The Mavs just went all in again. Seven months after trading two lottery picks to move up and acquire the rights to Luka Doncic, they sent the only other lottery pick on their roster (Dennis Smith Jr.) as well as Wesley Matthews, DeAndre Jordan, and two future first-round picks (one protected, one not) to the Knicks in a deal for Kristaps Porzingis, Tim Hardaway Jr., Courtney Lee, and Trey Burke on Thursday. Porzingis, the crown jewel of the trade, hasn’t played since tearing his ACL last February and may sign a one-year qualifying offer this summer to become an unrestricted free agent in 2020. Dallas has 18 months to convince Porzingis to partner with Doncic long term. The two Europeans could become the best two players on a title contender, or the whole thing could implode by the time Doncic comes to the end of his rookie deal. The Mavs didn’t have much of a choice once they started down this path. It’s no longer possible to play it safe with young stars in the NBA.
The Knicks’ handling of Porzingis is proof of how fast player-team dynamics are changing. He was supposed to be the franchise player in New York for the next decade. A star on his rookie deal had never forced his way out of town before, at least not under this current version of the CBA. The team that drafts the player has the first shot at offering him a long-term contract before his rookie deal expires, as well as the rights to match any offer he receives in restricted free agency. The only leverage the player has in that situation is turning down the security of an extension that could be worth upward of $150 million. Porzingis, just by threatening to do that, may have opened Pandora’s box. While there were a lot of unusual circumstances surrounding his specific situation, the underlying logic for why he did it still makes sense for other young stars going forward, including Doncic.
Porzingis, at least on paper, seems like one of the least likely candidates to roll the dice on a one-year offer. NBA history indicates that players with his combination of size (7-foot-3 and 240 pounds with a 7-foot-6 wingspan) and athleticism are huge injury risks. Porzingis tore his ACL a little over 12 months ago; he could be the Latvian version of Yao Ming if it happens again. He’s gambling that at least one other team would be willing to pay him a lot of money, regardless. The sheer number of teams who were reportedly interested in trading for him when he became available on Thursday is a good indication that he’ll be right. The chance to get a player like him is too rare to pass up.
Porzingis avoided the fate of Anthony Davis and Karl-Anthony Towns, who signed long-term extensions with the teams who drafted them as soon as they had the chance, locking themselves into less-than-ideal situations with no leverage. Davis, who issued a trade demand earlier in the week, was a good soldier in New Orleans for six and a half seasons. Towns is signed in Minnesota until 2024, even though he has plenty of reasons to be displeased with the circus that has surrounded the franchise over the past two seasons. Porzingis, in contrast, was unhappy with the direction in New York, and now Dallas has to keep him happy or he will go somewhere else next summer.
Doncic should have been taking notes. The 19-year-old rookie has lived up to even the most optimistic projections in the NBA, averaging 20.4 points on 43.3 percent shooting, 6.9 rebounds, and 5.4 assists per game. Doncic was part of an uneasy power-sharing arrangement with Smith at the start of the season, and now the Mavs have shifted the ball into his hands as much as possible over the past few months, turning him into one of the biggest point guards (6-foot-7 and 220 pounds) in the league. Doncic already looks like a star. He can run an offense, shoot and pass out of the pick-and-roll, and create a shot for either himself or one of his teammates at any point in the possession. He will be a great player for a long time, and he doesn’t owe anything to Dallas. He was nearly a finished product by the time he was a 17-year-old playing for Real Madrid.
The Mavs didn’t have much infrastructure around Doncic before this trade. They were a lottery team who would have had a first-round pick in the 2019 draft only in the unlikely event that it would land in the top five, and the only other notable prospect on their roster (Smith) played the same position as Doncic. The partnership between the two guards seemed over once Smith left the team for a stretch of games earlier in the month because he was unhappy about his role in the offense. The Mavs would have had a lot of salary cap room this summer had they stayed put through the deadline, but they have had large amounts of cap space ever since breaking up their championship team in 2011, and the best player they ever signed with it was Harrison Barnes. There was certainly no guarantee they would ever be able to build a title contender around Doncic through free agency. He could have easily wound up as unhappy as Porzingis was in New York and pushed for a similar type of trade.
Porzingis, if he can stay healthy, would be the perfect costar for Doncic. The two have a much more natural distribution of offensive roles than Doncic and Smith. Porzingis is an evolutionary version of Mavs icon Dirk Nowitzki. He’s not quite as lethal an outside shooter, but he combines shooting touch with the ability to protect the rim. There has never been a player quite like him before. He became the first player in NBA history to average at least 20 points, two blocks, and four 3-point attempts per game last season. He will protect Doncic on defense, while also spacing the floor for him on offense and serving as a pick-and-roll partner. Dallas head coach Rick Carlisle should be able to dig deep into his bag of tricks to unleash the talents of his two stars.
Doncic should get the best out of Porzingis. The big man seemed to learn all the wrong lessons from spending his first two NBA seasons next to Carmelo Anthony, as he has a career average of 1.3 assists per game and 1.8 turnovers. He has such a high release point on his shot that he can always create a look for himself, so he has never learned to balance hunting for his own shot and reading the defense to create a shot for someone else. He just takes the first shot available. That won’t be an issue now that he will be playing next to such a gifted playmaker. Porzingis can try to score nearly every time he touches the ball and let Doncic worry about setting everyone else up.
It’s unclear when Porzingis will actually return to the floor. The Knicks had nothing to play for this season, and they didn’t seem to have much interest in bringing him back and potentially costing themselves lottery positioning. The Mavs don’t have the same incentives. They will be extremely careful with his health, but they also want to start building chemistry between him and Doncic on the court. They are also still on the fringes of the playoff race, trailing the Clippers by 4.5 games for the no. 8 seed in the Western Conference, though it’s hard to know how the new-look team will fare over the next few weeks. Carlisle will need to figure out new roles for a lot of players quickly.
The most important question facing the team is which players make sense around Doncic and Porzingis next season. They will not have much flexibility under the salary cap if (and almost certainly when) Harrison Barnes ($25.1 million) and Dwight Powell ($10.3 million) exercise the player options in their contracts. Barnes and Hardaway are all but assured starting spots, while Lee, despite barely playing for the Knicks this season, could replace Matthews as a 3-and-D shooting guard. Doncic, as the point guard, will have to keep Porzingis and Barnes happy, since both will be playing for new contracts. The pieces could fit together if everything goes right, but it would not be a surprise if the Mavs were to continue being active in trade talks over the next few months.
Their biggest strength will be the sheer size of everyone involved. Lee, at 6-foot-5 and 215 pounds, would be their smallest starter. And while Hardaway and Barnes are far from ideal 3-and-D players, they at least have the length and athleticism to complement Doncic and Porzingis. The Mavs will be vulnerable on defense against smaller and faster point guards, but they will pose just as many matchup problems for those players on the other end of the floor. If Doncic continues to improve and Porzingis returns at somewhere near full strength, Dallas should be able to make the playoffs in the West. And if Porzingis agrees to stay next summer, they will be able to take a deep breath and begin making a long-term plan to build around their two stars. That’s a lot of ifs, though.
This could all blow up. The chemistry between Doncic and Porzingis might never develop, and the supporting cast might not buy into their roles around them this season. If they don’t keep Porzingis, the Mavs might not have enough to make Doncic want to stick around. However, he might have wanted to leave even if they hadn’t made this trade. These days, the clock is ticking as soon as a team drafts a star player. The Mavs have to keep Doncic happy in a way the Knicks couldn’t with Porzingis. Dallas now has two players under the age of 25 who could be the best two players on a championship team. Just about every team in the league would kill for that opportunity. The downside of creating that opportunity is that you might end up getting yourself killed in the process.