Schmeelk: Still Too Early To Crown A Winner Of The Porzingis Trade

John Schmeelk
July 10, 2019 - 1:39 pm
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When the Knicks failed to land one of the top stars available in free agency, the popular narrative has been to label the Kristaps Porzingis trade back in February as a complete and utter failure. In reality, it is far too early to draw any final conclusions. 

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This was the trade:

Knicks receive: Dennis Smith Jr., Wesley Matthews Jr., DeAndre Jordan, 2021 1st round pick and a 2023 1st round pick (top 10 protected).

Mavericks receive: Kristaps Porzingis, Tim Hardaway Jr., Courtney Lee and Trey Burke.

Aside from Porzingis and Smith Jr., the other players involved in the trade are not important, aside from their contracts. Moving on from Hardaway Jr. (signed through 2021) and Courtney Lee (signed through 2020) for the expiring deals of Matthews and Jordan gave the Knicks the cap room to sign two max free agents this offseason.

This is where everyone fairly points to the failure of the trade. Despite James Dolan’s public confidence and media reports, there was never any guarantee in February that two stars would come to fill that cap space. Things change fast in the NBA, as evidenced by Kevin Durant’s Achilles injury in the playoffs. The Knicks, despite preaching patience, did confirm after the trade that acquiring additional cap space this offseason was a major component in their decision to move Porzingis to the Mavericks.

"We wanted to get a rookie player that was still in his scale contract,” Knicks President Steve Mills said. “We wanted to add additional draft picks to the draft picks we currently have and then give ourselves financial flexibility that we could become a player in free agency. But just a chance to have the flexibility to move forward."

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The inability to use that cap space on star free agents that move the needle long-term was a failure and is a legitimate criticism of the value on the trade return. Acquiring star players is the toughest thing to do in the NBA, and Porzingis has the chance to become one. The ability to acquire two stars was supposed to make the Knicks a more attractive destination, but it didn’t work out that way. Not using the space to acquire a replacement star the first chance the team got this offseason isn’t the final death knell for the trade, but it is a bad start.

It’s important to note a few different things that are unknowns when making a final evaluation of the deal. We don’t know if there was a better offer back in February that didn’t involve clearing cap space. The Knicks moved quickly to trade Porzingis since they had previously explored their options. Whether a more extended process could have yielded a better result is no better than a guess.

Waiting until this summer to move him as a restricted free agent was also an extremely risky proposition. Porzingis would have had a lot of control over the process with restricted free agent rights and could have limited the Knicks options in a trade. He could have also refused to sign anything but a 1+1 contract, which would have made it impossible for the Knicks to trade him at all.

The other path if the Knicks didn’t consummate a trade at all (which seems unrealistic given the reports Porzingis demanded to be moved or he would leave the team and rehab in Europe) was to call his suspected bluff not to play on a qualifying offer, and offer him the deal the Mavericks did: a max five-year, $158 million contract. There’s little evidence suggesting Porzingis would have signed a deal like this from the Knicks.

Kristaps Porzingis
USA TODAY Images

Given Porzingis’ torn ACL, injury history and body type, that contract offers a substantial amount of risk. There’s no guarantee of what Porzingis looks like when he returns, or if he is ever going to be healthy long-term. Will he ever be good enough to be the second-best player on a title-contending team, let alone the best? These are not questions we know the answer to, and won’t for some time.

There’s a real possibility that the Knicks might be better off with their hodge-podge of players on 1+1 deals than Porzingis on his five-year contract. There’s also a chance that Porzingis becomes a consistent All-Star and a dominant two-way player. More than anything else, what Porzingis ends up becoming when he is a finished product will impact how this trade is judged more than anything else.

Porzingis’ uncertain future is also why comparing the Knicks' return to what the Pelicans got for Anthony Davis and the Thunder got for Paul George is unfair. Those two players have made multiple All-Star teams and are far more established with more certain futures than Porzingis. George might be dealing with shoulder injuries, but they do not compare to the risks of Porzingis’ ACL, combined with his body type and injury history. Davis and George were stronger commodities.

What the Knicks do moving forward will also impact whether this trade turns into a net positive. The Knicks have five players on two-year contracts with the second year a team option. If the Knicks use those players or the space after the contracts expire in the next two offseasons to obtain a star or even a bunch of additional draft picks, then the deal looks a lot better.

The development of Dennis Smith Jr. will also be a fulcrum point of the trade. If he can become a good starting point guard, or even reach his ceiling as a future All-Star, the deal looks more favorable. If the Mavericks struggle and the 2021 pick ends up being a lottery pick that the Knicks use on an impact player, the trade looks a lot better too. It’s no different in 2023, as long as it conveys with the protections on the pick. There are still too many unknowns.

Some will argue that Porzingis’ demand for a trade gave the Knicks no choice but to move him, which may very well be true. But it was the Knicks' incompetence as a franchise, even if it occurred before Scott Perry arrived (but Steve Mills was still GM under Phil Jackson), that at least partially drove Porzingis to demand a trade. It looked like the current regime did as much as they could to ingratiate themselves to Porzingis, but there is no way to know exactly why the relationship spoiled the way it did.

No doubt Porzingis’ camp had some influence on the divorce too, but the Knicks’ inability to keep a player on a max contract coming off his rookie deal — which never happened before — reflects poorly on them. The Knicks could not avoid being a bad team last season after his injury and their lack of financial flexibility, and if Porzingis did not understand that from a purely basketball perspective, that’s on him.

There is still much to be written about whether the Porzingis trade will be a win for the Mavericks, Knicks, both or neither. The first part of the trade return did not go the Knicks' way, but there is still a lot that must transpire before we know for sure.

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