The Porzingis Trade Was Smart—Even If Knicks Fans Are Losing Their Minds
There is never a bad time for a good ol' fashioned Knicks roast, and in many ways, it's one of the most revered traditions we have as modern NBA fans. In that case, Thursday afternoon shouldn't have been a surprise. The Knicks used Kristaps Porzingis, one-time franchise cornerstone, to clear cap space. In principle, this is appalling. It was a move that had all the hallmarks of classic Knicks disasters, including grandiose and irresponsible dreams (Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving), impulsive decision–making (while subsequent reports indicated days-long negotiations, on Thursday it felt like the Knicks made this decision over the course of an hour) and terrible asset management—the Knicks traded their most promising young player since Patrick Ewing, and they made this move to clear the contract of Tim Hardaway Jr., a player they'd drafted in 2013, traded away in 2015, and then overpaid in 2017. The jokes wrote themselves. Knicks fans were homicidal. The New York Post called this "rock bottom."
In any case, I would like to offer a counterpoint: The trade was good. It was the right decision. It could backfire spectacularly, yes, but that's fine. The Knicks now have a chance to build an honest-to-god title contender this summer. That matters. Keeping Porzingis and playing things "smart" would have been a great way to impress NBA Twitter and then win 43 games next year. Purely from a process standpoint, this was the better play.
The first way you can tell this trade was the right decision? The Boston Celtics and all their fans almost certainly hated it. Ditto for the Golden State Warriors. The Knicks began Thursday without enough cap space to sign Kevin Durant, and by Thursday afternoon they had $74.6 million to spend this summer—enough space to sign both Durant and an additional superstar on a max contract. They also have Kevin Knox, Frank Ntilikina, Dennis Smith, Jr., and seven first–round picks over the next five years—those are trade assets for a third star.
Skeptics will look at the Porzingis trade and tell you that the Knicks had better go sign Kevin Durant and another superstar, or else this will be a horrible mistake that will haunt the team for decades. Really? Come on, people.
Four to five NBA teams have a shot to win the title in any given year, and the Knicks just put themselves in that conversation headed into next summer. That meant parting ways with Porzingis, an oft-injured quasi-superstar who has the spent the past two years moping and making demands as if he's a perennial All-NBA candidate. Even if Porzingis goes to Dallas and the medical staff keeps him on the court and he becomes a Hall of Famer—this might happen—the risk on New York's end has been overstated on all sides.
The premise of any "They better sign Durant!" argument assumes that the Knicks would have been in good shape this summer had they struck out on KD and held onto Porzingis. Are we sure about that? Despite never having won more than 32 games in three seasons in the Eastern Conference, Porzingis believes he belongs on a contender. So if the Knicks whiffed on Durant and decided to save this summer's money, would Porzingis have really been happy spending the next three seasons waiting on Kevin Knox and this year's lottery pick to become viable contributors on a winning team? Or if New York had found another way to trade Hardaway and then stretched Courtney Lee and spent all this summer's cap space on B–list stars like Kemba Walker and Tobias Harris to pair with Porzingis—does that 47-win team really move the needle? I get it, Knicks fans have suffered. But this summer's non-KD Knicks alternatives weren't exactly appealing.
This team always needed Durant to win anything meaningful in the next few seasons. The only thing that changed Thursday was that the KD scenario became more plausible. The Knicks now have the space to recruit a superstar to help Durant, and they have the assets to trade for another star. They kept this year's first–round pick, too; if New Orleans holds onto Anthony Davis through the trade deadline and New York lands at No. 1 in May's lottery, Anthony Davis could be in New York before Durant or any other stars arrive in July.
Over the past few years, sure, the Knicks have shown signs of building "the right way" by patiently using draft picks and winning 30 games each year. In the eyes of many, Thursday was a bold and probably-reckless departure from that path.
Those people are wrong. Knicks fans, do not listen to anyone who tries to convince you that chasing superstars is an irresponsible approach to building a title team.
Even when lottery picks hit, like Porzingis, they probably won't be good enough to lead a title team. Take the Sixers; they tanked for several years, they've had 10 first–round picks since 2013, they found two full-blown superstars, and they still probably won't win a title with what they have. Meanwhile, after the past two lotteries the Knicks have two players who have shown moderate promise (Knox, Ntilikina), but neither one of them looks like they could ever play on a title team. The same is true for the young Lakers draft picks; all those players are competent starters, they're just closer to 7th-seed competence than title contender competence. Drafting a title team means not just finding Steph Curry at 7, but also Klay Thompson at 11, and Draymond Green at 35. You need luck that borders on supernatural. And you know what has much better odds?
Start with 1) an incredible market that will be attractive to superstars, 2) hire the right coach, 3) hoard assets for trades, 4) and clear ungodly amounts cap space to 5) go sign superstars who can create a title contender out of thin air. This is the real "smart" approach. This is the best shot. The problem is that most teams can never entertain this option because they can't check the first box on the checklist. The Knicks can. They've just been incapable of managing everything else on the list without lighting themselves on fire somewhere along the way.
Thursday, that story changed. This Knicks move was more measured than multi-pick gambles of the past, and there's significantly more upside than a Carmelo–Amar'e superteam. Free agent targets will include Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard, and Kyrie Irving. They can try to trade for Anthony Davis, or they can hope that Damian Lillard decides he wants out of Portland. They will have options, because for the first time in 30 years, the Knicks have meaningful trade assets and cap space to sell alongside the single biggest stage in basketball. To get there, they had to trade Porzingis, a player who was beloved, injured, and probably not good enough to win on his own in New York. Whether Thursday's gamble pays off or not, it was the right move.
So Knicks fans, please, pull yourselves together. Your team is going all–in to take a shot at building a title contender. It's pretty smart, and there's a non-zero chance this can actually work.