Any sort of revenge tour for the Knicks seemed to take a wrong turn Wednesday when the Knicks spoiled Tom Thibodeau’s return to Minnesota by losing to the Timberwolves, the NBA’s worst team this season.
But they find themselves prepping for a chance to revisit history again as the Dallas Mavericks arrive at Madison Square Garden Friday for a reunion of the Knicks and Kristaps Porzingis, the franchise cornerstone who was shipped out in a trade that the team is still working to overcome.
On paper, the Knicks can point to the NBA standings and the most important part of any argument - that they are better today than they were when they dealt away Porzingis on Jan. 31, 2019. But the pieces of the trade have yet to add up for the Knicks.
The Knicks shipped Porzingis, who they portrayed as a disgruntled employee on the way out, along with Tim Hardaway Jr., Courtney Lee and Trey Burke for Dennis Smith Jr., DeAndre Jordan and Wes Matthews, along with the 2021 and 2023 Dallas first-round picks. The deal allowed the Knicks to clear out their salary cap to allow them to chase a pair of stars in free agency, a chase that they openly admitted to at the time.
But the stars went elsewhere, most notably Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving to Brooklyn. The players the Knicks acquired never panned out. And what has been left behind is the hope that the draft picks will ease the pain of sending away the No. 4 overall pick and a 7-foot-3 scorer who is nicknamed, The Unicorn.
"A lot of things happened," Porzingis said Thursday in a Zoom call. "The injury happened. The ACL. It was a tough one. I was out for a long time. Just a domino effect. Multiple things happened and the end result was that. Who knows how we could’ve been if I didn’t get hurt. Multiple different situations could’ve happened. But it is what it is. Now I’m in Dallas, my second year in Dallas. I do have great memories of New York and I do miss the city, I miss the fans. I had a great time there when I was there."
Porzingis is averaging 20.4 points and 8.9 rebounds per game, serving as the sidekick to Luka Doncic. After starting off the season 9-14 the Mavericks have improved to 25-21 and arrive with a two-game winning streak on their current road trip. Porzingis remains something less than what he was thought he’d be - following up a 31-point, 18-rebound game last week by sitting out the next game. But unlike the start of the season when he missed the first nine games, he has played in nine of the last 10, playing 31 minutes per game and averaging 20 points, including shooting 40.4% from beyond the arc.
"He’s been tremendous," Mavs coach Rick Carlisle said. "…KP has had unique challenges. But he is a tough guy. he’s taken them all on. He’s a relentless worker. The games when we hold him out, we hold him out. He is not asking to sit. It’s quite the other way. He really wants to play in every single game.
"I’ve just seen, particularly over the last year and a half since he’s been on the floor with us, he’s one of the first guys in the gym, every single day, shoot around days, non-game days. He gets his work in. He works on his body. He spent a lot of time with (God) Shammgod on the development side, working on his individual game. It’s a lot. New York is big, it’s Gotham. There’s a lot going on. There’s a lot of media attention. There’s a lot of scrutiny. And I think, this is my opinion, KP has really learned how to sift through all that stuff, filter it the right way and just concentrate on keeping himself ready to play and help the team."
His time in New York was odd, greeted with uncertainty (and crying from some young fans) on draft night, then endearing himself to the fan base. And by the time he left he was seen as a disgruntled, spoiled employee, now a target for boos - likely even from the limited number of and allowed into the Garden now.
But he doesn’t see it that way.
"I miss the city. I miss this place," he said. "A lot of great memories. Every time I come back it’s special. A lot of people here still recognize me and show me love and support. It’s always good to come back."