Despite continuing to struggle and stumble through the month of February, the Knicks were able to find solace in the monster month had by Robin Lopez. Providing a rare bright spot, the veteran big man averaged 14.5 points and 10.6 rebounds per contest, both numbers representing obvious season-highs that were well above his marks in the months prior.
Such assertiveness on both ends of the floor (but perhaps more surprisingly, on the offensive end, for Lopez) has surely been a welcomed addition by the Knicks. He certainly hasn't always stood to make such an impact. For months now, New York has struggled to find ways to incorporate Lopez into their offense. His inability to get involved within the flow of things resulted in very sporadic minutes, which is troublesome for a team looking to utilize a $54 million investment.
"We got a lot of options on this team, especially on the frontline," Lopez said back in December. "It's unusual in this NBA. You got so many teams going smaller. We got a nice little rotation. I'm trying to do my part," he added. (New York Post, Dec. 24).
One reason Lopez had been failing to find his way and struggled to come into his own was the obvious ascension of Kristaps Porzingis. As the rookie sensation continued to rise and be a prevalent part of the Knicks' offense, Lopez had difficulty and felt displaced about his role.
But much of that uncertainty seemed to evaporate over the last month. The Knicks were seemingly encouraging Lopez to look for his own offense, especially when it came to starting off games relatively strong. Lopez could be found attacking the basket more often, posting up defenders and laying in high percentage looks with an impressive hook shot. Having an effective big man to feature down low in the triangle offense is something New York has started to reap the benefits from as Lopez continues to come alive.
Interestingly enough, however, much like Lopez has struggled to fit in alongside Porzingis to this point, one could argue that the rookie fades away whenever his front-court mate hits his own respective stride. The Knicks have two very valuable weapons, but they haven't exactly found the best way to collectively utilize both at the same time just yet. One has to wonder if alternating each one's offensive outbursts is merely a point of strategy, or if it should be a cause for concern because one's positive outing could be negatively affecting the other.
Its clear Lopez has struggled to come into his own next to Porzingis at times. On the flip side, does that mean Porzingis' own comfort level on offense wavers when the Knicks feature Lopez? In the four games that Porzingis shot less than 40% from the field last month, Lopez averaged an eye-popping 20.8 points to go along with 14.8 rebounds. That said, in the three games that Lopez scored in single-digits, Porzingis had three of his four highest individual scoring outings in the month. Failing to find a rhythm around the perimeter, the rookie also shot a career-low 29.5 percent from beyond the arc.
On the boards, Porzingis averaged another low of 5.9 per game, including just 5.2 when Lopez's own rebounding number reached double figures. Obviously with only one ball and so many big men crashing the boards, there are only so many rebounds to be had. If one player is grabbing them, his teammate won't have to. But more concerning is the misbalance on offense, especially when it comes to displacing Porzingis. Lopez's presence and that great hook shot surely adds another dimension to his game and the Knicks' overall rhythm, but the cost it's come at is concerning. Porzingis hasn't displayed as much confidence on a consistent basis.
Of course, there are different ways to make this work. Porzingis has much more range offensively and can be featured more from downtown. Creating somewhat of an inside/outside game would help a versatile Knicks offense spread opposing defenses rather thin between Porzingis and Lopez. What's more, the Knicks have already begun playing Porzingis more as a backup five, spelling Lopez at the center position, especially later in games. This allows each player to positively contribute at different points of a given contest.
Still, it'd be nice to see both start to co-exist alongside one another on a consistent basis. The Knicks would surely benefit. Given their recent struggles, they need all the help they can get. As New York continues to rely upon Carmelo Anthony rather heavily to lead the way, there are ways to alleviate the pressure. They need to find a more effective way to utilize the different weapons available in their arsenal. Lopez's added contributions cannot come at the cost of Porzingis' continued development and rise in confidence.