Kristaps Porzingis, Tim Hardaway Jr
ESNY Graphic, Getty Images

Watching Kristaps Porzingis and Tim Hardaway Jr. flourish in Dallas is a cruel reminder of what could have been for the New York Knicks.

Danny Small

The last time the New York Knicks saw Kristaps Porzingis, Tim Hardaway Jr., and the Dallas Mavericks, life was good for the diehard fans of the orange and blue.

Boos rained down upon Porzingis from start to finish and he was noticeably rattled. New York secured a three-point victory and earned their second win against Dallas in the span of six days. The season sweep was completed in short order and all was right for Knicks fans. The “Unicorn” was nothing more than a myth.

For a while, Knicks fans and water-carriers for the organization could argue that the Porzingis trade was a smashing success.

Sure, the Knicks whiffed in epic fashion during free agency, Dennis Smith Jr. is a shell of what he once was, and the Mavs are a likely playoff team, devaluing the draft picks sent to New York. But with all that said, Porzingis didn’t look like the generational talent many Knicks fans thought he would become.

Add in the fact that he just signed a max five-year, $158 million contract with Dallas and the Knicks were clear winners in the trade, right? Not by a long shot. There’s more to this story.

Slow starts

Despite Dallas’ early-season surge to the top of the Western Conference standings—thanks in large part to Luka Doncic—Porzingis was wildly inefficient on offense. In his first 31 games as a Maverick, he averaged 17.3 points per game, but was barely above 40% shooting from the field and his three-point and free-throw percentages were both below his career marks.

To make matters worse, Porzingis’ knee began acting up and he missed 10 games between New Year’s Eve and Jan. 17. Long-term injury concerns will always follow the big man and his slight frame no matter how well he is playing.

Conversely, Hardaway was earning his keep with above-average three-point shooting, but he hadn’t blossomed into an assassin from beyond the arc. Although less prevalent than Porzingis, Hardaway has dealt with his fair share of injury woes in his career as well. A hamstring strain kept the shooting guard out for three games in late December/early January.

Inefficient shooting, injuries, and two massive contracts started to look all the more concerning for the Mavericks. However, their luck was about to turn.

Heating up

Don’t look now, but Porzingis and Hardaway are starting to heat up in their new home after their respective injuries. Over his last 11 games, the Latvian legend is averaging 21.4 points on .455/.367/.866 shooting splits to go along with 8.4 rebounds and 1.2 blocks per game.

Three straight 30-point outbursts gave Knicks fans flashbacks to Porzingis’ early-season dominance in 2017. It’s worth noting that the Mavs were 4-7 during KP’s strong 11-game stretch, but Doncic missed all but one of those games. The Slovenian superstar is the focal point for the Mavericks while Porzingis is filling the role of Robin to Doncic’s Batman.

Hardaway, on the other hand, is having his best season as a three-point shooter, which is helping open up his team’s offense for Porzingis and Doncic to flourish. The University of Michigan product is shooting above 40% from deep for the first time in his career. Not to mention, he’s knocking down 43.5% of his threes over his last 18 games.

Are these examples of nitpicking from small sample sizes? On the contrary, the last 11 and 18 games for Porzingis and Hardaway, respectively, show the former Knicks trending upwards and what’s even scarier is that it looks sustainable.

Where’s the ceiling?

Is this version of the Mavericks a championship contender? Probably not in the loaded Western Conference. Not yet, but they are on an upward trajectory with Doncic, Porzingis, and Hardaway all coming back next season. Again, even next season they might be a year away from becoming a legitimate threat to make the NBA Finals.

No matter what, Porzingis and Hardaway are both going to the playoffs for the first time in their careers after never coming close in New York.

All that said, it’s easy to imagine what a Doncic, Porzingis, and Hardaway trio would look like in the lesser Eastern Conference. In a cruel twist of fate, Porzingis’ early stretch of dominance during the 2017-18 season torpedoed New York’s chances of climbing in the lottery to take the Wonder Boy.

Seeing Doncic and Porzingis don the orange and blue would have been enough to put many Knicks fans in a permanent state of nirvana. But alas, now Knicks fans can only watch what could have been from a distance.

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