TORONTO -- It seemed like every time the Knicks were in the headlines last year, they were fighting each other. Phil Jackson took shots at Carmelo Anthony on social media during the season and said the 33-year-old forward would be better off somewhere else at his end-of-season press conference. Former Knick Charles Oakley got into a tussle with security guards during a home game at Madison Square Garden and was forcefully removed from the arena, and he has since filed a lawsuit against owner James Dolan. After 31 wins and a fourth straight season out of the playoffs, Kristaps Porzingis was so frustrated with the team's dysfunction he skipped his exit interview and ended up in trade rumors on draft night.
A season later, things are starting to look up in New York. At 9-7, the Knicks are still, at best, a middle-of-the-pack team in the East, but with Anthony in Oklahoma City and Jackson no longer with the franchise after he was fired in late June, the team is finally starting anew with Porzingis as the centerpiece, without any of the ancillary drama that has followed this franchise for the longest time.
In his third season, Porzingis has made the leap. He is averaging 27.6 points per game, fourth in the league behind James Harden, Giannis Antetokounmpo and LeBron James, and approaching 50-40-90 shooting numbers, at 47.2 percent from the field, 40.5 percent from three and 83.6 percent from the free-throw line.
Every foreign big man with a shooting touch in the past decade has drawn comparisons to Dirk Nowitzki. Dwane Casey was an assistant coach on the Mavericks from 2008-11, where he saw Nowitzki up close. In Porzingis' third season, Casey believes those comparisons are fair.
"He reminds me of a young Dirk," Casey said. "He's not Dirk yet, but he reminds me of him. He's big, long and lanky. It looks like a strong wind can blow him over, but he's stronger than he looks and tougher than he looks too."
Porzingis, who spent two weeks training with boxer Mairis Briedis this offseason, understands the new responsibilities of being the No. 1 option on a team, which comes with more attention from opposing defenses and greater physical toll. "It's going to be a learning process for him," Knicks coach Jeff Hornacek said. "He hasn't been doubled a lot so far in his career."
"It's been like that from the first game [this year]," Porzingis said of the physicality from defenders. "It's just a matter of me not forcing things, and not trying to go one-on-one. I have to get myself going and things will open up. The physicality is going to be there no matter what, I just have to be able to take that contact."
Porzingis has responded to the challenge so far. Porzingis' usage rate has shot up to 34.8 percent, second in the league behind Harden. He has responded by being one of the most efficient scorers in the league, with seven 30-point games in his first nine games this season after recording just three 30-point games in his first two seasons. His perimeter shooting has never been questioned, but Porzingis has also been one of the most efficient low-post players in the league.
Per NBA.com, among players with more than 50 post-up possessions, Porzingis is third in points per possession behind only Karl-Anthony Towns and teammate Enes Kanter. The Knicks have a 7-foot-3 forward who can shoot the three, score down low, run the floor and produce coast-to-coast highlight plays and finish ridiculous one-handed alley-oops like this one:
"Before I threw that one, I was thinking, it's probably only him and a few other people in the league who could catch that ball," rookie point guard Frank Ntilikina said. "Sometimes you can throw it anywhere and he's going to catch it."
Players have also noticed the offensive tweaks Hornacek has put in without Jackson's triangle offense looming over him. "We can run, we have ball movement," Porzingis said. Hornacek says the team's offense is no longer trying to focus on one particular player, pointing to the departure of Anthony and Derrick Rose, one-on-one players who were prone to hold the ball and hijack possessions on their own.
Despite a more free-flowing approach and Porzingis' individual brilliance, the Knicks' offense has only improved marginally from last season from an efficiency standpoint. It speaks to a roster that is still, outside of Ntilikina, far away from having the right pieces around Porzingis to turn this team into a contender. The franchise is playing catch-up and still recovering from some of the missteps from Jackson's front office tenure.
Last week, Joakim Noah, whom Jackson signed to a four-year, $72 million deal before the start of the 2016-17 season, returned from his 20-game suspension for using a banned substance, but he doesn't figure to be part of the team's rotation this season. Since his return, Noah has yet to appear in a game. Doug McDermott and Kanter have been solid contributors, but Jackson's public comments regarding Anthony further plummeted his trade value and hampered the team's ability to acquire an impact player in return for their star player.
Despite that, the Knicks are turning over a new page, and players have rallied around Porzingis, a refreshing change from the past few seasons when the franchise was spinning their wheels trying to make the awkward fit of an aging Anthony and a rebuilding roster work. The camaraderie among the new group was evident in a recent home loss to the Cavaliers.
Heading into the game, the Knicks felt like LeBron James had slighted them when he suggested a few nights earlier that the Knicks should have selected Mavericks rookie point guard Dennis Smith Jr. in the draft instead of Ntilikina. In the first quarter against the Cavaliers, James bumped into Ntilikina, who gave the Cavs' star a shove back, prompting Kanter to come to the rookie's defense by getting in James' face.
Kanter and James traded insults during their postgame interviews. In the following days, James declared himself the King of New York on Instagram, which prompted Kanter to respond one more time, "We already have a king. It's Kristaps Porzingis." Kanter, who was also Westbrook's most vocal supporter last season in Oklahoma City when they matched up against former teammate Kevin Durant, believes in the importance of chemistry in the locker room.
"It's the most important thing," Kanter said. "If you don't like the guy you play with, it's not going to work out. My thing is just bring everybody together and to see the players like they're your brothers. When I'm out there, I'm always telling my teammates, it's us against the world, we got no other friends besides this locker room. We got no friends, nothing else. Don't smile at nobody. Those guys out there are not going to feel bad for us."
Ntilikina also believes the back-and-forth with the Cavaliers will help the team moving forward. "Hell yeah," Ntilikina said. "That allowed us to be stronger together and to fight together."
It's a more united locker room so far this season, but Porzingis realizes the Knicks still have a long way to go before they can climb up the Eastern Conference standings. They're 8-3 at home and have electrified the Madison Square Garden crowd with their play. But they're still learning to win on the road, where they're only 1-4.
"The energy we get from the home crowd, we have to realize we're not going to get that on the road," Porzingis said.
Regardless of their record and their struggles away from home, the Knicks already feel like a breath of fresh air this season. For a team that has won just three playoff rounds since their last NBA Finals appearance in 1999, and endured the Isiah Thomas and Phil Jackson eras over the past decade and a half, it doesn't take much more than a 9-7 start to feel positive about the franchise again. It helps that the Knicks know now they have a 22-year-old bona fide superstar player to accelerate the rebuilding process.