“It’s just a feeling you get as you’re watching how frequently he comes to practices and how long he’s around the gym,” Mills said. “We started to get the feeling that this might be moving in a different direction. You don’t want to commit a max contract to a player who says to you that he doesn’t want to be here. That would be a disservice to our organization and a disservice to our fans.”
When pressed about the root causes of Porzingis’s apparent unhappiness, though, the Knicks had no substantive answers, deferring that line of inquiry to Porzingis and deflecting attempts to uncover a more complete portrait of what precipitated his stunning exit. “The truth will come out,” Porzingis wrote cryptically on social media, adding: “New York will always have a special place in my heart.”
Why would a beloved rising star want to push his way out of a glamorous media market? Where to begin?
The Knicks, owners of the league’s worst record, are slogging through an arduous rebuilding season that would wear on anyone. The franchise hasn’t won more than 32 games since drafting Porzingis with the fourth pick in 2015 and hasn’t made the playoffs since 2013. During his brief NBA career, the Latvian sensation has played for three coaches — Derek Fisher, Jeff Hornacek and interim Kurt Rambis — and would have played for his fourth, David Fizdale, if he was healthy this year.
Meanwhile, Porzingis was a bystander to a power struggle between former team president Phil Jackson and Carmelo Anthony, one that ultimately led to ugly departures for both. Porzingis also appeared to have issues with Jackson. He famously skipped an exit meeting in 2017, and reports quickly surfaced that New York was weighing trade options involving its 7-foot-3 unicorn. There were other ugly episodes along the way, including owner James Dolan’s decision to eject former Knicks forward Charles Oakley from Madison Square Garden — a move that eventually led to legal action.
Long story short: Any player in Porzingis’s shoes, at age 23 with realistic dreams of becoming a perennial all-NBA selection, had plenty of reasons to doubt the Knicks. He’d experienced a career’s worth of drama and turnover in just three seasons, and New York’s current roster is light on established talent. Plus, Mills was present for the worst moments of Jackson’s failed regime, and Perry had never been a GM before taking the Knicks job.
Mills and Perry have relentlessly pitched to outside observers their vision of a gradual, youth-oriented rebuilding effort since Jackson’s 2017 departure, and so far they’ve stuck tightly to that script. Unfortunately, they never convinced Porzingis of the plan’s merits and began exploring trade options earlier this season in the event the relationship continued to sour.
“He wasn’t completely buying into what we were trying to do,” Mills admitted. “We wanted a confirmation that he was completely in or out [when we met with him this week], and he made it clear that he didn’t want to be with our group.”
Faced with the possibility of a contract stalemate with Porzingis, scheduled to be a restricted free agent this summer, or, perhaps, a public trade demand, the Knicks took the logical step of trading him before their leverage cratered. Their return package — multiple first-round picks, multiple expiring contracts, and 2017 lottery pick Dennis Smith Jr. — was sensibly designed for a rebuilding team, and it opened roughly $70 million worth of salary cap space this summer.
Mills and Perry deserve some level of credit for boldly making an unpopular decision and for skirting further drama with Porzingis. Nevertheless, they will be doomed to repeat their mistakes if they don’t take more responsibility — publicly and privately — for the conditions that fostered Porzingis’s unhappiness.
Mills described feeling “relieved” that the Knicks finally got a clear understanding of Porzingis’s feelings, and Perry added that the executives “don’t feel any pressure” to use their newfound cap space to add superstar free agents this summer.
Even so, any hope of justifying Porzingis’s departure in the short term requires signing A-listers like Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving as free agents come July. Getting that done will mean convincing established all-stars with championship rings to believe in a vision that was already rejected by the less-heralded and less-accomplished Porzingis.
The Knicks, projecting confidence and flush with cash to spend, have no choice now but to hone their pitch.
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