Wednesday marked an anniversary, a year to the day when Kristaps Porzingis crumpled to the floor on the baseline at Madison Square Garden, his left ACL torn and the Knicks' future suddenly up for grabs.
But as the 7-3 budding star was carried on the shoulders of teammates and trainers to the locker room, the last time he would be seen on the court in a Knicks uniform, it would have seemed impossible to predict the healing process — not for Porzingis, who remains in rehabilitation protocol, but for the Knicks, who traded him last week to shift the rebuilding plan from his fragile frame to the mystery of the coming free-agent market.
While the NBA trade deadline will arrive Thursday at 3 p.m. the Knicks already have plotted a path built around their own schedule. They pulled off a major trade a week ahead of the deadline, sending Porzingis, along with Tim Hardaway Jr., Courtney Lee and Trey Burke to the Dallas Mavericks, bringing back Dennis Smith Jr., a pair of future first-round picks and the expiring contracts of DeAndre Jordan and Wes Matthews.
The next phase of their rebuild looms this summer when the Knicks are on course for at worst a top-five pick in the NBA Draft and when they can flash their $70-plus million in cap space to attempt to secure a pair of max contract free agents.
The Knicks moved quickly to change direction with the Porzingis trade and they are hardly alone. The Philadelphia 76ers already made one huge deal earlier this season, trading for Jimmy Butler, and then struck again in the middle of the night Tuesday, completing a deal for Tobias Harris, the Long Island-product who has emerged as a star in his eighth season.
“We are in the unique position to contend now and we think this trade positions us well for the postseason,” 76ers general manager Elton Brand said in a statement. “Tobias is one of the best three-point shooters in the NBA and possesses an innate ability to impact the game on both ends of the floor, while Boban [Marjanović] and Mike [Scott] provide valuable skillsets, size and depth to our team. All three players bring high character to our locker room and we are excited about their fit alongside Joel [Embiid], Ben (Simmons], Jimmy and our entire roster.”
If the 76ers decide to keep both Butler and Harris long-term they can offer more money and years than anyone else, which could knock two of the prime players in the free-agent market off before it begins. The already risky chase for free agents gets harder when teams take the initiative to acquire them ahead of free agency and that is why the Knicks reached out to New Orleans, trying to push their way into a deal for Anthony Davis. The Knicks are one of the four teams that Davis informed the Pelicans he would be willing to commit to a long-term contract extension.
With the deadline looming ,the Knicks, according to a source, appear unlikely to pull off another deal, but it’s not for a lack of trying. The Knicks have stuck to their goal of clearing cap space and are intent on not taking back any contracts that extend beyond this season, while they are open to parting with just about anyone on the roster. There has been reported interest in Wes Matthews, Noah Vonleh and Frank Ntilikina, but the most likely outcome for the Knicks remains negotiating buyouts after the deadline with Matthews and Enes Kanter.
That will bring the Knicks to the summer, when they can take to the next phase of their rebuild — chasing stars in free agency — and from the moment they traded the doors have seemed to open for them. There is a belief around the NBA that the Knicks are frontrunners for Kevin Durant and then Kyrie Irving swung the door open for them, backing off his assurances that he would stick with the Celtics after this season.
Durant has not spoken to the media since the Porzingis trade, so his intentions remain a mystery. But the Knicks still have much to overcome to recruit these free-agent targets. Durant would have to leave the best team in basketball and while he’s at it, take a max deal of four years and $164 while the Warriors can offer him five years and $221 million.
And if these prime free agents are willing to leave their teams the Knicks will have plenty of competition. The Clippers have room for two max slots and the Lakers and Nets may have that room, too.
In other trades Wednesday:
— A person familiar with the terms said NBA-leading Milwaukee was sending center Thon Maker to the Detroit Pistons for forward Stanley Johnson. Both were lottery picks, Johnson in 2015 and Maker a year later. That trade was also pending the NBA reviewing the financial terms and approving, which is required for any deal to become final.
— The Los Angeles Lakers — one of the teams known to want Davis — made another deal, getting Reggie Bullock from the Detroit Pistons for rookie guard Svi Mykhailiuk. Bullock is a shooter, and Lakers star LeBron James loves surrounding himself with those. Bullock is making nearly 39 percent of his three-point tries this season. Mykhailiuk has averaged 3.3 points in 39 appearances.
— Philadelphia swung a deal with Toronto, getting Malachi Richardson and some draft considerations for cash. Richardson appeared in 23 games during two seasons with the Raptors.