The New York Knicks and Dallas Mavericks trade for Kristaps Porzingis last week has the potential to go down as one of the most complex and far-reaching deals in recent NBA history.
The trade saw the Mavericks acquire the 23-year-old Porzingis, along with Tim Hardaway Jr., Courtney Lee, and Trey Burke in exchange for Dennis Smith Jr., DeAndre Jordan, Wesley Matthews, and two future first-round picks.
There is a tendency and desire to judge trades immediately and declare a winner or loser. On its face, the deal is a win for the Mavericks — they acquired a star big man in Porzingis to pair with rookie star Luka Doncic and didn’t give up much value (Smith was on the trading block, and one of the first-round picks is protected).
However, it’s becoming clear, based on several reports, including a deep dive from The New York Times’ Marc Stein, that the deal cannot be judged immediately, because the results of the trade haven’t materialized yet.
The Knicks’ theoretical math problem
The Knicks spent this season trying to find ways to open up enough salary cap space for a max free agent this summer. Doing so meant moving Hardaway, Lee, or both.
ESPN’s Zach Lowe said on his podcast, “The Lowe Post,” that the Knicks concluded that it would require sending a first-round pick in any deal to move Hardaway or Lee’s contracts off the books.
Meanwhile, according to Stein, the Knicks began “quietly canvassing” the league in January for Porzingis trades. Porzingis and his brother Janis, who serves as his agent, eventually met with the Knicks and requested a trade, but based on Stein’s report, the Knicks had already begun exploring the option.
The Knicks decided to go through with the Mavericks’ deal, which had developed throughout the previous week, according to Stein.
In doing so, they ultimately began a debate about the theoretical values of different assets, as Lowe noted on his podcast. It goes something like this:
Imagine you could assign point values for these three things: first-round draft picks, cap space, and Porzingis.
One option the Knicks faced was keeping Porzingis, trading Lee or Hardaway for the price of a first-round pick, and opening enough cap space for one max salary. That equation would look something like: + Porzingis, + 1 max cap slot, – a draft pick.
In making the trade with the Mavericks, the Knicks are gambling that this equation is more valuable: + 2 max cap slots, + 2 first-round picks, – Porzingis.
Porzingis is the most valuable asset in that group. He’s an actual living, breathing superstar under contract. First-round picks don’t always turn into good players, and cap space is only useful if a team attracts its targets.
But the Knicks choosing the second equation has sparked league-wide debate about why the Knicks value that option more.
What do the Knicks know?
Throughout this season, rumors have circulated that the Knicks could be in the running for some of this summer’s top free agents, including Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. They previously didn’t quite have the cap space for one of them. Following the Porzingis trade, they have room for both.
According to multiple reports, the trade has set off alarm bells around the league that the Knicks have a real shot at landing Irving and Durant. After all, trading Porzingis for cap space would be quite a gamble without some intel that they at least have a chance at the two stars.
“I can tell you this: In my discussions with rival team executives, I’ve heard from many more who praise the trade — believing the Knicks must have some promising inside information about their ability to lure the likes of Durant and Irving — than from those questioning how much the Knicks received in return.
“I can also pass along that the threat of the Knicks’ persuading Durant to leave one of the most dominant teams in league history has never felt more real to the Warriors themselves.”
Irving only added fuel to the fire last week when he refused to double-down on his publicly stated intent to re-sign with the Celtics this summer. He instead told reporters he doesn’t “owe anyone s—” and said to ask him about his feelings about his future on July 1 — when free agency begins.
If the Knicks’ goal in the trade was to go all-in on signing two superstars, then the deal can’t be judged until we see whether they land those stars.
And if the Knicks strike out?
It wouldn’t be an abject failure, but it wouldn’t be good.
Acquiring a star player is the hardest thing to do in the NBA. The Knicks had one in Porzingis. Even if Porzingis demanded a trade, he had little leverage to force it. Porzingis will be a restricted free agent this summer. The Knicks could have offered him a max or near-max contract to retain him.
There have been varying reports about Porzingis’ intentions in free agency. Some reports have said that he intends to take the one-year qualifying offer this summer to become an unrestricted free agent in 2020. Other reports have said he has not made up his mind.
Even if Porzingis took the one-year qualifying offer, the Knicks would then have the 2019-20 season to shop him to get some value back before he left in free agency.
The Knicks could have dared Porzingis to turn down a long-term, lucrative contract while coming off a torn ACL. Perhaps Porzingis would have turned it down, but it would have been an unprecedented risk in the NBA.
If the Knicks fail to sign any superstars in the summer, they’ll have a roster based around young talents in Smith, Kevin Knox, Frank Ntilikina, Mitchell Robinson, Allonzo Trier, and a likely top-5 pick from this coming draft. All are interesting pieces, with varying degrees of talent, but none scream “future superstar” just yet.
In the worst-case scenario of this trade for the Knicks, they will have moved backward in their rebuild, hoping to hit the jackpot in the draft, while rolling over their cap space to a future summer and trying again to lure top free agents.
So, why move Porzingis so quickly?
The Mavericks are incurring some risk
According to Stein, the Knicks called the Sacramento Kings and Utah Jazz offering Porzingis for Donovan Mitchell and De’Aaron Fox, respectively. Both teams said no. ESPN’s Ian Begley reported that out of due diligence, the Knicks reached out to the New Orleans Pelicans and offered a trade with Porzingis for Anthony Davis. The Pelicans said no.
The Knicks had circled the Mavs as a team that met all of their needs — they had interest in Porzingis, future picks, a young player in Smith, and expiring contracts to match salaries and open up cap space. According to Stein, the Knicks feared that waiting too long to accept the Mavs offer would allow Porzingis and his camp to dissuade the Mavs from making it — the Mavs weren’t on Porzingis’ list of preferred trade destinations.
For all of the gambles the Knicks are taking, the Mavericks’ situation isn’t a clear win, either. Opposing teams were either wary of Porzingis’ impending free agency or his recovery from a torn ACL that has forced him to miss a year of playing time, or both.
Some in the NBA world have expressed doubt about Porzingis’ durability and longevity in the league. He’s a 7-foot-3, athletic big man coming off a severe injury. It’s unclear if he’ll be the same player, or if he’ll ever be able to stay on the floor for extended periods. Even if the Mavericks re-sign Porzingis to a long-term deal — Mavs owner Mark Cuban interrupted a question at Porzingis’ introductory press conference to say the Mavs will re-sign him — it’s not clear if they’ll get the Porzingis who showed so much promise in New York.
Just as the Knicks’ side of the trade can’t be judged yet, the Mavericks’ can’t be judged until Porzingis’ future is cleared up.
The results of this trade will take years to play out.
The questions remaining from this trade won’t be answered this season, over the summer, or even over one year.
Will the Knicks get the superstars they’re aiming for this summer? If they do, will it be a successful collaboration? Perhaps if the Knicks can sign Durant and Irving, it will be a win, no questions asked. But that doesn’t guarantee the Knicks will be a championship contender.
And if the Knicks strike out, how will they rebound? If the Knicks pushed their chips to the middle so boldly, will they overpay other free agents this summer if they miss out on their top targets? Will they be forced to go through a long, slow rebuild without any big free agent signings?
For the Mavericks, the questions extend beyond Porzingis? If they get a healthy Porzingis, will they be able to build around their core of Doncic and Porzingis? Three of their next five draft picks are owed to different teams.
All NBA trades take time to play out. The risks and rewards with this trade are particularly extreme and far-reaching.