Steve Mills held a state of the franchise news conference Friday afternoon in the executive offices of the Knicks, but nothing about the state of the team matters as much as the rehabilitation of Kristaps Porzingis, who still is far from ready to return.
Mills said Porzingis, who suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee Feb. 6, will continue his rehabilitation in cautious steps and has a re-evaluation scheduled for mid-February. At that time, the Knicks and Porzingis will determine when or if he will return to the court this season.
“We feel good about the progress, but we’re still a ways away,” said Mills, the team president. “We’ll do another set of evaluations in mid-February to see exactly where he is, but there will be constant progressions in terms of activity and a lot of it will be how he feels.
“A big part of this process for us is we have to make sure that every step that he progresses to or steps that he feels comfortable in physically, and our training staff and medical staff feel comfortable that we’re not putting him at any risk.”
Without Porzingis, the Knicks have endured a rebuilding season focused on player development for the trio of rookies, a pair of second-year players and a handful of reclamation projects. The result has been predictably hard to watch, a 9-25 record after Friday night's 114-107 loss to the Atlanta Hawks at Madison Square Garden.
The plan is to combine these young players with Porzingis, a major free-agent acquisition in the summer and almost certainly another lottery pick. But knowing what condition Porzingis is in is a key to all of it. So seeing him on the court certainly is a key to the Knicks’ plan as well as serving as bait for a free agent to take the team’s money.
“I think we would like him to play and hope that he plays as soon as he’s comfortable playing,” Mills said. “One thing we’d like him to get on the court, we’d love to see him play, but we also acknowledge that he is a really, really important part of the long-term future of this franchise. And the one thing we’re not going to do is take any real risk with a -year-old player in his position.
“The most important thing for us is to have Kristaps on the court when he feels comfortable being on the court and we feel comfortable that he should be out there. That’s more important than any timetable this season, some point in the summer.
The most important thing is that we know that we’ve got this guy in a place that he feels comfortable on the floor and we feel comfortable in his ability to be a part of what we’re doing long term. That’s more important than anything else we can lay out.”
Porzingis has had a tenuous relationship with the franchise at times. Though the 7-3 star is presented as the centerpiece, Mills’ predecessor, Phil Jackson, speculated openly about the possibility of trading him after he skipped out on an exit interview with Jackson, Mills and then-coach Jeff Hornacek and spent the summer of 2017 out of touch with the organization.
Even this season, when first-year coach David Fizdale — who spent a week visiting Porzingis in Latvia over the summer — speculated on the rehab process, Porzingis posted a picture on social media of him sprinting and accompanied it with a sarcastic comment.
With Mills now moved from general manager to team president and Scott Perry on board as the GM, the team has strived to repair the relationship.
“It’s important. That’s why we’re excited that he’s been at the facility almost every day,” Mills said. “He’s at practices. He’s at shootarounds. He sits in film sessions with the team.He’s engaged with the players as they’re going through the things he can’t participate in. I watched him a little bit [Thursday] on the floor and saw how he interacted with our coaches, so that felt good. But it is important for us to feel like we’re engaged with him and for him to feel like he’s engaged with us.”
Noah’s quotes don’t sit well. Mills was not pleased with a recent Joakim Noah interview in which he spoke about his partying in New York as a reason for his struggles with the team. Mills also distanced himself from the signing of Noah to a four-year, $72-million contract that the team had to buy out. Said Mills, “Obviously, I’m disappointed it worked out the way it worked out . . . Had it been just my decision, I don’t know that I would have signed him. There was a reason why we thought that this was the best thing for the culture and the environment of our team. When the speculation was why don’t we handle Joakim one way and we decided to handle it a different way, there was a reason why we handled it the way we decided to handle it.”