By John Schmeelk
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As Knicks fans enjoy the present and imagine the future, they have to be encouraged by how Kristaps Porzingis and Frank Ntilikina have been playing together.
The long, lanky and young teammates from across the pond have only 41 years on the planet between them, but they look like a combination that could be special.
The numbers are stunning, albeit in a small sample size. When Porzingis and Ntilikina have been on the floor together the Knicks are outscoring opponents by more than 40 points per 100 possessions. Despite only playing 85 minutes together, they have a better plus/minus than any other pair of players on the roster. Why? It’s simple. They play defense.
The Knicks have an infinitesimal defensive rating of 83.8 (points allowed per 100 possessions) when both those guys are in the game at the same time. Their combined 14- foot-plus wingspan and ability to get their hands on the ball makes it very difficult for opponents to operate their offense.
Ntilikina is fourth in the league in steals per game (2.0), despite only averaging 20 minutes per game. He leads the league in steals per minute. Porzingis is fourth in the league In blocked shots (2.2 per game).
Many of the above numbers will likely normalize with a bigger sample size, so it is time for the Knicks to test that theory. Porzingis and Ntilikina need to play together more and the easiest way to do that is to start Ntilikina. They’ve played most of their minutes together in the fourth quarter, so it makes sense to do so in as much of the rest of game as possible. Aside from the numbers, the pairing just makes too much sense.
Ntilikina is without a doubt the team’s best perimeter defender, but he struggles as a scorer. Yet he is often on the floor with a second unit that features Kyle O’Quinn, Doug McDermott, Lance Thomas, and Courtney Lee. That group understandably has trouble putting the ball in the basket. Ntilikina doesn’t really have anyone to run the screen-and-roll with to show off his passing skills. He needs to play with the team’s best scorer (and player): Porzingis.
Meanwhile, the starting lineup features three players not known for their defense in Jarrett Jack, (an improving) Tim Hardaway Jr., and Enes Kanter. Swapping Ntilikina in for Jack would balance both lineups a little, since Jack could be more aggressive with his mid-range jump shot when playing with the second unit. Ntilikina would help the defense with the starters, and his passing would help elevate the team more with targets like Porzingis in the pick-and-roll and Hardaway in transition.
It would also make it easier for Jeff Hornacek to make sure Ntilikina is rested and on the floor at the end of the game. Right now, he often replaces Jack with between three and five minutes remaining in the third quarter. Many times, Hornacek has to remove Ntilikina midway through the fourth so he isn’t gassed in the final minutes. As a starter he could rest from the early part of the third quarter until midway through the fourth, if necessary.
There’s no reason for Ntilikina not to start playing 30 minutes a game. Hornacek already plays him in the most important minutes in the fourth quarter. It’s time to start getting the most out of his skills to begin the game and to take advantage of his obvious chemistry with Porzingis. Ntilikina is only 19, but he is clearly the best point guard on the team. He and Porzingis are the future. It is time for the future to start now.
— Joakim Noah is back and Hornacek is doing the right thing by leaving him inactive.
The Knicks are filled with big men and the coach doesn’t have to play Noah just because of his contract. If he shows he is healthy (and good) enough to contribute in practice the Knicks can explore a trade for O’Quinn.
Under no circumstance should the Knicks ever use the stretch position on Noah. Even after being stretched, the Knicks likely wouldn’t have significant cap room this summer and possibly the next as well. The only way the Knicks stretch someone like Noah is if they have an elite-level free agent committed, but they can only afford him if they stretch Noah. Otherwise, the Knicks would be better off with the contract running out on its own accord.
— Playing Toronto on the road, which the Knicks do Friday night, will be a great test for Hornacek’s team. The Raptors are still one of the better clubs in the East and are tough to beat on their home court. The Knicks have had a lot of their success at home and young teams often struggle in a hostile road environment.
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