Kristaps Porzingis was supposed to own the Big Apple for a decade. Instead, he is headed to Texas after just 186 games.
The New York Knicks agreed to trade their franchise player, who is rehabilitating from a knee injury, to the Dallas Mavericks on Thursday in a blockbuster deal that sets up a splashy summer of superstar hunting. In the deal, which came together shortly after Porzingis expressed his unhappiness about the Knicks' direction and requested a trade, Dallas will also absorb the contracts of Tim Hardaway Jr. and Courtney Lee and pick up guard Trey Burke while sending Dennis Smith Jr., DeAndre Jordan, Wesley Matthews and two future first-round picks to New York.
In the short term, the trade is a bitter pill for Knicks fans and a huge risk for the franchise’s front office of Steve Mills and Scott Perry. Porzingis, perhaps the only bright spot of Phil Jackson’s tenure, was long assumed to be New York’s foundational piece. The 23-year-old center is not only young, popular, and marketable, but he possesses superstar upside and an ultramodern game. An elite shot blocker and three-point shooter, the Latvian big man was in line for a long-term extension to remain in New York this summer.
Instead, Porzingis will head to Dallas, where he will make a tantalizing inside-outside pairing with presumptive rookie of the year Luka Doncic. For Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, who has spun his wheels in search of top-end talent since deconstructing his 2011 title team, the trade is a potential coup. Doncic and Porzingis should function well together in pick-and-roll scenarios, both possess the deep range necessary to open up a spread offense, and Porzingis’s length should provide a stable base for the Mavericks’ defense. Porzingis and the 19-year-old Doncic should progress into their primes on similar timelines, too, and Dallas can tank the rest of the season to keep its top-five-protected pick and land a third young star in the draft.
While Dallas has stabilized its rebuilding effort around Doncic, New York has entered a boom-or-bust chapter. Moving Hardaway and Lee clears more than $30 million off their payroll next year. With Enes Kanter coming off the books and both Matthews and Jordan on expiring contracts, New York has stripped its roster to the bones and created more than $70 million in cap space for this summer. Simply put, the Knicks now have the capacity to sign Golden State Warriors all-star forward Kevin Durant, a rumored target for months, plus a second max-level free agent come July 1.
The remainder of New York’s season will be academic: Smith, a 2017 lottery pick whose role was usurped by Doncic, will play tank commander as the franchise shoots for the No. 1 pick in the lottery. In their dream scenario, the Knicks would land Duke’s Zion Williamson in the draft and then sign Durant and Kyrie Irving in free agency, thereby laying a course to the top of the Eastern Conference. New York last played in the conference finals in 2000.
But that golden road has plenty of potential potholes. This year’s draft class falls off steeply after Williamson, and no team will have better than a 14 percent chance to select him in the lottery. Durant is seeking his third straight championship and NBA Finals MVP, and he could always opt to re-sign with the Warriors to extend their dynasty and open the glittery new Chase Center in San Francisco next season. Irving has pledged that he wants to remain with the Boston Celtics, who are among the top contenders to win the East this season.
If Durant and Irving decide to remain in greener pastures, New York’s shopping list would dry up quickly. Kemba Walker? Tobias Harris? Khris Middleton? All of those second-tier targets will have multiple suitors, and none is capable of single-handedly carrying a gutted Knicks roster to the playoffs. Indeed, the 2019-20 Knicks will be in for a long and painful season if their core winds up being Smith, Kevin Knox and Duke’s R.J. Barrett.
Mills and Perry deserve credit for their sheer audacity, which was no doubt encouraged by Porzingis’s regular bouts of frustration with the Knicks. “Considering the uncertainty regarding Kristaps’ free agent status and his request today to be traded," Mills said in a statement, "we made a trade that we are confident improves the franchise."
But a gutsy trade is not the same thing as a good one, and New York’s brass must know that this move will be a reputation-maker or a reputation-breaker. Come July, the Knicks' brain trust will be treated as visionary heroes or foolish goats, with no other possibilities in between.
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