ORLANDO — Kristaps Porzingis, the smartest guy in the room, saw last season’s downfall coming before anyone else did.
Even at four games above .500, Porzingis understood the Knicks weren’t a team — just a collection of individuals coasting on talent. He made a public warning in December, and then looked like a prophet as the Knicks plummeted into heroball misery.
This season, Porzingis sees something else. And that’s noteworthy from a player who skipped an exit meeting to prompt such change.
“This feels different. I think we have better fundamentals,” Porzingis told the Daily News. “Defensively, we’re going after it every night. We may not do it 48 minutes but there are parts of the game where we actually lock in. We do our defensive system the right way. And we just play hard. And that’s the main difference.”
The Knicks don’t have an identity yet other than “Unicorn” riders. But they are scrappy, they are moving the ball, they are consistent in their defensive game plan, and they are one game above .500 despite a paucity of talent.
Even without Porzingis on Wednesday night in Orlando, the Knicks (6-5) put up a decent fight and players looked distraught on the bench after realizing their winning streak was kaput.
From Porzingis’ perspective, it probably helps that he’s the focal point of the offense and no longer watching Derrick Rose and Carmelo Anthony revert to isolations.
From Jeff Hornacek’s perspective, it probably helps that he doesn’t have Phil Jackson hovering a triangle over the proceedings.
The new front office has two mandates: effort and progress.
“The biggest thing I’m looking for is consistency of effort each and every night,” GM Scott Perry said. “That this team will compete and try to defend and play together. We’ve seen some positive things heading in that direction during this time. But we got a long way to go. We’re just barely getting out of the gate right now. We got to continue improving upon some of the things we showed thus far.”
Porzingis, unlike last season at this time, also likes the direction, which is important as he heads into a summer with a potential max contract extension on the table.
It’s encouraging not only for Porzingis’ commitment to the franchise, but also because the Latvian knows what he’s talking about.
He always has the longview into focus, which is why he rested his small injuries Wednesday, why he skipped an exit meeting with Phil Jackson in April, and why he recognized in December that last season was headed down a treacherous path.
It’s still very early in this campaign, but Porzingis feels better about the direction.