Porzingis' injury forces the Knicks to recalibrate their rebuilding course

Knicks president Steve Mills and general manager Scott Perry bore looks of devastation when the franchise’s All-Star forward Kristaps Porzingis collapsed to the Madison Square Garden court Tuesday night with 8:50 remaining in the second quarter after dunking over the Milwaukee Bucks’ sensational forward Giannis Antetokounmpo.

Mills’ and Perry’s palpable concerns were warranted as the 7-foot-3 Latvian was later determined to have a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee. The injury normally requires up to 12 months of recovery and rehabilitation. The Knicks’ awful night was further exacerbated by a 103-89 defeat to the Bucks, their fourth loss in a row.

“I think when K.P. went down, it kind of deflated us some,” Hornacek said. “He is a big part of the things we do. No one is going to feel sorry for you when your guys are out, so you have to step it up.”

Porzingis, 22, drafted fourth overall in 2015, was having a solid season in what was expected to be a development year for a Knicks team that has been in a free-fall since the end of December. They were 17-14 Dec. 21 and have only won six games since then, staggering at 23-32 when they face the Toronto Raptors tonight (Thursday) on the road.

The Knicks, 11th in the 15-team Eastern Conference, weren’t a playoff team, and focusing their efforts on chasing a postseason spot was pointless. Their primary goal should have been growing their young players—Porzingis, rookie guard Frank Ntilikina and center Willy Hernangomez—although the two aren’t mutually exclusive.

The 23-year-old Hernangomez, who was All Rookie First Team last season, was scratched from that list when the Knicks traded him to the Charlotte Hornets Tuesday for forward Johnny O’Bryant and two second-round draft picks. Hernangomez had demanded a trade because of his essentially non-existent role.

Before Porzingis went down, Mills and Perry should have reached the conclusion that he was a crucial piece but not the centerpiece of what they are attempting to construct. The tag franchise player does not apply. But there are only a handful of those occupying the NBA. His injury is a setback but could turn into a positive if the Knicks are willing to concede they will labor even against the NBA’s worst teams and play the kids as much as possible.

Despite imbalanced comparisons to fellow rookie guards Dennis Smith and Donovan Mitchell, who play as much off the ball as they do on the point, Ntilikina can become a high level NBA guard if given time. A fairer comparison of the 19-year-old’s season is to the Chicago Bulls’ Kris Dunn’s rookie campaign.

Currently in his second season after being traded by the Minnesota Timberwolves, Dunn is now averaging 13.7 points, 6.4 assists, 4.6 rebounds and 2.1 steals, third in the league.

Porzingis’ injury isn’t a disaster for the Knicks. It’s an opportunity for them to acquire and develop other foundational pieces.