previously intended to be buyers before Thursday’s trade deadline in an attempt to make a postseason push, a tack Porzingis badly wanted to the team to take, this injury ought to convince New York’s braintrust to move in the other direction. If there’s anything of potential value (future draft considerations, out-of-favor young players who might benefit from a change in scenery, salary relief) to be gained in return for the present-day players on the Knicks’ roster — namely shooting guard Courtney Lee, centers O’Quinn and Enes Kanter, and veteran forward Lance Thomas — Mills and Perry should look to pull the trigger.
The Knicks were already rebuilding. With Porzingis now unlikely to return until several months into the 2018-19 season — Zach LaVine’s first game for the Chicago Bulls came about 11 months after he tore his left ACL with the Minnesota Timberwolves, and Bucks forward Jabari Parker just played his first game 51 weeks after suffering his second left ACL tear — the project’s unveiling date just got pushed back by a full year. (Maybe two.) Giving up future assets in pursuit of a longshot playoff bid already made little sense; without Porzingis, it makes no sense at all. An eighth seed and first-round sweep doesn’t matter without Kristaps there to experience it.
Frankly, with some notable exceptions — ideally more playing time over the next couple of months for rookie point guard Frank Ntilikina, perhaps an opportunity to recommit to understandably disgruntled young center Willy Hernangomez, maybe some top-flight tick for intriguing second-round shooting guard Damyean Dotson — very little the Knicks do for the remainder of this season will matter. Everything the Knicks could be is bound up in the 7-foot-3 frame that got laid low at MSG on Tuesday night. Everything that comes next must be in service of building an appropriately sturdy surrounding structure to support him when he returns.
As a member of the draft class of 2015, Porzingis becomes eligible for an extension of his rookie contract this summer. Before Tuesday, a full-freight, five-year, maximum-salaried extension like the ones inked by Anthony Davis and Damian Lillard, agreed to seconds after the opening of free agency on July 1, seemed all but inevitable. (Since the injury figures to keep him off All-NBA teams and clear of the MVP or Defensive Player of the Year races next season, knocking out his paths to an extension that nets him 30 percent of the Knicks’ salary cap, his max would likely then pay him 25 percent of the cap starting with the first year of his new deal.) That’s probably still the case — while neither LaVine nor Parker got extensions before the 2014 class’ deadline, neither one of them had emerged as the full-fledged face of their franchise — but now, given the performance track record of players after an ACL tear, there’s at least some cause for doubt about how the Knicks will proceed. There’s cause everywhere, now.
Whatever else you could say about the state of the Knicks, and there certainly is plenty, at least they had lucked into the one thing you need to be important in this league: a young talent with the chance to be a transformational superstar, a gateway to the future, a leg to stand on as you look to build something better than what’s come before. That leg got chopped out from underneath the Knicks franchise on Tuesday night. It’s going to be a while before we find out if it’ll be strong enough to give Knicks fans a reason to believe again someday.
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