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Knicks could have kept Kristaps Porzingis and changed the culture

Dallas Mavericks center Kristaps Porzingis backs up downcourt

Dallas Mavericks center Kristaps Porzingis backs up downcourt while celebrating after sinking a three-point basket in the first half of an NBA basketball game against the Portland Trail Blazers on Sunday, Oct. 27, 2019. Credit: AP/Tony Gutierrez

DALLAS — When Kristaps Porzingis finally opened up about his time in New York as he readied to face his former team he may have surprised some when, in the wake of all of the cryptic social media sniping, he was asked if there was anything that could have been done in those final days with the Knicks to keep him in place.

“Of course, of course. Of course,” Porzingis said. “As I said, I have nothing negative to say, it’s in the past. I’m grateful for those years that I spent in New York. It’s a great experience.”

He wouldn’t get into specifics, but the problems that led to him being traded have been well-chronicled and in some cases exaggerated. But for all of the hard feelings that had set the front office and Porzingis on opposing sides, the exit interview he skipped, the treatment of Carmelo Anthony, the constant losing and churn in the head coach’s seat, it didn’t have to end this way. 

With the Knicks having faced Porzingis for the first time Friday and preparing to host him at Madison Square Thursday, figuring out the winners and losers in the deal are moving to the forefront. But besides the team’s records, there are couple of things to clarify and consider about the trade.

1. The Knicks didn’t have to trade Porzingis 

Immediately following the deal the Knicks started a whisper campaign to point out all of the reasons that they had to move Porzingis, talking about his trade request, his refusal to commit to signing a long-term extension and all of the requests and interests of Porzingis and his entourage.

But remember, the Knicks, who have spent the last year talking about changing the culture, had plenty of time to do just that. The efforts to make themselves attractive to a star could have included making themselves attractive to the star they already had on the roster. Porzingis would have had three choices instead of walking out the door this past summer — signing an extension, signing an offer sheet with another team which the Knicks could have matched or opting to play for a qualifying offer and becoming an unrestricted free agent next summer. 

So that means the Knicks would have had 17 months, from the time of the meeting with Porzingis on January 30 to the start of next summer’s free agency, to create that culture and show him that he should stay — and remembering that they would be able to offer him more years and money than any other team.

2. Behind the eight-ball since making the deal

The deal was a massive package, not just Porzingis being shipped out. The Knicks attached the contracts of Tim Hardaway Jr., Courtney Lee and Trey Burke and brought back Dennis Smith Jr., DeAndre Jordan and two first-round picks.

The first thing you notice is that the Mavericks got a star, the exact type of player they were seeking to pair up with Luka Doncic and the team’s quick start has done little to change the thought that they knew what they needed and got it. And the Knicks, giving up their franchise centerpiece didn’t bring back a star.

What they got was cap space to obtain a star, convinced that with the $70 million in room they created they could attract one or two. They wound up settling for seven second and third tier players. Jordan was expected to help pave a path for Kevin Durant, using him to show Durant that the culture was good. Jordan joined Durant in Brooklyn instead. So there is Dennis Smith Jr., who has shown little hint of becoming a star, and a pair of first-round picks.

“Well, we don’t know what Dennis Smith is going to be,” Knicks coach David Fizdale said. “He’s 21 years old. At the end of the day we’ve still got two first-round picks out of that. Who knows who that’s going to be? We won’t know exactly what comes out of that for a year or two.”

Here’s the problem with that: The Mavs are in first place now and with a young and improving team those picks aren’t looking like they are going to be anywhere near No. 4 where the Knicks grabbed Porzingis. Do you like the chances of the Knicks getting a player anywhere near as talented as Porzingis late in the first round?

3. Where are they now?

The Mavs are in first place with a duo that can keep them there for a decade to come. Doncic is the star and Porzingis is the co-star, fitting in with the type of player who can create all of the opportunities that he could not create for himself as the No. 1 option. What secured it in place? The Mavs went from a team that wasn’t on his list of preferred destinations to a partner, welcoming his family and his trainer, and Porzingis agreed to a five-year, $158 million extension.

The Knicks are now in limbo, having signed players to help the image of the team, but getting few results so far. Would Porzingis have been able to attract a star last summer in free agency? Remember the Knicks were going to have enough for one star even if they kept Porzingis. Unloading the contracts attached to the deal are hard to congratulate them for since they are the ones who handed out the deals. They do have the picks in the future, but would they have been better served to have Porzingis, RJ Barrett, Kevin Knox and Mitchell Robinson as a core that could have brought a star to join them?

"It definitely changed up — we had to adjust for sure,” Fizdale said when asked if this deal set the timeline for contending back. “That wasn’t the No. 1 plan. Like I said, that’s the NBA. You’ve got to go with the flow of things and be ready to move to Plan B and Plan C if you need to.”

Mavs host seats for soldiers

When the Mavs hosted the Magic Wednesday the front row surrounding the court wasn’t filled with celebrities or high rollers, instead having more than 100 wounded service members from Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio along with reservists from the Texas Army National Guard.

It was the 15th time the event has been held with the seat-holders donating their seats. The Mavericks players and coaches then circled the court after the game, signing autographs and meeting the veterans.

Clifford on load management

Magic coach Steve Clifford was asked about the criticism that has followed David Fizdale since the Knicks coach blew off questions about the minutes he is playing rookie RJ Barrett and he wasn’t mincing words.

“For me, my background frankly it all goes back to expectations. Being with Michael [Jordan] in Charlotte, Michael used to tell them every year, ‘You’re paid to play 82 games,’” Clifford said. “And you look at Kemba [Walker], Kemba was I think over the last six years, top four in usage, played big minutes and last year he played 82 games and he’s fine. To me, a lot of it goes, as Michael used to tell them, if you want to play 82 games it starts with training to play 82 games in the summer. 

“And I will say this, players don’t like to hear this — they don’t train as hard in the offseason as they used to. They spend time at it. They’re not on the track. That’s fact. I’ve been doing this for 20 years and playing 82 games used to be a badge of courage for a lot of guys. There were always a lot of guys who didn’t want to play. They stood out more. Baffling. Baffling. I coached in college, I was at Adelphi University. We had five scholarships and most of the other teams had 10. I used to take seven guys, split them up. When you’re 18, 19, 20 years old, it’s . . . please.”

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