After years of plotting to build a franchise around Kristaps Porzingis, the Knicks suddenly shifted directions and — in a stunning move — dealt Porzingis, Tim Hardaway Jr., Courtney Lee and Trey Burke to the Mavericks, the team announced Thursday evening.
The Knicks acquired DeAndre Jordan, Wesley Matthews Jr., Dennis Smith Jr. and two future first-round draft picks. But what they really are getting is cap space to make a huge play in the upcoming free-agent market.
“I think this is still in line with what we’ve talked about from the beginning,” general manager Scott Perry said. “We talked about building with young players, building through the draft. We get back an exciting young player in the deal. We get back two future draft picks, and then the fact that we do have some financial flexibility. I think if you study teams over the course of building like we’re doing, financial flexibility is an important part of that so that you can be opportunistic as you move forward.”
“We feel good about the deal,” team president Steve Mills said. “We believe we haven’t reset our plan. What we did were the things that were consistent with our plan. A byproduct of what we did created $68 million worth of room. We’re going to be prudent in how we use that room because we’re still consistent in building this team through the draft and with young players. And when there is an opportunity to add a free agent, that certainly is one of the tools that we have in our toolbox.”
The Knicks laid the genesis of this deal on Porzingis. They insisted he increasingly showed signs of not wanting to be a part of the plan set in place by the front office — becoming more withdrawn from the organization, spending less time with the team at practice.
Porzingis has had his issues in New York, from the injuries that kept him from playing a full season to his dissatisfaction with the direction of the franchise. He skipped out on an exit interview two years ago with Phil Jackson and Mills, then the GM. Coach David Fizdale went to Latvia this past summer in an attempt to make sure the young star was on the same page with him, but Porzingis still sniped at Fizdale on Instagram earlier this season.
The deal accelerated as rumors circulated that with the Pelicans shopping Anthony Davis, Porzingis could be dealt this week. Porzingis and his brother and agent, Janis, met with Mills and Perry on Thursday afternoon, and Porzingis informed the team he wanted out.
“We just increasingly got the feel that there was a lot of uncertainty on his part,” Perry said. “Any time you enter into the trade deadline like we’ve done, you prepare yourself. What we felt, and he kind of confirmed our thinking with the brief meeting today, was that he wished to go elsewhere. It was important for us because Feb. 7 is the cutoff date for our ability to be able to make a trade that is best for our organization. So that’s why we went ahead and did what we did today.”
While Porzingis, whom the Knicks drafted fourth overall in 2015, is the most notable piece in the deal, its real value won’t be known until this summer.
With Jordan and Matthews on expiring contracts and by attaching the contracts of Hardaway and Lee, the Knicks have set themselves up to have as much as $74 million in cap space this summer — enough to sign two max contracts.
The Knicks had laid out a plan for building around Porzingis, who hasn’t played since Feb. 6, 2018, while rehabilitating a torn ACL. The Knicks were in position to add one max deal and also will have a lottery pick, the payoff for the 10-40 season they are enduring. While there was some risk in using Porzingis, a 7-3 player recovering from a major knee injury, as the centerpiece, now the risk falls entirely on the free-agent chase.
The Knicks dealt their star for a package that netted them cap space instead of a star. If they can turn this space into Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving or some combination of stars — Kawhi Leonard, Kemba Walker and Klay Thompson also are on the market — this deal will be looked at differently.
The team has the worst record in the NBA, and with leading scorer Hardaway gone, the Knicks face a path toward the worst record in franchise history. So while they will have the money to attract a top free agent and maybe two, it’s a hard sell to present anything else as bait.
Porzingis is a steep price to pay to clear the contracts of Hardaway and Lee. Until free agency, all the Knicks have to show for this deal is Smith, whom they passed on in 2017 to draft Frank Ntilikina.
While Smith is a more athletic and offensively talented player — he posted a triple-double with 13 points, 15 assists and 10 rebounds in 28 minutes in the Mavericks’ 114-90 victory over the Knicks on Wednesday night — he reportedly was on the block earlier this season.
The draft picks are contingent on a previous Mavericks deal in which they traded a top-five protected first-round pick to the Hawks. If it conveys to Atlanta this summer, the Knicks will get an unprotected 2021 first-round pick and a top 10-protected 2023 pick. But if the Mavs pick in the top five this year, the Knicks’ picks will move to 2022 and 2024.
“We feel like we did the right thing,” Mills said. “When you try to think about how you want to build your team for the long term, you don’t want to commit a max contract to a player who clearly says to you he doesn’t want to be here. That would be a disservice for our organization and disservice to our fans.”
Porzingis tweeted a goodbye to Knicks fans Thursday night. “New York will always have a special place in my heart. Grateful for everybody who made this journey so special for my family and I,” he tweeted — a couple of hours after posting a GIF of himself with new teammate Luka Doncic laughing on court together at halftime Wednesday.
Dennis Smith Jr., Guard
DeAndre Jordan, Center
Wesley Matthews, Guard
Two future first-round draft picks
Kristaps Porzingis, Forward
Tim Hardaway Jr., Guard
Courtney Lee, Guard
Trey Burke, Guard