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The Knicks Are Still Looking for the Guy

In trading Kristaps Porzingis, New York made a maybe-shrewd step toward a championship but sacrificed the continuity that makes teams easy to root for

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Look around the NBA, and virtually every team has somebody who it either has built around or is in the process of building around. Some of these players joined their current team via fortuitous trades for young talent on the ascent, like James Harden in Houston and Victor Oladipo in Indiana. Many, if not most, landed on the roster through the draft: the Stephen Curry–Klay Thompson–Draymond Green triptych in Golden State, Giannis Antetokounmpo in Milwaukee, Nikola Jokic in Denver, Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons in Philadelphia, Russell Westbrook in Oklahoma City, et al.

It doesn’t always result in championship contention, but it signals the starting point of a plan: Get the right young guy, nurture him, build a structure around him, and maybe someday he goes from being the young guy to just being the Guy. The New York Knicks don’t have the Guy. They haven’t had one since 2000, when they traded franchise icon Patrick Ewing—by then an injured, 38-year-old shadow of his former Hall of Fame–caliber self—to the Seattle SuperSonics for an accursed package that never amounted to much.

So, let me say: It sucks that the Knicks traded Kristaps Porzingis. And it will continue to suck even if Knicks president Steve Mills and general manager Scott Perry hit their long-shot trifecta, transforming New York from one of the NBA’s worst teams into a true contender in a single summertime masterstroke. Something about jettisoning Porzingis fewer than four seasons after his arrival will keep feeling wrong, even if everything (for once) breaks right.

The counter-take after the team shipped Porzingis to Dallas was that the Knicks had done the right thing by pulling the trigger. Those Knicks fans whose response to the trade skewed toward downing a pint glass of bleach, the argument goes, were missing the forest for the trees.

Sure, the trade seemed like a classically Knicksy abdication of organizational responsibility, but New York’s new brass had actually taken a calculated gamble by using an injured player who had gripes with the organization (kind of tough to blame him there) and whose superstar bona fides might be overstated to both clear the financial ledger and load up the war chest.

This, apparently, wasn’t the Knicks’ broken business as usual. This was seizing the opportunity to create a real shot at landing three rainmakers, with $74.6 million in salary cap space giving New York enough room to fit two maximum-salaried free agents this summer, and a collection of assets (recent lottery picks Kevin Knox, Dennis Smith Jr., and Frank Ntilikina, plus seven first-round picks in the next five drafts, headlined by the tanking Knicks’ own 2019 first-rounder) with which to put together a trade offer for another team’s disgruntled superstar. Porzingis was the price of crystallizing the dream of a Kevin Durant–Kyrie Irving–Anthony Davis core, and that’s a price worth paying, according to a bunch of smart people.

But, for me, the most miserable thing about being a Knicks fan over the past two decades hasn’t been that the team has almost always been terrible. It’s that the team has almost always been terrible without ever really giving you anything to hold on to. The franchise has flitted from one approach to another, from one architect or would-be savior to the next, with stunning and dispiriting speed. At the heart of that perpetual instability has been a fundamental absence: Throughout the near-constant leadership churn—New York has had three times as many head coaches as winning seasons since 2000, and nearly twice as many top decision-makers—the Knicks have lacked a homegrown star, the sort of stabilizing young centerpiece who grows with the organization and allows the organization to grow around him.

The franchise’s best draft picks after taking Ewing in 1985 were Mark Jackson (traded after five seasons) and Rod Strickland (traded midway through his second). The last Knicks draft pick to land a multiyear second contract with the team remains, somehow, Charlie Ward, whom they drafted in 1994. The franchise’s best draft picks since trading Ewing include Nene, who was traded immediately for Antonio McDyess, who then broke his kneecap four months later; David Lee, the Knicks’ last homegrown All-Star before Porzingis, whom they traded to the Warriors when it was time for his second long-term contract in the summer of 2010; Danilo Gallinari, sent out midway through his third season in the deal that brought Carmelo Anthony to Madison Square Garden; and Porzingis, who will now watch whatever unfolds next at MSG from a safe distance in Dallas.

Yes, there are real concerns about the future of a 7-foot-3 face-up player coming back from an ACL tear. But Knicks fans have been looking for the Guy—or, honestly, anyone who even has the potential to be the Guy, a reason to believe—for 20 years. Porzingis was one. We saw it, and felt it. That matters, or at least it should.

I get why it doesn’t to Mills and Perry. Their job is to do whatever is in their power to give the Knicks the best chance of winning an NBA championship; if that means pulling a 180-degree turn away from their stated plan to take it slow, well, so be it. But while zero sum is the only language an executive understands, fans necessarily deal in remainders.

We watch 10 months of this show every season, and there’s only one team holding the trophy in the season finale; the rest of us have to try to find moments of joy along the way. Damian Lillard’s time in Portland isn’t a failure. Kemba Walker’s career in Charlotte isn’t meaningless. Seven Seconds or Less and Grit and Grind mattered. Maybe not as much as some title teams, in the eyes of the league at large. In the long view, though? Maybe more.

If this saga all ends with Durant, Irving, and Davis wearing orange and blue next October, I’ll have a hard time fixing my mouth to complain about it. The reward could be astronomical. But willingly giving up the best young hope you’ve given your fans in a literal generation isn’t nothing. Maybe, for the first time in ages, the Knicks really will come out of one of these high-stakes standoffs as winners. But something will still have been lost.