Should the New York Knicks Trade Kristaps Porzingis for Kawhi Leonard?

Yaron Weitzman@YaronWeitzmanFeatured ColumnistJune 19, 2018

San Antonio Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard (2) passes the ball against New York Knicks forward Kristaps Porzingis (6) during the fourth quarter of an NBA basketball game, Tuesday, Jan. 2, 2018, in New York. The Spurs won 100-91. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)
Julie Jacobson/Associated Press

Knicks President Steve Mills and general manager Scott Perry have been clear from the start. This is going to be a slow and methodical rebuild.

"It's something that we build, unlike many times in the past where you're constantly trying to hit a home run and striking out," Mills told reporters at the end-of-season press conference. "This is an opportunity for us to build something from the ground up and something we think is sustainable."

The goal, Mills and Perry have said, is to have cap room and a clean roster by the summer of 2019, which isn't exactly ripping a page out of Sam Hinkie's playbook, but in Knicks-land, spending even a couple years on the sidelines during free agency is a noteworthy break from tradition. Think of it like dog years. Normal human math doesn't apply.

But what do you do when new factors are introduced into the ecosystem? Do you stick by your plan, no matter what, just because you've deemed it The Plan, or do you adjust on the fly?

Or, put more simply: Should the Knicks be doing everything they can to trade for Kawhi Leonard?

Eric Gay/Associated Press

On Friday, as you're no doubt aware, multiple nearly simultaneous reports (funny how that happens, right?) came out stating that Leonard no longer wants to play for the San Antonio Spurs. The Spurs, of course, are under no obligation to acquiesce to his demands. But with Leonard set to become an unrestricted free agent next summer, it'd be foolish to not gauge the market. That means a soon-to-be-27-year-old two-way stud who finished second in MVP voting in 2016 officially kicked off the NBA's silly season.

And so it didn't take long for reports—information seemingly raining down from Leonard's camp—to emerge linking him to the obvious destinations such as the Lakers, Celtics and Sixers. But sandwiched in there was another report, courtesy of ESPN's Knicks ace Ian Begley: "People close to Leonard have expressed a desire for Leonard to play in New York," Begley wrote on Twitter.

Knicks fans, no doubt, would like to imagine a world in which New York could nab Leonard for a package of draft picks and young players while still holding on to Kristaps Porzingis. But if Perry and Mills can pull that magic off, then the Knicks are clearly in better hands than many previously thought.

More than likely, the Knicks would need to part with Porzingis to acquire Leonard. They'd probably also be looking at a package that includes the No. 9 pick in this year's draft and, say, Courtney Lee, to match Leonard's salary.

The question, though, is: Should they even consider it?

NEW YORK, NY - FEBRUARY 12:  (NEW YORK DAILIES OUT)    Kawhi Leonard #2 of the San Antonio Spurs in action against Kristaps Porzingis #6 of the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden on February 12, 2017 in New York City. The Knicks defeated the Spurs 9
Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

The Knicks would need some sort of commitment from Leonard that he planned on re-signing with them. The league's collective bargaining agreement would prevent Leonard, if traded, from signing an extension for six months, so this would have to be a verbal agreement. That, of course, is non-binding, meaning Leonard could change his mind after the season if his year in New York were a disaster, which would leave the Knicks without Leonard and Porzingis, and would likely lead to an angry mob burning Madison Square Garden down to the ground.

But say Mills and Perry were able to get a firm commitment from Leonard's people? Leonard's uncle, who's also his agent, lives in New Jersey. Also, Leonard has spent a good chunk of the past year rehabbing in Manhattan at the gym in the Player's Association midtown headquarters. And let's not forget that Leonard, according to Michael C. Wright and Ramona Shelburne of ESPN.com, turned down an extension from Jordan Brand because he didn't feel it accurately reflected his standing within the NBA.

That certainly sounds like a man interested in performing in a big market, meaning it might be time for Perry and Mills to take another look at their plan.

When healthy, Leonard is one of the top five players in the NBA. He's a deadly scorer capable of carrying an offense. He might be the league's top wing defender. Imagine the havoc he and Frank Ntikilina could wreak on the perimeter. Together, they'd give new head coach David Fizdale the foundation to build a top-five defense.

Two years ago, the Spurs won 61 games and were up by more than 20 points on the Warriors in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals before Leonard went down with an injury.

Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

There's also something to be said for selling high on Porzingis. There's no arguing his talent, or his ceiling. If he can remain healthy, Porzingis should grow into the sort of stud who can win multiple scoring titles and carry a team into contention. It's the if at the beginning of that sentence that should be of concern.

Porzingis, who'll be 23 in August, has already suffered injuries to his left Achilles, left groin, left leg, right shoulder, right ankle and right foot. The most notable is the ACL he tore in February, an injury he's currently recovering from. Such an injury history would be troublesome for any 23-year-old, but, as one scout put it, "His height and issues associated with it are troublesome."

Not to mention that Porzingis isn't a lock to re-sign with the Knicks when he becomes an unrestricted free agent following the 2020 season. Meanwhile, trading for Leonard would give the Knicks a leg-up on inking him to a long term contract when he becomes a free agent next summer. 

That's not to say there aren't concerns with Leonard or reasons to be hesitant. 

In Fizdale's system, Porzingis could become a true top-tier big man. Fizdale has mentioned his affinity for positionless basketball multiple times since being hired. He wants Porzingis to push the ball up the floor himself after rebounds and to play in space.

MINNEAPOLIS, MN - NOVEMBER 30: Kristaps Porzingis #6 of the New York Knicks dribbles the ball against the Minnesota Timberwolves during the game on November 30, 2016 at Target Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and
Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

As for the ACL injury, Porzingis, by all accounts, is recovering well and is expected to return at full strength. ACL injuries are still traumatic, but, as evidenced by Jabari Parker, who's made it back after two ACL tears, they are no longer the career death sentence they once were.

Also, there's Leonard's mysterious hamstring injury. And clearly he's going through some stuff, though perhaps he's just fed up with living under the Spurs shadow. 

"Making that move would be like taking one step forward and one step backward," a second league scout said. "You'd still have one very good player. Maybe you want him more than Porzingis, but that would be like starting again."

In other word's, Leonard's a better player. But the Knicks are better off moving forward with Porzingis, Ntilikina this year's No. 9 pick and their first-round pick next year.  

Still, Leonard is young (just four years older than Porzingis) and already the caliber of player the Knicks hope Porzingis can one day be. The opportunity to acquire an MVP-level player in his prime doesn't come around often. But it does mean they should place a call to San Antonio just to see what it might take to bring Kawhi to New York permanently.

           

Yaron Weitzman covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow Yaron on Twitter @YaronWeitzman, listen to his Knicks-themed podcast here and sign up for his newsletter here.

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