This was always going to be about Hope. When you’re 10-40 and haven’t made the playoffs in what will be a sixth straight year, all you could possibly have is Hope.
So, what you now have to decide is which Hope Scenario had the better potential.
Hope Scenario 1 for the Knicks involved avoiding potential issues this summer and signing Kristaps Porzingis to a five-year, $158 million max deal with the hope he stays healthy and the hope the available salary cap space could attract one max star player like Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving or Kawhi Leonard to leave their winning teams. And then there is the hope the lottery pick they get this year comes up a winner and lands the most anticipated draft prospect since 2003, Duke’s Zion Williamson.
In this scenario, Porzingis likely remains a cornerstone and the “process” continues into another year as you hope the team improves and hope Porzingis — who is coming off ACL surgery and has, to date, missed 37% of his games over the first four seasons of his career — didn’t just sign for the money and eventually pushes to be traded.
Hope Scenario 2 is what happened on Thursday when the Knicks traded Porzingis, Tim Hardaway Jr., Courtney Lee and Trey Burke to the Dallas Mavericks for Dennis Smith Jr., Wes Matthews, DeAndre Jordan and two future first round picks. Matthews and Jordan are expiring contracts in exchange for Hardaway and Lee, which clears up to $70 million in cap space in the offseason.
Now, this scenario comes with a lesson learned from 2010, which is, regardless of the market and the stage, it’s extremely challenging to attract a star to come alone to a young team that hasn’t won in six years. And as we’ve seen in today’s NBA, stars are more willing to make a move to join other stars than they are to go it alone. So, what you have to do is make sure you have the salary cap space to land at least two and then comes more hope: that stars such as Durant and Irving want to join forces. And if that doesn’t happen, you can still the hope that you can use the cap space and collected assets to trade for someone such as Damian Lillard or Anthony Davis.
Oh, and you still, for now, have the hope of landing Zion.
Scott Perry clearly saw Hope Scenario 2 as having better potential, especially when you factor in how distant Porzingis remained over the past few months. He, Steve Mills and David Fizdale — who had to endure a Latvian sauna, don’t forget — did what they could to get KP to buy in and take ownership of the team.
“We just increasingly got the feel that there was a lot of uncertainty on his part,” Perry said in a conference call on Thursday night. “And any time you enter into the trade deadline, you prepare yourself.”
Perry said the team had “conversations on a number of fronts for the past several months” and had “eight or nine different ideas on the board” involving deals to improve the team and their ability to be aggressive in free agency. One idea involved the New Orleans Pelicans and Anthony Davis, but the issue in moving Porzingis to New Orleans was his restricted free agency status. The Mavericks were aware of reports of Porzingis’ disillusionment in New York and jumped at the chance to team him up with his good friend, rookie sensation Luka Doncic. They’re promoting it in Dallas to be their next Steve Nash/Dirk Nowitzki tandem.
The cost of Dallas’ hope scenario was taking on the contracts of Hardaway Jr. and Lee while also yielding those two future first round picks (2021 and 2023). Those picks are a critical element to this deal, along with getting 2017 first-round pick, Dennis Smith Jr.
Let’s start with the picks: The 2021 pick is unprotected, while the 2023 is protected in the top 10. The picks have a contingency on whether or not the Mavericks get a top 5 pick this year (which would take a major lottery move up from 11th). The Mavs pick this year goes to the Hawks, from the Doncic trade last year, if it is not in the top 5. If it is, the Hawks get the Mavs’ 2020 pick and the Knicks would then get the 2022 (unprotected) and 2024 (protected top 10) picks because NBA rules prohibit teams from trading first round picks in consecutive years.
Did you get all that? Good.
Regardless of what happens, the Knicks now own seven first-round picks over the next five drafts. Even Danny Ainge had to offer a Boba Fett nod toward Perry for this one.
Those picks allow the Knicks to not only boast cap space to attract star players, but assets to trade for one.
On top of that, the Knicks also added a 21-year-old in Smith Jr., who becomes the sixth player on the roster drafted in the last two years. And while the cap space the Knicks carved out with this deal is the headline, the suggestion that the plan to draft and develop has been scrapped is inaccurate.
“We haven’t reset our plan,” Mills said. “What we did was we did things that were consistent with our plan. A by-product of what we did created $68 million dollars worth of room. We’re going to be prudent in how we use that room because we’re still consistent in building this team through the draft and with young players. When there’s an opportunity to add a free agent, that certainly is part of one of the tools we have in our toolbox.”
Smith can be developed into a starting point guard or he can be a trade asset. Perry talked about pairing him in the backcourt with Frank Ntilikina, who, coincidentally, was the player the Knicks infamously selected over Smith in the 2017 draft. The two also became friends during the pre-draft process.
Jordan, a two-time first-team All-Defensive selection, could help mentor Mitchell Robinson as a defender and rebounder. Matthews may look for a trade or buyout to land with a playoff team. But in the meantime, the Knicks may be better now than before this trade and that could — all kidding aside — impact their chances to land the No. 1 pick.
But that won’t be decided until May 14 and no one wants to talk about losing more games right now. Mills and Perry have officially started the massive effort to reset the foundation of a franchise that has endured a dizzying amount of transitions over the last two decades. And don’t forget there’s still more that could come before the Feb. 7 trade deadline when Enes Kanter could be moved.
Porzingis was supposed to be the first block in the initial rebuild effort in 2015 after the worst season in franchise history. But after a promising rookie season, in which he accomplished things that put him in the record books with Patrick Ewing and Willis Reed, Porzingis always seemed to stay at an arm’s length from the franchise. Phil Jackson’s public criticism and challenges started the mistrust, but Porzingis’ incredibly protective brother, Janis, was another factor. Porzingis’ original agent, Andy Miller, was experienced, powerful and, most importantly, reasonable. But once he relinquished his license as an NBA agent during the FBI’s NCAA basketball investigation, Janis got his certification and took the lead role in running his brother’s affairs.
Janis perpetuated the trust issues through the transition of the franchise to Mills and Perry. Even after a week-long visit to Latvia by Fizdale, the relationship between Porzingis and the franchise never thawed.
“It’s just a feeling you get when you’re watching how frequently he comes to practices, how long he’s around the gym, different things that he’s doing,” Mills said. “We just start to get a feel that this might be moving in a different direction.”
Mills and Perry insisted that the Porzingis brothers both understood the team’s reasoning for not signing him to a max contract extension last fall. If they waited until this summer, it would save them $10 million in cap space and would allow the team to add a significant player via free agency. So, Porzingis would be a restricted free agent, which meant the Knicks could match any offers any other teams might make. But then stories started to appear about the potential for other teams to make poison-pill type offers and how Porzingis may be more inclined to sign with teams that are closer to winning than the Knicks.
That’s when, as Porzingis was nearing a return to the court, it was time to start preparing for the worst.
“When you’re trying to think about how you want to build your team for the long term,” Mills said, “you don’t want to commit a max player to a player who clearly says to you he doesn’t want to be here.”
There was always some uncertainty surrounding Porzingis’ motivation to remain with the Knicks. And keeping him beyond the trade deadline seemed as much of a risk as trading him for cap space and draft picks that, for now, is a great unknown.
It’s a disappointing ending to a story that started off with great promise, a player booed on draft night who became the Golden Child of a franchise that had gone years without one. But within four years he decided this was not the place for him and finally confirmed it in a short meeting on Thursday morning.
“I can’t answer where it broke down,” Mills said, “but the reality of it is I’m relieved we know.”
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