Kristaps Porzingis
ESNY Graphic, AP Photo

The New York Knicks made a high-risk move when they traded Kristaps Porzingis and they are still searching for a superstar in return.

Danny Small

It cannot be fun to be the New York Knicks right now. General manager Scott Perry and team president Steve Mills spent the better part of the last two seasons building towards 2019 free agency.

When free agency came and went in a flash, they were left on the dance floor without a star. However, not so long ago the Knicks had their own potential superstar on the roster—Kristaps Porzingis.

The disgruntled star had a checkered history with the organization and it was reported that he gave the team an ultimatum. He didn’t plan to sign with the Knicks so they should trade him away. New York moved quickly after the ultimatum to recoup value for the enigmatic big man. The Dallas Mavericks were in the right place at the right time.

It’s impossible to enter the mind of Porzingis to know exactly what would have happened had the Knicks called his bluff. All we can do is lay out the numbers. The Knicks could have offered Porzingis five years and $158 million, the same exact deal he accepted from Dallas in a heartbeat.

If Porzingis was dead serious about leaving the Knicks as soon as possible, he would have to sign the qualifying offer and play for around $4 million next season in order to become an unrestricted free agent in 2020. For a player coming off a career-threatening injury, that is a major risk to take. Perhaps the bridges between him and the Knicks were already burnt to a crisp, but it’s hard to envision anyone turning down that kind of money

It’s impossible to win in the NBA without a star. If the Porzingis trade doesn’t bring a star to the Knicks, it was an abject failure—plain and simple. The Knicks traded a controllable star (with superstar potential) for three things. Those three components were cap space, draft picks, and Dennis Smith Jr.

Let’s take a look at all three.

Cap Space

The Knicks wholeheartedly believed they were signing at least one max free agent this summer. They talked a big game about the perception of the organization changing. Many will blame the media for igniting the firestorm of Durant rumors. However, if the media started the fire, team owner James Dolan didn’t do much to extinguish the blaze.

“New York is the Mecca of basketball, right? And we hear from people all the time,” Dolan said. “From players, from representatives about who wants to come. We can’t respond because of the NBA rules, etc. But that doesn’t stop them from telling us and they do. And I can tell you from what we’ve heard, I think we’re going to have a very successful offseason when it comes to free agents.”

No Kevin Durant. No Kyrie Irving. No Kawhi Leonard. Objectively, the Knicks did not have a “very successful offseason when it comes to free agents.” Not by a long shot.

However, they kicked the can down the road. Julius Randle was the only free agent signed for more than two years and his third year is only partially guaranteed. The rest of the signings were all veterans on two-year contracts with team options for the second year. This was a great pivot from the original plan.

But make no mistake, the Knicks whiffed on the first chance to replace Porzingis. They’ll have another opportunity down the line. But as Knicks fans know, trying to woo a superstar free agent can be fool’s gold.

Draft Picks

The Knicks acquired two first-round picks in the deal for Porzingis. The 2021 pick is unprotected and the 2023 pick is top-10 protected. Those are certainly valuable assets, but there is a very good chance that the Mavericks are playoff teams both of those years.

It’s tough to land a star in the second half of the first round. Sure, there are the diamonds in the rough like Leonard, who turn into superstars. But he is the exception, not the rule. Those Dallas picks are valuable, but those picks aren’t likely to return superstar value from the draft.

However, the Knicks could use their treasure chest of draft picks in a package for the next superstar who becomes available. At some point, a star will hate where he’s playing and request a trade. Kyrie Irving, Kawhi Leonard, Anthony Davis, etc. Somewhere in the league, there’s a star who is about to become available. That’s just the NBA.

New York Knicks

The Knicks have six first-rounders through the year 2023 to go along with a handful of second-round picks. Even better, the Charlotte Hornets traded their 2020 and 2021 second-round picks for Willy Hernangomez. Take a look at Charlotte’s roster. Those will be high-value second rounders.

With those picks, the tradeable contracts on the books, and a group of developing young players, the Knicks are poised to pounce on a disgruntled star. That’s how Dallas landed Porzingis. It would only make sense for the Knicks to do the same to another team at a later date.

Cap space was the flashy Ferrari that turned out to be a lemon. The draft picks the Knicks acquired for Porzingis might be the dependable Toyota Corolla that gets the Knicks exactly where they want to go.

Dennis Smith Jr.

The jury is still out on Smith. He only played 21 games after coming to the Knicks and he showed some serious promise. Perhaps his best game of the season came in a February victory against the San Antonio Spurs in Madison Square Garden.

Smith poured in 19 points on 17 shots, but his scoring wasn’t the story. Smith shined as a facilitator, dishing out 13 assists without a turnover. He had a good feel for finding the open man on the perimeter and his chemistry with Mitchell Robinson was undeniable.

The potential for Smith to develop into an All-Star might be in there like an untapped oil reserve. That being said, I wouldn’t bet on Smith ever reaching that level. Point guards generally take a little bit longer to work out the kinks—hello, D’Angelo Russell—but Smith still has a lot to prove before we can put him in the same conversation as Porzingis.

The Elephant in the Room

We still haven’t seen Porzingis play in a game since that fateful day where he landed awkwardly and crumpled to the floor in front of the Garden. He may never become the same player he was, but then again, an ACL tear isn’t a death sentence in the NBA.

Additionally, the Mavericks didn’t hesitate to extend him the full max extension. They’ve had five months to monitor his recovery and feel comfortable locking him up for five years. That is certainly a vote of confidence for KP.

His knee will always spark questions due to his frame and prior history. But if he can avoid the injury bug, he has a chance to become a perennial All-Star and a legitimate contender alongside Luka Doncic. He’ll be a constant reminder to Knicks fans of what could have been.

But there is some good news for Knicks fans. The team may have struck out on its first try at replacing Porzingis, but they still have opportunities. By punting on cap space, collecting draft picks like Beanie Babies, and empowering Dennis Smith Jr. to succeed, the Knicks can turn the Porzingis trade into a success.

But simply having all of these assets isn’t enough. Following through and acquiring a star capable of replacing Kristaps Porzingis has to be the end goal. So far, it’s strike one for the Knickerbockers after 2019 free agency. They’ll have a couple more swings before we can truly declare the Porzingis trade a dud.

For better or worse, the Kristaps Porzingis trade will define the Perry-Mills era in New York.

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