NEW YORK — The end of the Kristaps Porzingis era in New York culminated with a conversation between two general managers in the hallway of Madison Square Garden as the future of their franchises hung in the balance.
On Sunday night, Knicks GM Scott Perry exited his car with a smile as he walked down that same hallway toward management's office in the arena. Five hours later, that smile quickly changed to a look of dread following a 108-87 loss to Cleveland.
After trailing by as many as 30, hearing loud boos from fans in attendance and speaking with executive chairman James Dolan during the game, Perry and Knicks president Steve Mills held an impromptu press conference.
"Obviously, Scott and I are not happy with where we are right now," Mills said. "We think the team is not performing to the level that we anticipated or we expected to perform at, and it's something that we collectively have to do a better job of delivering the product on the floor that we said we would do at the start of this season. We still believe in our coaching staff. We believe in the plan Scott and I put together and the players that we've assembled, but we also have to acknowledge that we haven't played at the level we expected to play at."
Mills was then asked how Dolan feels about the Knicks owning the Eastern Conference's worst record at 2-9.
"I mean, Jim still believes in the plan that we put together, but he's as passionate as we are about this," Mills replied. "He would want us to have better results on the floor. But I think Jim is a fan and believes in what we are doing, but he has the same kind of expectations that we have. And this is really about how we feel about what we should be doing, what we should be delivering as a group, and we all take responsibility for that."
Translation: The Knicks traded Porzingis with the hope of landing Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving in free agency and whiffed. Now Dolan wants results after spending $77 million in free agency for this season, but the team couldn't hit water if it fell out of a boat on offense or stop anyone on defense.
Back in January, the Knicks had a frustrated star out for the season with free agency looming, and the Mavericks yearned for a co-star to pair with Luka Doncic as Dirk Nowitzki neared retirement.
The groundwork for that January hallway conversation began a year prior when the Mavericks inquired about Porzingis' availability, according to league sources. At the time, the Knicks made it clear he wasn't for sale. But if Porzingis wanted out down the line, the Knicks would conduct trade talks and keep Dallas in mind.
After Perry, Mills and Mavericks GM Donnie Nelson discussed trade scenarios, Dennis Smith Jr. had a triple-double as the Mavericks crushed the Knicks 114-90 on Jan. 30. At halftime, Doncic and Porzingis met at half court, dapped each other up, laughed and smiled widely during a brief conversation, inadvertently foreshadowing what was to come.
In less than 12 hours, the Knicks lost more than a game to the Mavericks—they lost their All-Star cornerstone.
The day after the game, Porzingis and his brother, Janis, met with Knicks management and expressed their frustrations with the franchise. The request was in. Porzingis wanted out after a lack of trust created over time with management.
The Knicks had four coaches during Porzingis' tenure, former president Phil Jackson strongly considered trading him, and he received pushback for working with his physiotherapist, Manolo Valdivieso. New York also traded his best friend, Willy Hernangomez, and did not renew the contract of former assistant coach Josh Longstaff, who was close with Porzingis.
The writing was on the wall when Porzingis had previously skipped his exit meeting in April 2017. A few months later, after New York hired Perry as general manager, the tension between Knicks management and Janis and Kristaps remained, and there was little hope of salvaging the damaged relationship, according to sources.
New coach David Fizdale attempted to build a relationship with Porzingis by visiting him during his rehab overseas, but he never got a chance to coach the 7'3" forward.
The pressure to win has now grown immensely for Fizdale following Sunday's press conference. At practice Monday, Fizdale, Perry, Mills and other Knicks management members Jamie Mathews, Harold Ellis, Craig Robinson and Gerald Madkins were photographed chatting together.
"I live in that sense of urgency," Fizdale said. "I don't need anyone to speak to give me a sense of urgency. I'm not cruising through this thing, acting like I've got a bunch of time to get a team together. Every day I have urgency about this team, about how I coach them, about getting them better, about building consistent habits."
For management, there was equally a sense of urgency to move Porzingis following his trade request.
The Knicks didn't view Porzingis as a superstar, had concerns over how he'd bounce back from his torn left ACL suffered Feb. 6, 2018, and weren't going to give a max contract to a player who didn't want to be there.
Porzingis had also been accused of sexually assaulting a woman in February 2018, though it hasn't been suggested that impacted the Knicks' desire to trade him. (Porzingis has denied the allegation.) Both teams were reportedly aware of the allegations before the trade was finalized, according to ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski—an important distinction considering the Mavericks came under fire for their handling of sexual harassment within their organization.
With the threat of Porzingis signing a one-year qualifying offer to enter unrestricted free agency the following summer and a list of preferred trade destinations, the Knicks acted hastily. After Kristaps and Janis walked out of the brief meeting, the Knicks called Dallas to finalize the trade.
According to league sources, Porzingis' camp had no idea the Mavericks were in the mix to acquire the Latvian forward, and Dallas was not one of his preferred destinations at the time.
At the time, Knicks management dealt Porzingis thinking they'd land Durant and Irving in free agency with the cap space created by including Tim Hardaway Jr. and Courtney Lee in the trade. In March, Dolan went on The Michael Kay Show and declared: "I can tell you from what we've heard, I think we're gonna have a very successful offseason when it comes to free agents."
Durant first coined the term "unicorn" for Porzingis and was a fan of his game from afar. While many executives around the league believed Durant would leave Golden State, most thought it would be to join the Knicks and not the Brooklyn Nets. As Irving increasingly desired to fulfill his childhood dream and join the Nets because of his New Jersey ties, Durant no longer had another All-Star-caliber player on the Knicks without Porzingis or one coming with him to potentially join forces.
DeAndre Jordan, acquired in the Porzingis trade to be New York's starting center and a recruiter to lure his friends, Durant and Irving, left for nothing as the trio signed across the bridge in Brooklyn.
Whiffing in free agency and seeing the three sign in Brooklyn was a crushing blow to the Knicks after heightened expectations from their owner, rival executives and fans for a transformative summer.
All that's left from the Porzingis trade now is Smith and two first-round draft picks.
Smith, whom Perry coveted, dealt with a back injury midway through training camp and played sparingly off the bench to begin the season, and he missed the last seven games after losing his stepmom.
"You see some of his highlights from years past, and he's talented and explosive with size, but the issue is he's not a point guard," an NBA scout observed. "His shooting and defense are suspect. In terms of having a point guard mentality and creating shots for yourself and your teammates, it's an important trait, and he hasn't shown it consistently enough. I saw him in the preseason, and he didn't look in the greatest shape."
Leading up to the 2017 draft, the Mavericks made themselves visible at several games Frank Ntilikina played in France to push the narrative they wanted to draft him. Instead, privately, the Mavericks hoped Smith would fall to them one pick after the Knicks. The French guard was considered a solid defensive player with a 7-foot wingspan but was also a raw offensive player who needed to improve his jumper coming into the draft.
Ntilikina and Smith are now part of a crowded point guard rotation with Elfrid Payton—a favorite of Perry during their time together in Orlando—and RJ Barrett, who also has played point guard for stretches.
Smith has a guaranteed $5.7 million salary for next season and is then eligible for restricted free agency in the summer of 2021. The Knicks also have the Mavs' unprotected 2021 first-round pick and their 2023 top-10-protected first-round pick from the trade.
It's unlikely that Smith, nor any of the remaining draft-pick assets from the deal, will equal Porzingis' value as an All-Star cornerstone.
The Knicks are headed for their seventh consecutive lottery finish. New York has a core of Barrett, Julius Randle, Kevin Knox, Mitchell Robinson, Ntilikina and a bunch of veteran signings who will likely be shopped leading up to the trade deadline in February. Those veteran signings include Payton, Taj Gibson, Wayne Ellington and Reggie Bullock, who all have partially guaranteed salaries; Bobby Portis, who has a $15.8 million team option for next season; and Marcus Morris, who will become an unrestricted free agent this summer.
In Dallas, owner Mark Cuban and management likely hoped pairing Porzingis and Doncic would give them the second coming of Nowitzki and Steve Nash. The Mavericks went all-in on building a relationship with Kristaps and Janis and committing a five-year, $158 million maximum contract offer to Porzingis.
Porzingis is on a Mavericks team with a star in Doncic and a former NBA champion and Coach of the Year in Rick Carlisle, who will maximize his talent after working with a similar international All-Star in Nowitzki. Carlisle, in his 12th season coaching the Mavs, publicly mentioned the importance of Janis during Porzingis' introductory press conference. Dallas also hired Valdivieso as an assistant strength and conditioning coach to work with all players on the team.
Carlisle also spent time at Porzingis' house in Latvia, and the two strengthened their relationship while participating in Basketball Without Borders in Riga, Latvia. According to those around Porzingis, the forward is visibly happy again as he regains his rhythm after missing all of last season.
As Kristaps makes his return to MSG for the first time as a Maverick, his brothers Janis and Martins are not expected to attend, according to a source.
On Thursday at MSG, walking down the hallway where his time in New York unofficially ended, Porzingis will leave Knicks fans and management wondering what could've been. New York's best chance to replace Porzingis is with a high lottery pick in the draft, such as James Wiseman, while the Mavericks compete for a playoff spot in the vaunted West.
NBA writer, Bleacher Report & AP. Formerly: The Athletic. Seen on NBA TV & YES Network. Heard on ESPN Radio, Sirius XM NBA Radio & WFAN. This is his ninth season covering the NBA.
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