In an ideal world, the Knicks would be near the top of the standings with two superstars in the lineup, exciting the fan base and providing a convincing told you so to Kristaps Porzingis as he arrived at Madison Square Garden Thursday night. The fans could boo Porzingis and revel in knowing that he was wrong to want out.
But this is reality and for the Knicks, reality means that Porzingis arrived with the team in just the sort of disarray that prompted him to sit down for a five-minute meeting on Jan. 30 and inform the Knicks’ front office executives that he wanted out — a trade request that team president Steve Mills and general manager Scott Perry had just so happened to be working on for weeks and used this as the last straw to send him to Dallas.
There are no superstars that came with the Knicks’ salary-cap space the deal created, the Knicks aren’t near the top of the standings, instead taking the court against the Mavericks with the worst record in the Eastern Conference. And the fans’ reaction to Porzingis returning pales in comparison to the angst created by the franchise right now, hitting a new low that even for them seems oddly devoid of gravity.
When Porzingis finished up his pregame workout and headed toward the locker room he was greeted with hugs from familiar faces among the employees and as he walked to the tunnel fans flocked and not a disparaging word was uttered as he signed autographs and posed for photos. One fan got a jersey autographed and screamed, “You’re the best.”
But that all changed once the real show began. When the Mavericks came out of the tunnel the boos were loud and when the Garden went silent for the national anthem one fan shouted “Traitor.” When he was introduced the few fans wearing Porzingis’ Knicks jerseys were inaudible under the crushing taunts.
Knicks coach David Fizdale ran into Porzingis in the hallway before heading to his pregame news conference and embraced the player that he never got to coach.
“I think he served the team well when he was here,” Fizdale said of the reaction to Porzingis from the Garden crowd. “He gave it his all. He obviously played extremely hard for the city. Unfortunately for him he suffered some serious injuries and that’s not on him. That’s neither here nor there. I don’t think it’s going to have any weight on him or the game.”
In a city as large as New York there are therapists within a stone’s throw — or an air-balled three-pointer — that can explain the projection that would make a fan stand and boo someone for feeling exactly as you do. Porzingis did request a trade, but his dissatisfaction was not for New York City, but for the dysfunction that has plagued the organization long before he arrived and has continued to haunt it after he departed.
“I remember when I was there, the expectation was always high for us,” Porzingis said Wednesday. “It’s always a lot of pressure, and when things are not going right, immediately there needs to be changes. And this year is no different for them again.”
For Porzingis, there is some rust after 20 months sidelined by a torn anterior cruciate ligament, but the Mavericks are still quickly grabbing attention as a rising team, bringing a 6-4 record into the matchup with the Knicks. The high point in the Knicks season so far has been a win in Dallas last week, but Porzingis and the Mavs’ young star, Luka Doncic, still both excelled that night and provided hints of what’s to come, a promising future that the Knicks and their fan base can only dream of.
“It’s a city hungry for success in basketball,” Porzingis said. “For them, for the fans, for the city to be going through this year after year, it’s got to be tough.”