- The Knicks decided to trade Kristaps Porzingis to the Mavericks, cashing in on cap space but losing out on a potential star. On the flip side, Dallas might have a player to pair with Luka Doncic for the next decade.
Thursday’s saga—well, perhaps it was too brief to call it that—began with reports of Kristaps Porzingis’s unhappiness in New York, and ended approximately an hour later, with Porzingis in agreement to move to Dallas, along with Tim Hardaway Jr., Courtney Lee and Trey Burke. The Knicks will receive unsettled young point guard Dennis Smith Jr., first-round picks in 2021 (unprotected) and 2023 (protected 1–10), and DeAndre Jordan and Wesley Matthews, both of whom are on expiring contracts that will clear a pathway to cap space—enough for New York to court two max-caliber free agents at once.
Let’s break it down.
Even with reports already indicating that Porzingis plans to sign the $4.5 million, one-year qualifying offer for next season, this is an aggressive, worthwhile swoop by the Mavericks, who would seem to have everything in place to convince him to stay put long-term. They are landing an elite young talent for a relatively cut price, delaying their cap space another summer, and nabbing a scorer in Hardaway who should pair adequately next to Luka Doncic. The prospect of a Doncic-Porzingis pairing says much of what needs to be said: Dallas is more or less done rebuilding and are ready to throw their weight behind two young talents that could form a deadly combination.
So, the Mavericks have the next year to sell Porzingis on staying. He remains out indefinitely after tearing his ACL last season, and heads into restricted free agency this summer, so Dallas can match any offer. The fact remains that Porzingis playing for the qualifying is a massive personal risk. Coming directly off his injury, leaving guaranteed millions Dallas will place on the table as a young player with ongoing health struggles, an unusual basketball body at 7’3” and no first big deal under his belt feels absurd. His ongoing inability to play a full 82-game season is a concern for the Mavericks, too, but his talent certainly justifies the risk if they can keep him. This feels like a partnership that can work—Doncic’s sublime passing skills certainly help—and should be treated as such for now.
Even if Porzingis walks, Dallas’s only real sacrifice here is a summer or two of cap space and Dennis Smith, who was already unhappy to be there after Doncic’s emergence as a readymade star. Hardaway and Lee are serviceable. The details of the draft considerations they’re sending have yet to be reported, but it feels like minor recompense for a potentially franchise-altering acquisition. Keep in mind that the Mavericks, too, can trend further out of the playoff picture and closer to keeping their first-round pick, which is top-five protected, away from Atlanta this year. The Mavs are taking on additional risk surrendering the two picks, particularly an unprotected one, but they’re also banking on their team trending back toward playoff-caliber, which, if Porzingis gets healthy, is very much on the table. There’s a scenario where Dallas loses this deal long-term if Porzingis can’t stay healthy and the picks backfire, but it feels worth finding out.
These questionmarks, while they allude to everyone’s general befuddlement over the Knicks’ decision-making process, are also there because we simply can’t assess this move until we know what New York will do with its cap space this summer. There should be a level of embarrassment at the franchise’s inability to keep Porzingis happy (although he was drafted by the previous regime under Phil Jackson), but Scott Perry also deserves some level of credit for being pragmatic. After a couple years of trepidation, it felt like Porzingis was at the end of his rope with the organization, and the Knicks decided to move on, play the bigger game and court two max-caliber free agents in July, and take a chance on Smith, a player whom they had an opportunity to draft two years ago and passed on. His promise, coupled with the two future firsts, is actually a pretty strong haul, although there is a scenario tied to Dallas’s success and Smith’s on-court struggles where all three items depreciate. It’s worth noting that Smith and both picks give the Knicks more ammunition for other trades if they want to eye another big-name player.
The great issue for New York is simple: star players have continually been reticent to play there. This is a massive market with loyal fans, substantial franchise history, and perhaps most importantly, infinite off-court earning potential through endorsements and the platform of playing in Manhattan. But, as has been well-documented, ownership has meddled and caused problems over the course of multiple front office leadership structures, stars have chosen not to play for the Knicks, those that did (see Carmelo Anthony and Amare Stoudemire) had issues sustaining success, and bottom line, the track record will not be a positive sell to Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, and whoever else New York intends to court.
There was no win-now move that could hoist the Knicks from the depths, only the hope that comes with young players and expiring contracts (read: cap space) and the picks, and it would all make sense if not for the fact that these are all things New York has found ways to bungle. Porzingis was not the cause of the Knicks’ issues, but the effect. The Knicks have tried to operate like a major-market team for years and struggled; since Perry’s arrival, they’ve drafted respectably, taken fliers on castoff lottery picks, and generally bided their time for, well, this. Whether or not Jordan and Matthews are bought out, whether or not the Knicks win the draft lottery, and whether or not they just handed Dallas a decade of playoff-caliber basketball for very little of substance, all the real pressure now shifts toward July 1.