Trading young star like Kristaps Porzingis such a Knicks move

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As Knicks president, Phil Jackson built teams that went 17-65, 32-50 and 31-51. Jackson gave Joakim Noah a huge contract. Jackson offended the NBA’s best player, LeBron James, shortly before LeBron changed teams in free agency. Jackson reportedly floored multiple free agents with his unpreparedness in meetings, couldn’t get his computer to work during pitches, became unreachable to rival general managers even shortly before the trade deadline and fell asleep during a pre-draft workout.

But Jackson also drafted Kristaps Porzingis.

Whatever deserved criticism Jackson faced for his calamitous New York tenure was always weighed against that single wonderful transaction. That’s how good Porzingis was.

The 7-foot-3 big man wowed early with his putback dunks. With an excellent shooting stroke and mobility, he blossomed even further. His rim protecting made him a true two-way player. He even made the All-Star game last season, just his third year in the NBA.

Porzingis was the type of franchise player most teams only dream about. He was a young star in a league that gives teams plenty of contractual control over such players. When teams find a gem like that, they almost always hang on as tightly as they can. Remember, Knicks owner James Dolan fired Jackson, despite just opting into the final two years of Jackson’s contract, only once Jackson made such a big deal about shopping Porzingis.

But in a shocking turn, New York traded Porzingis to the Mavericks yesterday. It was just the fifth time since the NBA-ABA merger someone made an All-Star team then got traded within his first four seasons. The five:

  • Kristaps Porzingis (Knicks to Mavericks in 2019)
  • Jason Kidd (Mavericks to Suns in 1996)
  • Alonzo Mourning (Hornets to Heat in 1995)
  • Mike Mitchell (Cavaliers to Spurs in 1981)
  • Billy Knight (Pacers to Buffalo Braves in 1977)

At 23.5-years-old, Porzingis is the second-youngest established All-Star to change teams. The only one younger: Jrue Holiday, who was 23-years-and-1-month-old when traded from the 76ers to the Pelicans after his fourth season in 2013.

But as shocking as a deal like this is, it’s far less surprising New York was the team to make it.

Charlie Ward, who was drafted in 1994, was the last player to spend his first six seasons with the Knicks. Since, only David Lee (drafted in 2005) made it even his first five full seasons with New York. If not even Porzingis gets a multi-year contract after his rookie-scale deal, which Knick ever will?

New York just hasn’t shown sustained interest/ability in identifying, developing and retaining young talent. Even though that was Knicks president Steve Mills’ explicit plan only a year-and-a-half ago, he has already pivoted in a new direction. That’s how it goes in James Dolan’s franchise. Over and over and over.

It isn’t necessarily a mistake this time, though.

New York got a haul for Porzingis. The Knicks unloaded Tim Hardaway Jr.‘s and Courtney Lee‘s onerous contracts (opening a projected $73 million in cap space next summer) and got two future first-round picks (one guaranteed to be in the first round and one likely to convey), Dennis Smith Jr. (a promising young player) and DeAndre Jordan and Wesley Matthews (productive veterans who could be flipped before the trade deadline).

The big question is what the Knicks do with all that cap space. They’ve chased quick fixes and failed many times under Dolan. But if they land Kevin Durant and/or Kyrie Irving this summer, the trade will have been a home run. If New York misses on star free agents, the trade looks far more ominous. Presumably, the Knicks have a better idea than I do about impending free agents’ interest. Cap room goes further in a market like New York. This risk makes more sense for the Knicks than it would most teams.

Either way, it’s not as if keeping Porzingis was a foolproof plan. He remains out while recovering from a torn ACL, a major injury – especially for someone so big. He has had multiple other injuries in his short career and shown signs of frailty.

Maybe, as he gets older and stronger, he’ll be fine. Maybe he just needs a team that will put less stress on his body.

But the injury risk with Porzingis appears real.

That was particularly concerning with him entering restricted free agency this summer. He could easily draw a max offer sheet projected to be worth $117 million over four years. Or worse, he could sign a qualifying offer to become an unrestricted free agent in 2020.

Teams should trade young stars more often. Sometimes, a player’s value peaks early in his career. That could be the time to sell high.

But it’s difficult to tell when those cases are occurring. Amid uncertainty, NBA teams usually avoid risk.

If they kept Porzingis and his career stagnated due to injury or other reasons, the Knicks would largely get a pass. But if he flourishes in Dallas, New York will get shredded. Teams – unfairly, though understandably due to a lack of public information – are held accountable for the moves they make, not they moves they don’t make.

The Knicks are showing plenty of courage with this trade, but they’ve never been afraid to take big swings before. They’ve just usually struck out.

At least this was a pitch over the plate.

New York had to do something risky with Porzingis. Trading him for this return – as rare as it is to deal a player like him – seems reasonable. At least if the Knicks have an edge on top free agents next summer.