Washington Wizards center Kristaps Porzingis against the New York Knicks...

Washington Wizards center Kristaps Porzingis against the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden on Friday, March 18, 2022. Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

You could point to the Washington Wizards' visit to Madison Square Garden as a chance for the Wizards and Knicks to battle for 11th place in the Eastern Conference, one spot away from a play-in berth.

But with Kristaps Porzingis arriving for only his third appearance on the court at the Garden since being traded away by the Knicks on Jan. 31, 2019, it provided a chance for a look at history — and at where the Knicks and the player they once thought would carry them to the next level are now.

The Knicks are back to chasing ping-pong balls for the NBA Draft Lottery, still alive in the play-in chase on paper but realistically more suited to try to find a gem in the draft to complement RJ Barrett and Julius Randle.

Porzingis once was that hope. Since he was taken No. 4 overall in the 2015 NBA Draft, however, the front office that drafted him in New York has changed over twice and Porzingis was dealt to Dallas by the Knicks and then shipped to Washington at the trade deadline this season. There is not a player or coach for the Knicks who was with the team when Porzingis played for them.

The Knicks (29-40) and Porzingis remain in search of that path to greater heights, and they entered Friday night separated by just a half-game in the standings. Porzingis had played only five games for the Wizards (29-39), winning the first one and then losing the last four. He was averaging 19.8 points per game for Washington and 19.3 overall this season.

"Skill at that position," Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau said when asked what Porzingis has brought to Washington. "I think when you look at the NBA game, it’s usually one of the two centers has the ability to play away from the basket [except for the Knicks] and in some cases they have both centers. And what it does is it opens up the floor. So it sets up drive-and-kick and that sort of thing. So the length. The shooting ability, the ability to put it on the floor. Shot-blocking on the defensive end."

Porzingis brought that during his time with the Knicks but also was troubled by injuries — a trend that has continued through his other stops — and when contract squabbles were exacerbated by the instability and dysfunction of the organization at the time, he was traded.

The players the Knicks got back — DeAndre Jordan, Wes Mathews and Dennis Smith Jr. — are all long gone. The cap space they sought never got them the stars they were chasing, and the last prize is the Mavericks’ 2021 and 2023 first-round picks. The 2021 pick was traded back and landed them Quentin Grimes.

Notes & quotes: With Knicks assistant coach Kenny Payne’s introduction as the new head coach for the University of Louisville on Friday, Thibodeau finally was able to comment on the move. "I want to start by thanking Jim [Dolan] for allowing him to go,'' he said. "Any time someone has an opportunity to move along to something that’s a job of that significance, particularly for him. Very similar to Mike Woodson going back to his alma mater, Kenny going to his. We’re thrilled for him. It’s exciting for him and his family." With Payne’s departure, Darren Erman moved to the front row of the bench.

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