Things seemed to be moving along, according to plan on Wednesday night.
As the New York Knicks continued to give their young, developing players valuable experience, they dropped their 11th straight game (to the Dallas Mavericks), losing for the 22nd time in 24 contests, sinking their record to an NBA-worst 10-40.
Visions of a top-three pick in this year’s NBA draft to place alongside star forward Kristaps Porzingis, and eventually other key pieces, were coming more into focus as the Knicks moved within two losses of clinching their sixth straight losing season and 15th in the past 18 years.
Yet behind the scenes, as Dallas was in the process of pummeling New York by 24 points, Knicks president Steve Mills and general manager Scott Perry were quietly meeting behind closed doors with Mavericks president and general manager Donnie Nelson to work out a stunning blockbuster trade which sent Porzingis to Dallas by the following afternoon.
Seconds after the Mavericks’ win on the court, Dallas’ much bigger victory in securing New York’s best player, was signaled on the Madison Square Garden floor when the league’s leading Rookie of the Year candidate, Luka Doncic, was exchanging handshakes and wide grins with his friend and soon-to-be new teammate, Porzingis.
While Porzingis ultimately failed to buy into the Knicks’ longer-term rebuilding plans, Mills and Perry didn’t seem distraught over losing a 23-year-old, 2018 All-Star who was once thought to be a possible Hall of Fame cornerstone of New York’s franchise for years to come.
Some of that self-assuredness comes from the fact that Porzingis remains a health risk for any team, having missed 110 of 296 games (37 percent) over his first four NBA seasons, having last played on Feb. 6, 2018, when the talented yet fragile 7-foot-3 forward tore his ACL.
Yet that thinking could also be justification for a plan by design.
It’s been somewhat obvious that Mills and Perry were not on board with many of the moves made by former team president Phil Jackson, who was fired before Perry joined Mills in New York’s front office in July, 2017.
Mills and Perry have seemingly had a strong say in limiting the playing time and development of 2017 draft pick Frank Ntilikina (selected by Jackson), who was picked one spot ahead of point guard Dennis Smith, Jr., who was not only a past favorite of Mills, but who will now come to New York as part of the Porzingis trade to Dallas. That would apparently mean that Ntilikina’s days as a Knick are numbered.
The day after Porzingis’ injury, Mills and Perry traded another former Jackson draft pick and Porzingis’ close friend, Willy Hernangomez, for what many believed to be less value (second-round picks in 2020 and 2021 and forward Johnny O’Bryant, who is no longer in the NBA) than what Hernangomez (who was playing well at the time while having an MSG locker next to Porzingis) might have otherwise commanded.
Before Perry, Mills never appeared to stand behind the moves Jackson made, nor did he publicly back Jackson when Jackson brought up the possibility of trading Porzingis, nor when Porzingis skipped an exit interview with Jackson following the 2016-17 season.
All signs have pointed toward Mills — who has a hand in many of the failed decisions which have led to the Knicks’ losing and instability over the past several years — wanting to do things his own way. That would now include working in tandem with Perry.
Mills and Perry declined to offer Porzingis a contract extension before the season, which would have locked up New York’s best draft pick since Patrick Ewing (in 1985) for five years instead of having their hand eventually forced by a disgruntled star, who under as many head coaches as years he’s spent in the NBA, has seen nothing but lottery finishes for the Knicks.
They also did very little to try to appease Porzingis and actively make him feel comfortable enough to stay in New York.
Now, in one fell swoop, the two biggest selections Jackson made — taking Porzingis as the fourth overall pick in 2015 and Ntilikina, the eighth selection, two years later — no longer fit into the current regime’s plans through a trade which brought in Smith Jr., a Mills favorite.
Trading Porzingis was a shocker. But perhaps it was merely the final step (and by far, the biggest one) in Mills and Perry once and for all getting out from under anything tied to Jackson in the past. The duo that’s currently in charge apparently wants to do things with its own imprint on the franchise, for better or worse.
Either way, it was a gamble. Mills and Perry could have tried harder and been more patient to work things out with Porzingis. Even if they had been able to do so, that might’ve backfired if Porzingis were to get hurt again or never become the player Knicks fans once hoped he’d be following his severe injury.
Of course, the flip side of that risk is Porzingis blossoming into the Hall of Famer the Mavericks are banking on him becoming, as the Knicks — who as part of the trade, sent the bloated contracts of Tim Hardaway Jr. and Courtney Lee, and Trey Burke’s to Dallas, and received the expiring contracts of DeAndre Jordan and Wesley Matthews to help open up $71 million of cap space, enough to secure two max contracts as early as this summer — fall well short of landing the type of franchise-changing superstars they hope to secure.
Once Smith Jr. takes over for Ntilikina, and if Ntilikina (as expected) is the next of lottery pick to go, it’ll all be on Mills and Perry, who seem keener on the idea of trying to sink or swim through their own choices rather than sharing the credit for any future success with regard to a major draft pick tied to Jackson.
In that sense, Mills and Perry better make the right moves from here. Whether that means landing the likes of 2019 free agents Kevin Durant and/or Kyrie Irving, or packaging some of their younger players along with draft picks (thanks two first-round picks from Dallas in the trade, New York wil likely have seven first-round picks over the next five years) to acquire some major talent via trades, they’ll have to get it right.
From this point, it’s too late for anyone to tell Mills and Perry to be careful what they wish for in wanting to bet solely on themselves in rebuilding the Knicks their own way, without the help of Jackson’s past selections. With Porzingis gone and Ntilikina likely to receive even less playing time before probably being traded fairly soon as well, there’s nothing left to blame on Jackson if another grand plan ends up in shambles yet again for the Knicks.
From here, it’s all on Mills and Perry. This is ostensibly what they wanted. Now they own it and now they have to produce, especially if Porzingis becomes in Dallas (or elsewhere later on) what was once expected in New York. And if Mills and Perry ultimately fail, they should be the next big names to leave the Knicks.