Kristaps Porzingis arrived in New York as a 20-year-old from Latvia, possessing the ability to speak four languages and having been trained for this moment from the time he was a middle- schooler. He played only 186 games for the Knicks before it came to a sudden end Thursday, but he saw things in that time that no amount of schooling could have prepared him to face.
The second star behind Carmelo Anthony early in his career, he watched as Anthony and Phil Jackson engaged in an odd battle of the franchise faces, with team president Jackson trying to push Anthony out of town. Then he was just a long three-point shot away from the spot in the stands where Knicks legend Charles Oakley was being dragged out of Madison Square Garden by security.
So if his departure came suddenly and with a spin from the organization depicting him as a disgruntled employee as he left, it couldn’t have come as a surprise. And maybe that’s why when he saw his name in trade talks and was brought in to sit with team executives Steve Mills and Scott Perry on Thursday, he was willing to take the push out the door with little resistance.
The Knicks were willing to say goodbye and celebrate the salary- cap room the trade with the Mavericks created. They, and their fan base, can dream about the potential stars that the $70-plus million in cap space can bring.
But as The Beatles once pointed out, money can’t buy you love. The Knicks have money to offer, but players talk, and as the prizes of the 2019 free-agent class consider the Knicks, you can be certain they will consider the exits of the last two Knicks stars, Anthony and Porzingis.
The wishful thinking among fans and the fear among NBA executives is that the Knicks already have a plan in place -- players ready to make the jump. But just as Kyrie Irving has waffled on his decision to profess a lifetime of love for the Boston Celtics, flinging open the door to the free-agent market, things change when the money is on the table and the reality of situations is in plain focus.
Will Kevin Durant really leave the Golden State Warriors -- the best team in basketball and one that features a nightly spin-the-bottle game to determine which All-Star will take the game on his shoulders -- and leave more money on the table to head to New York and take on the pressure of lifting a franchise that has been known mainly for its dysfunction for two decades now?
Will Irving really leave the Celtics, who are not only stocked with talent and trade chips but are working feverishly to try to get into the Anthony Davis stakes?
Will those players focus on the allure of the courtship? Or will they look toward the end of the marriage and wonder why it is that no one ever seems to leave Madison Square Garden clean?
“This is like college recruitment all over again,” Irving said. “It’s just weird. New position for me to be in. Answering all these questions. Seeing all this stuff I’m trying to avoid. It’s just a distraction. It’s crazy how stories and things can seep into a locker room. You guys are part of the destruction of locker rooms. That’s just what it is. This is an entertainment industry. I don’t live for this entertainment, for all this talking to everyone about my life and my decisions.
“I just hope everyone will respect that. And that’s really basically it. I’m a normal human being at the end of the day. I don’t want to answer all these questions about my future all the time. It’s unfair to me. Because I have a focus to really help these guys grow as individuals and help this team be successful. And, you know, when it starts getting out of hand and people start getting attacked personally – he said, she said – that’s so fifth grade and elementary.
"This industry is so [expletive]. It’s my decision at the end of the day. Who cares who says what's best for him? Unwarranted commentary. I will continue through the rest of the season. I’m aware of that. I’m a professional at the end of the day and I’m not going to disrespect anyone. Really, it comes down what’s best for me and my family.”
Changing of the guard
The Knicks have hyped the arrival of Dennis Smith Jr., a player whom they passed on in favor of Frank Ntilikina in the 2017 NBA Draft, as a key to the trade. So what does this mean for Ntilikina?
“I don’t know what it means for him,” Knicks coach David Fizdale said. “I don’t know what it means for anybody yet. This is all new for me. I haven’t talked to any of them about that yet. I’m still trying to figure it out myself.”
Brothers in arms
It’s not just the stars who have had awkward exits. Enes Kanter finds himself in limbo, moved to the bench and given no playing time before getting a slight reprieve because the Knicks have been shorthanded. But he said he believes that Porzingis empathized with him and saw it as another sign of what was going wrong in New York.
“He was frustrated for me, too, because I guess just how I was being treated,” Kanter said. “He talked to me a lot. He actually wanted to go to lunch with me before he left, but obviously the trade happened. Like I said, he was so frustrated just because I was frustrated. It was tough because he was seeing his brother was frustrated out there. He’s an amazing player, man. He’s obviously going to become a Hall of Famer one day.”