The NBA’s dramatic trade deadline festivities kicked off a week early, when on Thursday afternoon the New York Knicks traded Kristaps Porzingis to the Dallas Mavericks, not two hours after it was reported that the 23-year-old expressed concerns to management over the franchise’s direction. The Knicks will receive DeAndre Jordan, Wesley Matthews, Dennis Smith Jr. and draft assets for Porzingis, Trey Burke, Tim Hardaway Jr. and Courtney Lee.
The reasoning here is clear on all sides: Porzingis wanted a sense of organizational stability he didn’t think the Knicks could provide. Upon learning that, New York pivoted its focus toward the offseason, taking on expiring deals as a means of clearing cap space for the summer. Dallas jumped at the opportunity to acquire another blossoming star to pair with Luka Dončić. All other parties involved were merely collateral damage. Both teams prioritized top-end talent, but in completely dichotomous ways. The immediate return for the Knicks is neither useless nor particularly exciting. They did not extract maximum value for Porzingis, a potential perennial All-Star just entering his prime. He, however, has not played in nearly a year and appeared to distrust the organization to an irreparable degree.
Sensible or not, New York now has something of a fresh start. After passing on Smith in favor of Frank Ntilikina in the 2017 Draft, the team has united the two in an interesting yet uncertain young backcourt. Jordan and Matthews will likely be playing elsewhere next season — if not sooner — while Dallas’ 2021 and 2023 first-round picks will likely be outside the lottery. The real boon is the flexibility the Knicks have moving forward. Trading Porzingis for expiring contracts — leaving just $18.7 million of guaranteed salary on their books next season — signals major aspirations for the upcoming summer, when the likes of Kevin Durant, Jimmy Butler, Kyrie Irving, and Klay Thompson can all hit the open market. The Knicks could sign up to two of those players (and flip more of its young assets for another star) and are clearly anticipating being a key player in free agency. That gives them no assurance of signing a star, though, and given the dysfunction that has plagued the franchise for the last two decades, this trade is liable to blow up in the Knicks’ faces. For now, New York did what it could with an uncomfortable situation. Its real fate won’t be decided for another five months.
Absent superstar free-agent signings, a franchise’s best hope for rising toward contention is through malleable young talent, and Dallas was quick to double down on it. In obtaining Porzingis, the Mavericks gave themselves a stronger foundation upon which to build — with two useful stopgaps in Lee and Hardaway to boot. A team with a player as special as Dončić has a certain obligation to maximize his prime. Giving him a running mate of nearly equal standing is a good place to start. Opportunities to acquire players like Dončić and Porzingis simply don’t arise often, and Dallas has now justifiably made aggressive plays for both in the last seven months.
The two will, theoretically, complement one another nicely when Porzingis returns — whenever that may be — and enjoy a comfortable on-court partnership. Their two-man game should put nearly immeasurable strain on defenses, who will have to concede some advantage on every pick-and-roll. Dončić is already a masterful facilitator who effortlessly finds shooters, roll men and driving lanes, while Porzingis is one of the best shooting big men in the league. With more capable playmakers around him, Porzingis will find his shots come more easily than they did in New York, as Dončić, in turn, works with more space around him than ever before.
Matthews and Jordan were never going to be around for Dončić’s prime. Porzingis, in all likelihood, will be and is a better prospect and more logical fit with Dončić than Smith was. The Mavs may miss Jordan’s presence above the rim as a roll man, though Porzingis may prove just as capable in that capacity and, when healthy, offers more value on the defensive end. Matthews had played well, but Hardaway and Lee should step in without missing a beat.
Even if Porzingis doesn’t fully blossom into a superstar or refuses to commit to the Mavs long-term, the mere possibilities that he might was enough to jump at. In New York, he showed flashes of two-way brilliance, even if they came in fits and starts. Last year he shot 39 percent from distance while averaging nearly 23 points per game before losing the rest of the season to a torn ACL. No big man held opponents to a lower field goal percentage at the rim. This is the promise on which the Mavs are betting. For the time being, they’ve paved a way for Dončić to keep developing as Porzingis continues to rehab. Only now, both players can proceed with a clearer way forward.