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Hope Is a Dangerous Thing for a Knicks Fan

New York just gave up its best player for draft picks and possibility. Maybe the team will score two major free agents. But the Knicks have squandered all faith and goodwill for decades.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

It doesn’t even seem like the New York Knicks thought that hard about trading their franchise player. Thursday afternoon, reports surfaced that Kristaps Porzingis, the best player the Knicks have drafted since Patrick Ewing, had told the team’s front office he was concerned with its direction. In less than an hour, the Knicks had already accepted a deal trading their unicorn to the Mavericks for some regular-ass horses and cap space. Did they even shop around?

Viewed positively, the trade brings back two future first-rounders—one of which is fully unprotected, per ESPN—and allows the Knicks to compete on the free-agent market this offseason. Porzingis was bait to get the Mavericks to take on Tim Hardaway Jr. and Courtney Lee, who are owed almost $50 million after this season. The Knicks will now have $75 million to spend this summer, enough to sign legitimate superstars in free agency.

It’s possible that everything will turn out OK. All Knicks fans have to do is trust the same people who gave wildly misguided contracts to Tim Hardaway Jr. and Courtney Lee.

For the first time in a long time, it felt like the Knicks had a plan. Yes, the plan was losing a lot—they’re 10-40, on track for a solid 16 wins. But over the past 15-ish years, the Knicks have almost always lost a lot. Most of the time, they’d done it with overpaid rosters that foolish front offices somehow thought would contend. This year’s Knicks were losing the way you’re supposed to lose—by design. They have a highly valuable draft pick in their pocket, a squad primarily composed of low-rent youngsters, and cap space on the horizon—and until Thursday, they had a proven superstar waiting to return from an ACL injury in Porzingis.

It was oddly comforting; after years of failed win-now moves, the Knicks have any sort of long-term strategy. Here’s an incomplete list of obviously shortsighted decisions the team has made: The Knicks hired Isiah Thomas as GM, watched him build a team that somehow had the league’s worst record and second-most expensive roster, then later decided he should also be the coach. They spent big on Larry Brown as head coach, then fired him after just a year. They traded away two first-round draft picks for Stephon Marbury. They traded a first-round draft pick for Eddy Curry. They traded a first-round draft pick for Andrea Bargnani. They learned that Carmelo Anthony wanted to join the Knicks, then traded away a slew of homegrown talent and a first-round pick in order to acquire him before the 2012 trade deadline. They hired legitimate basketball genius Mike D’Antoni, and put clamps on how he was allowed to coach the team. They thought Derek Fisher would be a good coach despite literally no evidence that this would be true, then fired him within two seasons. They hired Jeff Hornacek, then fired him after two seasons. They spent $60 million to get Phil Jackson as team president, then dealt with years of constant flip-flopping over whether the team’s coaches would be forced to run the triangle offense. They massively overpaid for Hardaway and Joakim Noah, when there didn’t seem to be much of a market for either player.

In the ultimate act of mismanagement, the Knicks let Jackson make the team’s pick in the 2017 draft, then fired him days later. He had chosen Frank Ntilikina, because he presumably thought Ntilikina would be the better point guard for the triangle offense than Dennis Smith Jr., who was selected one spot later by the Mavericks. They could’ve had him on the team already, if not for the Jackson confusion two years ago.

This is why it’s so jarring to see the Knicks make yet another move without a clear payoff. Every Knicks failure of the past two decades has been based on making a move to scratch some immediate itch, never once considering whether or not it might seem utterly stupid within a half-hour.

Porzingis was unlike any Knicks star in decades. Every leading man the Knicks have employed over the past two decades has been acquired via either hilariously lopsided trade or hilariously overpriced contract. They got decent players, but lost any chance to contend by acquiring them. Porzingis was different, a home-grown star who had turned into everything New York wanted from him. At 7-foot-3, he could’ve turned out to be a stick figure easily blown over by the wind, or a cloddish stiff incapable of existing in today’s NBA. Instead, he was everything you hoped for—a decent 3-point shooter with the agility of a gazelle and size of a giraffe. Yes, he’s missed nearly an entire year rehabbing an ACL injury—but rehabbing is a plan. And so far, the plan with Porzingis had worked.

This new Knicks impulse move is hypothetically different from those in the past, because it does come with some glimmer of hope on the horizon. Without Lee and Hardaway, and assuming they’ll reroute or buy out DeAndre Jordan and Wes Matthews (also acquired from Dallas in Thursday’s trade), the team will be even better at tanking, and should have a shot at drafting basketball-breaking Duke freshman Zion Williamson. The Knicks will get two first-rounders in 2021 and 2023 (one of which is unprotected) for Porzingis, which is never something the Knicks have been able to pull off. (We’re a third of the way to undoing the Marbury, Curry, and Bargnani trades!) And plus, they get cap space. Kevin Durant is a free agent this summer. Kawhi Leonard is a free agent this summer. Kyrie Irving is a free agent this summer. The Knicks will have enough money to sign two of those players.

But that’s the thing that truly worries me about this trade. Time and time again, the Knicks have banked on the premise that big-name superstars would be drawn to playing for the Knicks because they are the Knicks. Of course LeBron James wants to play in the Garden, because the Garden is the Garden! Owner James Dolan became a billionaire by birthright—of course he assumes everything will work out for the Knicks because they were lucky enough to be born in America’s biggest city.

But time and time again, that promise falls through. Because it turns out that big-name free agents often choose not to play for the Knicks because … they’re the Knicks: a team that never has a plan, and would inevitably ruin their careers with impulsive choices instead of making prudent strategies to maximize their primes. Their decisions are driven by the arrogance that things will work out because of who they are and not because of what they’re doing—and nobody wants to play for a franchise that is conceited and arrogant. The Knicks essentially traded away Porzingis for nothing but the promise of a big splash in the future. If that splash doesn’t come, they will have dealt away a promising future for nothing.

The Knicks want us to believe that this is an example of wise foresight, clearing the way for a franchise-defining splurge this summer. But so much of the logic stinks of the same doomed decision-making that should scare off Durant, Leonard, Irving, and any player of their caliber from joining this franchise later. Maybe this will work out, and maybe clearing this salary cap space will be the move that vaults the Knicks to a beautiful future. But I can’t trust a franchise that’s willing to scuttle its best long-term plan to absolve itself of its worst mistakes as quickly as possible. We may never know whether they even shopped around.