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The Knicks Took a Big Swing by Trading Away Kristaps Porzingis. Will It Be Worth It?

The Knicks trading away Kristaps Porzingis shook the NBA world Thursday but no one should overreact before we see what happens this summer.

Before you wind up for a big swing at the Knicks, before you rail that Steve Mills isn’t qualified to run an NBA franchise and groan how Scott Perry has not brought a promised sense of order, understand this: It could all work out. It’s a big, Aaron Judge-like swing for the fences, but New York’s decision to send Kristaps Porzingis to Dallas for a package headlined by Dennis Smith, draft picks and expiring contracts comes with a path to success—a realistic one.

The Knicks interrupted everyone’s Anthony Davis trade machine-ing Thursday to drop this bomb, and the reactions were predictable. Knicks fans—jilted by decades of ineptitude matched by an almost equal level of front office incompetence—angrily took to social media. And it’s understandable—Porzingis is a budding star. Last season’s ACL tear has scuttled this season, but the lack of urgency in bringing Porzingis back has more to do with New York’s indifference to winning as Porzingis’s recovery. No one in New York is concerned about the long-term health of Porzingis’s knee (Dallas certainly isn’t) and no one would have blinked at extending Porzingis a max-level offer sheet this summer, when he becomes a restricted free agent.

If anything, Porzingis’s interest in being a Knick—which was addressed in a meeting with team officials Thursday—played a meaningful role.

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“As is standard for this time of year, we were exploring various options on potential trades,” said Perry. “Considering the uncertainty regarding Kristaps’s free agent status and his request today to be traded, we made a trade that we are confident improves the franchise.”

Keeping Porzingis, continuing to bottom out, hoping the lottery balls bounce your way and crossing your fingers that all that, plus max cap space, would net you a superstar is the safe play.

The Knicks are choosing not to play it safe.

Who knows what the Knicks know about the 2019 free-agent class. The NBA huffs and puffs about tampering, but its willingness—and ability—to investigate is limited. Yet in trading Porzingis the Knicks are sending an unmistakable message: We’re getting Kevin Durant. And if Durant does take his talents to 33rd street, they are coming for Kyrie Irving next.

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It’s a dangerous game—and one the Knicks have played before. In 2010, the Knicks entered a star-studded free agency summer with double max cap space. They wooed LeBron James. They wined and dined Dwyane Wade. They courted Chris Bosh. They signed Amar’e Stoudemire. Later, Wade would say that the market was appealing—it was the organization that didn’t seem prepared.

But it could work. Is anyone betting on Durant re-upping in Golden State after this season? The Knicks will not be Durant’s only option—the Clippers and Lakers, among other teams, will come a calling—but there likely will be some appeal in Durant 3.0 starting anew in New York, where he can attempt to breathe life into one of the NBA’s flagship franchises—what’s leading a team to a championship in New York worth to a player?—while growing his brand in the marketing capital of the universe.

And Irving? Irving’s repeated statements that he intends to re-sign in Boston this summer give the Celtics confidence that he’ll be back, but Boston has long understood the magnetic pull New York has on the West Orange, N.J.-raised Irving. It’s why the possibility New York could get in the mix for Davis—a close friend of Irving’s—made the Celtics brass anxious. Durant, along with the possible No. 1 pick, could cause comparable consternation.

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That’s right, the pick, the Knicks reward for being catastrophically bad this season. The NBA’s attempts to level the playing field in the lottery means the 10-40, worst-record-in-the-NBA Knicks aren’t guaranteed No. 1, but if they do nab it, presumed top pick Zion Williamson is another carrot to dangle in a free agent’s direction. Don’t underestimate the value of a pair of Dallas first-round picks—unprotected in 2021, top ten protected in 2023, per a source familiar with the deal, in fleshing out the roster with talent or for a future trade, either.

It’s a long way until July though, and the Knicks just threw down a gauntlet. Boston—which should have a clock hanging in TD Garden, is counting down the hours until the Feb. 7 trade deadline, hoping it comes and goes without a Davis deal—will undoubtedly become even more desperate to land Davis. Irving and Davis are tight, and there is a strong belief internally that if they land Davis, Irving will re-sign and the Celtics will have a pair of All-NBA players and enough young pieces left over to chase championships well into the next decade.

Before, they wanted Davis. They may need him now.

The Knicks went all-in on free agency Thursday, and make no mistake—if they strike out, everyone is fired. Mills is gone, Perry too and polarizing owner James Dolan won’t be able to buy a hot dog without checking it for spit. The methodical rebuild the Knicks pledged allegiance to has been replaced by a big-market franchise going big game hunting once again.