After ripping Knicks fans’ hearts directly from their chests this past January, New York’s front office had one message: Wait for free agency.
The Knicks shipped Kristaps Porzingis to the Dallas Mavericks in what amounted to a salary dump, which led fans to believe the light at the end of the tunnel was the 2019 free agency class.
At least that’s what the their owner said.
James Dolan went on ESPN New York Radio broadcasting that, “We hear from people all the time, from players, representatives. It’s about who wants to come. We can’t respond because of the NBA rules, but that doesn’t stop them from telling us and they do.”
“I can tell you from what we’ve heard I think we’re going to have a very successful offseason when it comes to free agents.”
With Dolan publicly stating he’s been told that marquee free agents desire the bright lights of New York, this eased the blow of losing a player of Porzingis stature. That was in March.
Other rumored Knicks’ targets seem to be moving differently than Dolan’s words suggested.
Now that things appear to be heading in the opposite direction of the road that Dolan pointed to, it’s time to truly question the Knicks and their decision making in January.
If the Knicks don’t do what was essentially guaranteed by their owner by spending a significant portion of that $72 million in cap space on superstar-level players this summer, then what exactly did they receive in exchange for Porzingis?
The full trade was Porzingis, Hardaway, Lee, and Trey Burke for Dennis Smith Jr, an unprotected first-rounder in 2021, a protected first-rounder in 2023, and the expiring contracts of DeAndre Jordan and Wesley Matthews.
Attaching bad contracts to the Knicks’ former Latvian star significantly decreased his value.
The primary issue with this trade is that the Knicks put all their eggs in the basket of this year’s free agent class. Lee’s $12 million comes off the books at the end of next year, and Hardaway has a player option for the 2020-21 season at $18 million.
Hardaway’s expiring deal could have easily been moved at the end of next season by attaching far-less valuable assets than Porzingis, and Lee’s isn’t a concern beyond this offseason.
If the Knicks sign both Durant and one of their other targets, they could state the fact that this trade was made in order to build a championship contending team immediately. If they hold that cap space and try to roll it into next season, then they essentially traded Porzingis for pennies on the dollar.
It will be hard to sell this deal if the Knicks are rooting for ping pong balls again next May.
Cap space isn’t exactly permanent either. Believe it or not, the Knicks have to put together a team moving forward. New York has just six guaranteed contracts on their roster for next season, including the third-overall pick.
They will be adding salary no matter what, as high first-round picks have guaranteed deals that pay enough to eat into cap space, and any free agent worth signing will want more than one year on their deal.
The Knicks must act quickly and wisely if they don’t want this deal to blow up in their face.
There are many alternative routes that General Manager Scott Perry and President Steve Mills could have taken. First, they could’ve called Porzingis bluff and kept him on their roster.
While it was rumored that Porzingis wanted out and requested a trade, the 23-year-old restricted free-agent is coming off an ACL tear. It’s truly difficult to imagine putting a rookie-scale max-contract extension in his face and seeing him turn it down, especially after the injury, even if he threatened to sign a one-year tender and leave as an unrestricted free agent.
During his time at Madison Square Garden, the forward averaged 17.8 points, 7.1 rebounds, and 2.0 blocks in three seasons with the Knicks. Porzingis would likely prefer guaranteed money up to par with his performance as opposed to a one-year qualifying offer.
If the Knicks strike out in free agency, they’re far better off with the sharpshooting big man on the roster rather than what they received in the trade.
The other option for the Knicks would have been gauging the interest of teams around the league for Porzingis and dealing him in a package that maximizes his value. According to Ian Begley of SNY, several teams were interested in making an offer for Porzingis but they weren’t able to do so as New York quickly pulled the trigger and sent him to Dallas.
The Knicks in turn claimed that the Mavericks were the only team that could return what they were looking for, and at this point it’s clear that means a place to dump salary. Had the team not insisted on attaching those bad contracts to their star forward, and gauged interest from all teams around the league, the options would have looked different. That’s not necessarily a mistake, but it’s certainly a decision.
Now that the Knicks are all-in on this year’s free agency, they’re left without a franchise-altering player such as Porzingis. If the Knicks were just slightly more patient, Kevin Durant’s Achilles injury wouldn’t feel like as big of a blow as it does right now.
As it pertains to the Knicks and pushing all their chips to the middle of the table in the summer, you know the old saying.