The Kristaps Porzingis Trade Postmortem

Almost one year ago to the day (and two blogs ago for me personally) I wrote a story the day after Kristaps Porzingis went down with a torn ACL.

My message was clear. Although there was no silver lining to the injury, the Knicks should use their misfortune as an opportunity to do something they otherwise would have been unable to: repair the relationship with their fallen star, one that the previous regime had sullied. I proposed that when July 1, 2018 came around, New York’s brass should have approached Porzingis at midnight – torn ACL and all – with a max contract extension that would have kept the Unicorn in blue and orange well into the prime of his career.


I wrote as much because I’ve been watching basketball for a long time, and while I don’t know all that much about the intricacies of the game, I do know this: players like Kristaps Porzingis do not come around very often. A team could draft in the lottery for decades and not wind up with someone with MVP-level potential. Porzingis has this in spades.

Is he perfect? Far from it. Even when healthy, you could question whether someone so large can survive in a league getting smaller by the day. The NBA has increasingly come down to one thing in the playoffs: how good is your least-switchable player when forced to defend the perimeter? We witnessed both Rudy Gobert and Joel Embiid – the first and second place finishers in the Defensive Player of the Year voting last season – get taken advantage of in the playoffs by the Rockets and Celtics, two teams built perfectly for the modern game. For all that Porzingis offers in rim protection, the best offenses are able to neutralize this more and more.

Also, the “when healthy” part shouldn’t be brushed aside. There is, of course, the torn ACL, but even more so, as the man who drafted him once cautioned, we’ve never seen a player this tall stay healthy and effective over a lengthy career.

Are they valid concerns? Sure…but his talent trumps all of it.

Whether or not he can ever be the best player on a championship team is immaterial. In the NBA, you need at least two guys. He has what it takes to be one of them. He is good enough that you game plan around his deficiencies, as Rick Carlisle will now be thrilled to do. Along with Luka Doncic, Porzingis will be half of arguably the best young duo in the entire league.

For many, the worst part of this deal will be the return: a salary dump of Tim Hardaway Jr. and Courtney Lee, along with last year’s Spring darling, Trey Burke. The two first round picks coming back the Knicks’ way make the deal easier to swallow in the same way a cup of coffee does the morning after a bender. Unfortunately, you still have the rest of the day to deal with.

Really though, given the parameters of the situation (and, oh boy, we will get to those in a moment…), this might very well be the best the Knicks could have gotten. Every Knicks fan who has spent time sneering at Dennis Smith Jr. highlight dunks over the last 18 months had a small part of them wondering how cool it would be to see him pull them off on the Garden floor. Now we get the chance. He is far from a lost cause.

As for cap space, the Knicks now officially have more of it than anyone, and have it in a summer where arguably a third of the league’s best nine guys are free to choose their next home. The Anthony Davis sweepstakes also loom.

It doesn’t sound like much, but given the fact that Kristaps’ camp1 clearly scared off potential suitors by leaking Porzingis’ desire to sign a qualifying offer this summer, it’s fair to guess no one was offering a premium young asset in the deal.

Could they have gotten a slightly better young player and/or pick(s) from another team if they hadn’t been adamant about unloading all of their unwanted salary? Possibly. But at the point they decided to make this move, you either go all in or you don’t. You don’t save chips just to stay in the game.

Therein, of course, lies the rub. The Knicks ultimately made a choice to trade their 23-year-old All-Star. No one – including Janis – made them do it. KP’s leverage was to sign the qualifying offer and enter unrestricted free agency in 2020. The Knicks could have, and some would say should have, called his bluff.

That would have been one way to go, but really, what’s the endgame there? Best case scenario, he balks and signs whatever offer you have on the table. Or he goes out and gets a shorter offer sheet from a competing franchise. In either scenario, you’re spending the next X number of years waiting for the day your phone buzzes with the inevitable Woj bomb letting us all know that Kristaps Porzingis has demanded a trade.

Oh, wait…that was today.

So no, strong-arming KP into a future with the franchise was never a smart option. Hell, if the model organization in all of professional sport couldn’t convince Kawhi Leonard to hang around, what chance does one owned by James Dolan have?

Would the Knicks chances of doing so increase with the signing of a max player in July, thus assuaging KP’s fears about organizational ineptitude? Maybe, but again, you’re banking on someone big saying yes. I’d argue that Kevin Durant is more likely to come here if he can bring a friend of his choosing than if he had to bet on Porzingis not only making a full recovery but elevating his game to true second banana status as well. At the very least, the organization can now put out a front of universal buy-in that doesn’t include an elephant in the room with lingering discontent.

No, the more I think about it, the more the events of today don’t really bother me at all. It’s the events of the last 17 years, however, that bother me very much.

The crime of today’s happenings has little to do with the trade itself. It has everything to do with the events that transpired to get us here. Since drafting Kristaps Porzingis, the Knicks have engaged in the usual series of missteps that have come to define the team under James Dolan. To wit:

  • After KP’s rookie year – one which made it very clear he was going to be a special, special player – Phil Jackson spent lavishly in an ill-fated win-now play and forced the team to run an antiquated offense in the process. Spoiler alert: it went poorly.
  • To make matters worse, Phil then publicly trounced the mentor who took KP under his wing, introducing doubt into the mind of the man who might someday go on to take the mantle as the team’s best player.
  • After Porzingis famously skipped his exit meeting in a showing of silent protest, Jackson went full-goink and engaged in trade discussions for his young star. He was fired as a result.

That all led us up to the hiring of Scott Perry, who took a wait-and-see approach with Jeff Hornacek. While you can’t blame him retaining Hornacek for a year, nothing that happened last season did much to patch up the relationship between player and organization. This summer, the Knicks hired David Fizdale, who by all accounts did his best to endear KP to the program he was building. Apparently, his efforts fell short.

Ultimately, all of the events that have transpired since the moment KP wore that horrid burgundy blazer and first donned a Knicks hat as he got booed by that stupid kid and his stupid dad on draft night are what should be making Knicks fans most upset today.

The NBA has designed it’s contract structure such that teams can keep their stars at least into the prime of their careers. It is designed to level the playing field for small market teams so that the larger markets don’t scoop up stars before they have a chance to marinate. And here we are, the largest market in the world, unable to take advantage of the protections designed for teams we’re supposed to be poaching players from.

Bartender…top me off please? Thanks. Where was I…

Oh yes…questions. Was this unavoidable? Who’s to say. Were things already too far gone from Jackson’s reign that nothing Steve Mills and Scott Perry could have done would have mattered? Possibly. Is KP a diva with a meddler for a brother who was going to be a pain in the ass for an organization that needs such nonsense like another hole in their head? It’s entirely possible.

All of the above can’t be discounted, and there is a very real chance that the smartest thing the front office could have done is exactly what they did today: get out in front of a situation that was always going to get worse before it got better, and most importantly, do it on their terms.

It doesn’t change the fact that the New York Knicks traded the best young player they’ve had since Patrick Ewing in what is essentially a salary dump. An entire Revlon counter wouldn’t be able to clean up the optics on that pig.

And now, we do what we always do as Knicks fans: take a deep breath, sit back, and hope. Hope that tomorrow is better. Hope that someone actually wants the job of saving this franchise from itself. Hope that someday, we’ll be able to LOL at all the years where LOL Knicks caused us so much pain.

On a day like today, hope is all we have left.


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