- Christian Petersen/Getty Images
- The New York Knicks’ stunning trade of Kristaps Porzingis creates cap space for two max salaries this summer.
- The Knicks are expected to be star-hunting after the season, and some believe the trade is a sign that they think they have a realistic shot at free agents like Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving.
- If the Knicks miss out on those players, they will have traded low on Porzingis while also stretching out their rebuild even further.
The New York Knicks’ blockbuster trade of Kristaps Porzingis on Thursday was a whirlwind event that seemed to catch most of the NBA world by surprise.
Shortly after reports of Porzingis meeting with Knicks management to discuss his concern with the franchise’s direction, additional details indicated that the Mavericks and Knicks were finalizing a deal to send Porzingis to Dallas.
But the rest of the pieces are also a key component of the trade. The Knicks received Dennis Smith Jr., Wesley Matthews, DeAndre Jordan, and two future first-round picks, while the Knicks also sent Tim Hardaway Jr., Courtney Lee, and Trey Burke.
Lee and Hardaway are owed $12.7 million and $18.1 million next season, respectively. Meanwhile, Jordan and Matthews are expiring contracts and set to hit free agency next season.
The exact details of why the Knicks moved on so quickly from Porzingis are unclear, but a big part of the deal was to clear cap space for this coming summer.
The Knicks are targeting superstars in free agency, and the move could leave them with as much as $74 million in cap space, enough for two maximum salary slots, according to ESPN’s Bobby Marks.
Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant have both been linked to the Knicks in rumors, though nothing has been substantial. By clearing so much cap space, the Knicks are rolling the dice and giving themselves a chance to win big.
Dennis Smith Jr. or no Dennis Smith Jr., the Knicks grand plan is to sign Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. https://t.co/78kc4YJJTv
— Frank Isola (@TheFrankIsola) January 31, 2019
Trading Porzingis might hurt that pitch. Though he’s been out since last February recovering from a torn ACL, part of the appeal of joining the Knicks for any superstar was a chance to play with a young, growing star in Porzingis.
Without him, the Knicks’ roster is pretty bare, though they do have some young talent in Kevin Knox, Frank Ntilikina, Mitchell Robinson, Allonzo Trier, and now, Smith. They also have a likely top-5 pick in the upcoming NBA Draft.
But the Knicks’ pitch to acquire free agents like Durant and Irving will be synchronized – come play together. It won’t be one domino, then the next, but two at once. It isn’t the craziest pitch. The brightest and most obvious explanation of the trade is that the Knicks have intel that suggests they have a realistic shot at one or both players.
The Knicks’ intel better be right
The Knicks have gone all-in on the summer of 2019. The worst outcome isn’t missing out on superstars. What’s worse is how they got there.
Porzingis may not be the most attractive trade chip in the NBA – he’s an oft-injured, 7-foot-3, athletic big man coming off of a torn ACL, and headed for restricted free agency this summer. Teams may not have been willing to give up much to get him.
- Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images
But the Knicks almost certainly sold low on him. The return is essentially cap space, draft picks several years away (the Mavs owe their 2019 pick to the Atlanta Hawks, and teams can’t trade back-to-back first-rounders, so the earliest the Knicks can get a pick is 2021) and Smith for Porzingis.
The hardest thing in the NBA is to find true star players, and Porzingis, assuming he returns to form, is a rare star player. They traded him to take a total gamble on two star players.
If the Knicks wanted to make a move for another star, they might have considered attaching assets to Porzingis to trade up. If the Knicks wanted to make a play for Anthony Davis, for example, offering Porzingis, one of their young players, and a draft pick might have been the play. (It’s unclear if this would have worked, as Porzingis is heading for restricted free agency, and the draft spot of the Knicks’ pick is undecided at the moment). Landing a player like Davis would then be their most useful recruiting tool in free agency.
If the Knicks grew tired of Porzingis’ frustration and lack of trust in the franchise (as ESPN’s Zach Lowe suggested), they could have also looked to trade Porzingis for a better, younger asset, plus future draft picks. Regardless of Smith’s actual talent, he was on the trading block and at one point holding out from the Mavericks while they looked to deal him. He wasn’t in high demand.
Perhaps the Knicks were wary of Porzingis taking the qualifying offer this summer, then becoming an unrestricted free agent in 2020. The Athletic’s Shams Charania reported Porzingis intends to tell the Mavericks that he will play on the qualifying offer in 2019; ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski said that Porzingis hasn’t made up his mind.
The Knicks should have called his bluff if he threatened to play on the qualifying offer. That would have been a gamble for any player coming off of a torn ACL, but Porzingis also likely would have been in line for a max or near-max contract this summer. Turning that type of deal down, coming off of a severe injury, would have been an unprecedented gamble in the NBA.
There are now three apparent outcomes for the Knicks – they hit it big in free agency, they overpay for secondary options in free agency, or they miss out on all of their targets and roll that cap space over to 2020, essentially tanking again in 2019-20.
Slow, patient rebuilds have their benefits, but they’re not for everyone. The Knicks are 10-40 this season, losers of 19 of their last 20 games. Cracks in the foundation are starting to show. Veterans, like Enes Kanter, have griped about their minutes. Head coach David Fizdale has alternated between roasting his team and criticizing their effort. And, uh, their franchise player just bailed on the whole project.
Even if the Knicks struck out in free agency this summer, bringing back Porzingis, a top draft pick, and their young core, a year older, would lead to marginal improvements. That can be a good thing. It can be okay for young teams to win more games, get better, and head into the next season with higher aspirations.
The Knicks have essentially created two paths – nail free agency in a way the franchise has never done before, or take a step back in their rebuild and stretch out an already-long process.