Mary Altaffer/Associated Press
Before a game between the Dallas Mavericks and New York Knicks in December 2015 during Kristaps Porzingis’ rookie year, the New York media was ravenous for the opinion of Mavs owner Mark Cuban on the future of the Knicks’ rookie “unicorn.”
Would Porzingis be the second coming of Dirk Nowitzki?
At the time, it seemed like a stretch. Nowitzki, after all, had been doing this for nearly two decades. He’d won an NBA championship (at the expense of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, of all people, in 2011). Porzingis was still an unknown, a project.
Cuban didn’t have a crystal ball, but he made it crystal clear that if he had been Phil Jackson on draft night in 2015, he would’ve done the same thing with the fourth overall pick.
“I love Kristaps,” Cuban said that night, a night on which Nowitzki, then 37, had led the Mavs to a 104-97 victory over the Knicks at Madison Square Garden.
“It’s funny, because everywhere I went [after the draft] and dealt with New York basketball fans, they were like, ‘Oh, man.’ And I was like, ‘No, you don’t understand. We would’ve traded up in a heartbeat to get that kid.’ We loved him.”
Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press
A little more than three years later, they got him. The Mavs closed the deal Thursday on a blockbuster trade to acquire Porzingis for the expiring contracts of DeAndre Jordan and Wesley Matthews, Dennis Smith Jr. and two future first-round picks. The Mavs also took on Trey Burke and the hard-to-move contracts of Tim Hardaway Jr. and Courtney Lee.
More than 20 years after making a bold, draft-day trade to acquire an obscure European player (Nowitzki), the Mavs are trying to repeat history. They did the same in acquiring Luka Doncic, the third pick in the 2018 draft, from the Hawks and then spinning some expiring contracts and the talented but troublesome Smith Jr. into Porzingis, whom the organization has long viewed as the second coming of Nowitzki.
Long ago, it was the Mavs who partnered Nowitzki with Steve Nash and Michael Finley. Now, it’s pretty much the same Mavs hierarchy making a move to pair up Doncic and Porzingis with the potential for a max free agent and/or other complementary pieces this summer.
It’s one of the benefits of having a like-minded team of decision-makers in place for more than a couple of years, which is more than the Knicks can ever say.
In jettisoning Porzingis and acquiring Smith Jr.—whom the Knicks could have selected in the 2017 draft instead of Frank Ntilikina—the MSG gulag wiped the slate clean of the ill-fated Jackson era. Although it’s not clear whether this particular era of Knicks history would’ve been any different had Jackson, the most championship-decorated coach in NBA history, never appeared on the scene at all.
In recent weeks, the Mavs had been engaged with the Knicks on several trade scenarios, all of which involved Smith Jr. and Hardaway Jr., and some of which potentially involved a third team, according to multiple people involved in the discussions. The Mavs waited patiently and then hit the jackpot Thursday when Porzingis and his representatives met with the Knicks, expressed disillusionment with the franchise’s direction and requested a trade, one of the people said.
Porzingis was not aware of the Mavs’ intense interest in acquiring him when he made his trade request, one of the people familiar with the discussions said. But from there, it came together quickly.
It’s not surprising considering the Knicks’ longstanding fascination with selling hope (TWO MAX FREE AGENTS!) over success (four playoff appearances in 17 years).
It’s also not surprising when you consider the Mavs’ longstanding fascination with Porzingis and how Dallas has long embraced the European market for talent.
Mavs coach Rick Carlisle—who, unlike any Knicks coach since Red Holzman, can say he’s been on the job for more than a decade—spoke about Porzingis’ potential that same night at Madison Square Garden in 2015.
“Dirk’s a game-changer, the same way Reggie Miller was a game-changer when he was on the floor,” Carlisle said. “There was always somebody next to him—26, 28 feet from the basket. Same thing with Dirk. He has great impact. Porzingis is going to be one of those guys that’s going to have an opportunity to have the same kind of all-around impact on the game.”
Seth Wenig/Associated Press
Yes, one outcome of this trade is that the Knicks will have nearly $75 million of cap room this summer, which, in theory, could be used to attract not one, but two max-level free agents. The class is deep, so the room for error is smaller. Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard, Kyrie Irving, Kemba Walker, Klay Thompson…how could you go wrong if you’re the Knicks?
But of the two teams involved in this blockbuster trade, only one seems to have learned from the errors of the past. During Nowitzki’s career, the Mavs have tried to play the max free-agent game (with Dwight Howard and Carmelo Anthony, among others) and failed. The Knicks have tried, too (striking out on James, Wade, Bosh and others), and they’ve wound up with only Amar’e Stoudemire and, via an ill-conceived trade, Anthony.
If there’s a player on the market who you want (in the Mavs’ case, Porzingis), the easiest way to acquire him is through trade. Is there risk from the Mavs’ standpoint? Of course.
The Knicks may well score big in 2019 free agency, and for them to make a move like this, they better have some assurances.
But personally, I like the Mavs’ chances of putting less-than-big-ticket pieces around Doncic and Porzingis (such as, for example, Walker, Khris Middleton, DeMarcus Cousins, Nikola Mirotic, Al Horford or Nikola Vucevic.)
As far as Porzingis and Doncic as a tandem, one Western Conference executive described them to Bleacher Report on Thursday as “lethal.”
“Very much so,” another Western Conference executive said.
Don’t discount the possibility that star free agents, who will be deciding where to sign this summer, will share the same view.
Ken Berger covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @KBergNBA.