Free Agency Preview – Bobby Portis (Team Option)

By Matt Esposito

This election day, after casting my vote, I needed a way to distract myself until results started to trickle in during the PM hours. Turns out, Bobby Portis was useful for something this year after all! Okay, maybe I’m being too harsh on him. If the New York Knicks decline their team option, the 25-year-old big will hit the market as a free agent, making a review of his season a worthwhile endeavor.

Plus, Portis is secretly one of the league’s most intriguing talents. Although he lacks star potential, Portis can still explode for 30-plus points on any given night, and do so efficiently, too! What specifically makes him so interesting? Portis is a case study on how the modern game values big men. On one hand, he’s an evolving three-point threat with underutilized passing chops. On the other, he’s not really capable of protecting the rim or defending quicker players during switches, and he refuses to abandon his archaic post-up/face-up game.

Portis’ career is at a crossroads right now. Yes, he’ll land on some other team if New York refuses to bring him back. Yet, Portis could play himself out of the NBA if he spends the next couple of seasons forcing shots and attempting to show off a face-up game that is far from game-ready. There remains an outside chance, however, that a smart coach will extend Portis’ career by deploying him as a floor-spacing, pick-and-pop big who can also create for others in the second unit

Three-Point Growth

Over the past two seasons, Portis has taken a positive step forward as a perimeter shooter. During that time, he has attempted 378 triples and sank 37.6 percent of them. This equates to over three attempts per game; a significant amount for someone averaging only 23.2 minutes per game during that same stretch. His 31.7 percent three-point attempt rate this season was a career high.

Feeling the Darwinian forces which lurk inside many a general manager closing in on him, Portis evolved his game to become a floor-spacer. Like many of his positional peers, his three-point form is far from perfect. Still, Portis shoots an easy-enough ball, and his high release mitigates his relatively slow trigger. But what can we project about his three-point shooting going forward?

Portis hit a solid 38.5 percent of his triples that were classified as “open” by NBA.com. This percentage fell to 23.1 when coverage was “tight.” Fortunately, only 2.2 percent of his shots came against tight coverage. My guess is that whoever coaches Portis next will find a way to get him more open looks from deep than ever before. If this happens, expect Portis to hover between 36–39 percent for the foreseeable future. Check out his form for yourself.

Passing Potential

There isn’t much statistical evidence to prove that Portis is a capable passer. According to Cleaning the Glass, Portis has placed above the 50th percentile for assist to usage ratio just once in his career. Nothing to brag about, frankly. So what has me bullish on the possibility of him creating for others in a greater role next year?

It takes courage to stomach an evening of New York Knicks basketball. Fortunately, I have the intestinal fortitude of a Great White Shark. Portis showed promise as a passer this season. He sees the game one play ahead, and is learning to take advantage of closeouts. The key to unlocking this skill is convincing Portis to keep the ball moving and opt out of poor shot attempts. Hopefully, it isn’t too late to teach this psychotic dog new tricks.

Facing Up/Self-Creation

Like Game of Thrones zealots ditching their fandom during the show’s final season, I too abandoned my love for Portis’ offensive usage with the quickness. Far too often he tried to display his off-the-dribble game; he showed some promise, yet it’s far too underdeveloped to be considered a threat. Portis has exhibited  above-average footwork and a solid handle for his position, but this doesn’t mean he should be hoisting stepback jumpers.

Perhaps it was his dreadful post-up numbers that led him to work on this part of his game. Regardless, it isn’t working for him. If he wants to keep playing in this league, it is imperative that Portis exchanges both his face-up and post-up game for more three-point shots. The tape supports this call for change.

Poor Defense

Portis is a frustrating defender; he can move his feet on offense, but when he’s on  defense, they often appear stuck in the mud. His physical profile suggests he can be a net-zero defender. Although not terribly explosive, Portis possesses a 7-foot-2 wingspan and we’ve seen promising agility on the offensive end.

Part of his defensive shortcomings are due to his poor feel for the game. Portis is often late on rotations or out of position. To be fair, the Knicks are late on just about every basketball trend ever, so they bear some of the responsibility for his defensive woes. For much of last season, they played Portis at the four next to Mitchell Robinson. This left Portis to defend quicker, smaller fours, who dragged him all over the court. Portis’ feet couldn’t keep up, and he was forced to play defense with his hands.

Wherever he finds employment, that coach had better be sure to play Portis defensively as a center. In this day and age, you can’t line Portis up across from the Tatums, Ingrams and Siakams of the world.

Fit & Potential Contract

With his team option worth over $15 million, expect the Knicks to let Portis walk. While he was a perfectly fine player for a rebuilding team, he simply isn’t worth that much money. If New York does bring him back, however, read the tea leaves. He could be used as cap filler to bring in an expensive guard like Russell Westbrook or Chris Paul. Surely, both Oklahoma City and Houston wouldn’t mind getting Portis’ expiring contract in exchange.

Toronto would be a smart fit for Portis, although I’m not sure the Raptors would take a chance on him. If one person can limit Portis’ defensive flaws while maximizing his newfound range, it is Nick Nurse. For what it’s worth, Portis wouldn’t even require all of Toronto’s mid-level exception.

I don’t love Phoenix as a destination for Portis, but he could wind up playing there. If the Suns swing and miss on Christian Wood and Aron Baynes signs elsewhere, Portis could be a cheap consolation prize. Wherever Portis ends up, a one-year, prove-it deal would be nice for all parties involved.

Published by Matt Esposito

Founder/Writer for Theplaygrounder.com and contributor to Red’s Army Twitter: @Mattesposito_

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