The Knicks Are Dreaming Bigger Than Kristaps Porzingis

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Kristaps Porzingis was supposed to be the savior of the Knicks. On Thursday, that hope was extinguished. New York dealt Porzingis along with two bad contracts (Tim Hardaway Jr. and Courtney Lee) and Trey Burke to the Dallas Mavericks for point guard Dennis Smith Jr., two expiring contracts (DeAndre Jordan and Wes Matthews), an unprotected first-round pick in 2021, and a top-10-protected first in 2023. The Knicks now have the cap space to sign two players to max contracts this summer, and more than enough assets to potentially make a serious trade offer for Anthony Davis.

There’s no doubt that New York is taking an enormous risk in trading away a 23-year-old center with All-NBA upside. Porzingis is rightfully lauded for his shooting, his rim-rattling dunks, and the shots he blocks into orbit. But there was a lot of risk involved in keeping him. Whether it’s due to negligence on the part of the Phil Jackson regime or not, Porzingis just didn’t want to play for the Knicks. The 7-foot-3 Latvian can become a restricted free agent this summer or can sign the qualifying offer, which would make him an unrestricted free agent in 2020. Giving a max contract to Porzingis would have been a dangerous proposition, but not entirely because of his unhappiness. The real concern is his durability.

For all the highlights, availability is the best ability—and that’s Porzingis’s worst trait. He has missed 110 of 296 possible games in four seasons thanks to a long list of injuries. Since 2015, he has suffered the following maladies (get ready to scroll):

Plus, Porzingis has missed games for an upper-respiratory infection and bouts of stomach flu. Though Porzingis might have flashed the potential to be the league’s best big man, his tall, frail frame made him a major injury risk before he was drafted fourth in 2015. Those concerns haven’t been squashed.

Until tearing his left ACL on February 6, 2018, Porzingis had never suffered a major injury, playing in 186 of 219 possible games. But he also battled an assortment of injuries and routinely hit a wall around the halfway point of the season. As a rookie, his overall play slipped in mid-January. As a sophomore, his scoring efficiency plummeted in mid-December. Last season, Porzingis averaged 30 points with a 60.7 true shooting percentage over his first 10 games, and looked the part of an MVP candidate. The Porzingis who had 40 points and six blocks in a comeback win over the Pacers is the version of Porzingis that Knicks fans choose to remember, and the one that Mavericks fans will choose to fantasize about.

Porzingis inspired Knicks fans to dream, but maybe it wasn’t going to be anything more than that. Though I’m concerned about Porzingis’s health today, he’s long been a fascination of mine: I ranked him 10th in 2014 before he pulled out of the draft, and I thought he was the potential steal of the 2015 draft. That he’s exceeded everyone’s expectations despite his injuries is what makes this so hard for the Knicks, and for their fans: Porzingis is a young behemoth who plays like a genetically engineered hybrid of Dirk Nowitzki and Chris Bosh. The thought of Porzingis ending up the Dirk to Luka Doncic’s Jumbo Steve Nash for the next decade in Dallas is a real possibility. The Mavs have one of the best medical staffs in the league, and Porzingis is a perfect fit on the court next to Doncic. His medical record can’t be ignored, though. It’d be one thing if Porzingis had a singular chronic problem; it’s that both of his legs have had so many issues, some of which have been triggered by noncontact situations. Maybe he’ll get over it in Dallas when he’s not carrying the offense on his shoulders, but it’s scary, especially when it has negatively affected his play.

What followed his torrid 10-game start to last season was a dip in production across the board over his final 38 games as he battled injuries, culminating in the torn ACL that keeps him sidelined today. From Yao Ming to Bill Walton, big men across eras have seen their careers shortened or hampered by injury. Isn’t it fair to worry that this will also be Porzingis’s reality?

If the Knicks didn’t have such an embarrassing history—with countless botched draft picks, poor hirings, dumb trades, worse signings, only one playoff series win this century, and a hated owner—they’d probably be lauded for their gamble of dealing Porzingis. Viewed from a different perspective that’s free of the past, Knicks president Steve Mills dumped a disgruntled player who teased superstar ability but couldn’t stay healthy for a talented young point guard, draft picks, movable contracts, and the cap space to change the course of their franchise.

General manager Scott Perry is in only his second year with the Knicks, but he bears the weight of the Knicks’ history of mismanagement. Perry could be more than just a new GM making the same old mistakes, so for a moment, forget about the Knicks’ past, and focus on where they are today. Since taking over for Jackson in 2017, Perry has shed the bad deals the Zen Master signed, gotten rid of Carmelo Anthony, acquired a number of young players who have shown flashes (Damyean Dotson, Allonzo Trier, Noah Vonleh, and Emmanuel Mudiay), and selected Kevin Knox and Mitchell Robinson. Now, the Knicks have also dumped the salaries of Hardaway and Lee, plus Porzingis’s $17.1 million cap hold, which means they can create more than $70 million in cap space this offseason. That’s more than enough for the Knicks to pursue two max-contract free agents, such as Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. In addition to Durant and Irving, the Knicks could also make runs at Jimmy Butler, Kemba Walker, Kawhi Leonard, and Klay Thompson—with the former two more likely than the latter two. Their books are also clean in the future, which would give them a shot at different casts of free agents down the road. Nonetheless, the plan all along has been Durant and Irving, and the Knicks have officially opened up a path to sign them.

Durant has wavered between staying or leaving all season, according to league sources. His manager, Rich Kleiman, is a native New Yorker and has even joked about someday running the Knicks. Also, Durant maintains a relationship with Perry from the lone year they spent together in Seattle, and Royal Ivey—whom Durant once called his “favorite teammate ever” and “best friend in the league”—is a Knicks assistant coach. Durant’s future could largely depend on Golden State’s results this season, but New York is at least an option. Now, the Knicks can pitch Durant on coming to New York and teaming up with a proven star—not a theoretical one, like Porzingis.

Irving is still expected by league sources to re-sign long term with the Celtics, though that confidence has diminished in recent weeks. Irving is from New Jersey, and playing near home for a contender could have some appeal. Leaving a contender in Boston for New York would be easier if it meant teaming up with Durant, one of his close friends.

Irving might be New York’s target, but Smith shouldn’t be an afterthought: His career may have gotten off to a rocky start, but that’s the case for most young point guards with questionable decision-making skills. Still, Smith, 21, is an elite leaper who uses bursts of speed to blow by defenders. He has the shiftiness to create space off the dribble, and his shot has looked improved thus far this season. In Smith’s final game with the Mavs, he displayed the overall skills that made him a top prospect at all levels.

It’s not like New York traded for only cap space: Regardless of what big moves the Knicks do or don’t make, Smith is the team’s best point guard prospect since the days of Stephon Marbury and Steve Francis. Some members of the Knicks front office were infatuated with Smith before the draft, and shared the disappointment that many fans did when Frank Ntilikina was picked by Jackson one spot ahead of Smith, league sources said at the time of the 2017 draft. Ntilikina can develop into a good player, but he lacks Smith’s upside. Now, they have both, plus Knox (the no. 9 pick last year), and two talented second-rounders in Robinson and Dotson. Factor in their incoming lottery pick—which, if they remain in the bottom three of the NBA standings, will give them a 14 percent chance of landing Duke’s Zion Williamson at no. 1 overall—and they still maintain a talented young core.

The Knicks may also suddenly be in the pole position in the Davis sweepstakes, not the Lakers or Celtics. Though Klutch Sports prefers Davis to team up with LeBron James on the Lakers, Davis, as I’ve written before, will make his own decision. New York couldn’t put together an acceptable trade offer for Davis that included Porzingis because, according to league sources, Porzingis told team officials that he wouldn’t re-sign in New Orleans if traded there. The Pelicans reportedly didn’t want Porzingis anyway, according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski—but New Orleans could want the assets that New York received for Porzingis. Both first-round picks—which are likely to convey in 2021 and 2023—have value, even if the Mavericks are a competitive team in those seasons. From Smith to Knox to their 2019 pick, the Knicks could assemble a trade package that exceeds any other possible offer, though it’ll largely hinge on what happens on May 14, the night of the draft lottery.

The Knicks are left with many ifs after trading Porzingis, which really isn’t much of a change from where they were before this trade. At that point, it was all about if Hardaway or Lee were traded, the Knicks could create cap space to sign a max player; and if Porzingis were to stay healthy, he could be a superstar. Basically, a new version of that path has been taken. The Knicks are cleaning their books and tanking, which is a step in the right direction. And now they have the ability to sign two superstars while still having enough assets to pursue Davis, all in the same summer. It’s just a fantasy, but if you’re going to dream, why not dream big?

Back to top ↑