The New York Knicks finally seemed to be planning sensibly. They were being patient, holding onto their draft picks, refusing to take on long-term money, taking fliers on undervalued young guys, and embracing a season of unmitigated lousiness for a stab at a top pick and the chance to draft Zion Williamson.
Through it all, Kristaps Porzingis - their 23-year-old, 7-foot-3 franchise cornerstone, and their best homegrown player since Patrick Ewing - has been rehabbing from a torn ACL he suffered almost exactly a year ago. With no reason to win games this season, it behooved the Knicks to keep him on ice for as long as possible. In their dream scenario, Porzingis would come back healthy next season to form a power trio with their new top draft pick and a superstar free agent, like Kevin Durant. There had been a ton of buzz about Durant's desire to sign in New York, and even if that plan fell through, the Knicks would likely have two strong building blocks to move forward with.
But on Thursday, after a meeting with management reportedly revealed Porzingis' unhappiness with the direction of the team, the Knicks acted in stunningly quick fashion and flipped him to the Dallas Mavericks in a deal that effectively amounted to a salary dump.
In exchange for the young unicorn, who was last seen averaging 22.7 points and 2.4 blocks a game while shooting 39.5 percent from 3-point range, the Knicks received disappointing sophomore point guard Dennis Smith Jr. (whom they famously passed on in favor of Frank Ntilikina in the 2017 draft), the expiring contracts of DeAndre Jordan and Wesley Matthews, and a reported 2021 unprotected first-round pick and a 2023 protected first-rounder. Along with Porzingis, the Mavericks agreed to take back the bloated, non-expiring contracts of Tim Hardaway Jr. and Courtney Lee.
The Knicks' rationale here is very clear: The move clears enough money off their 2019-20 books to give them two max-salary slots this summer when Durant, Kawhi Leonard, Kyrie Irving, Jimmy Butler, Kemba Walker, Klay Thompson, and DeMarcus Cousins are all unrestricted free agents.
Maybe the Knicks know something we don't. Maybe they had enough intel on the upcoming free-agent class to make this move without thinking twice. There's certainly still a way for this to work out in New York's favor. But it's an awful lot of eggs to throw in one basket, and it leaves the Knicks without anything in the way of a Plan B for the immediate future.
It also leaves them with minimal infrastructure to sell those free agents on, especially if the draft lottery knocks them out of the running for Williamson. Two of those free agents would likely need to agree to go to New York in tandem, as it's hard to imagine one of them signing up to join Smith, Kevin Knox, Allonzo Trier, and non-Zion rookie X. Besides, it's not like one free-agent duo would be as valuable as another. If they can sign Durant and Irving, that's one thing. Would signing, say, Walker and Cousins be enough to justify the trade?
In short: this is a massive gamble, and if it doesn't pay off, the Knicks may have just set themselves back several years. They've put an enormous amount of pressure on the coming offseason. And it isn't like last summer when basically the entire NBA was strapped for cap space. There are plenty of other teams that project to have gobs of it this time around, including both Los Angeles outfits.
Even if the Knicks do manage to nab two marquee free agents, it's hard to believe this was their best course of action. They didn't need to rush a Porzingis deal, even if he told them he'd sign his one-year qualifying offer rather than a long-term offer sheet when he became a restricted free agent this summer (as he reportedly plans to tell the Mavericks). That would be a ridiculously ballsy move for an injury-prone player coming off major knee surgery and at least a year on the shelf. The Knicks could have called his bluff. They could have at least waited for a more robust trade market to take shape. It feels like they could have.
Or, maybe this was the best they could do. The injury concerns with Porzingis may have killed his trade value. His friction with the front office - which dates back to the Phil Jackson era - may have made it untenable to hold onto him for much longer. And if the Knicks strike out in the summer of 2019, they can always roll their cap space over to 2020, grab another high draft pick, and try again.
Not knowing what the front office do or don't know, it's almost impossible to judge this trade in the present. Ultimately, the team will be damned or absolved by what it's able to do next. They've risked it all for the prospect of free-agent riches. Time will tell if they're delusional or brilliant.