Last week, the New York Knicks suffered a setback with enormous short- and long-term ramifications.
Early in the second quarter against the Milwaukee Bucks, Kristaps Porzingis crumpled to the ground upon landing after a dunk. When he instinctively grabbed at the back of his left knee, fans immediately feared the worst. Hours later, the team confirmed those worries: Porzingis had torn his ACL, prematurely ending his season.
Less than 24 hours after losing their franchise big man for the year, the Knicks flipped disgruntled third-string center Willy Hernangomez to the Charlotte Hornets for Johnny O’Bryant—who they promptly waived, per ESPN.com’s Ian Begley—and unprotected 2020 and 2021 second-round picks. Prior to Thursday’s trade deadline, they then sent Doug McDermott to the Dallas Mavericks in a three-team deal that netted them former Denver Nuggets point guard Emmanuel Mudiay.
Based on how the Knicks retooled in the wake of Porzingis’ injury, there’s only one conclusion to draw: They’ve recognized their best path forward is to continue a slow and steady rebuild.
The Knicks’ pivot toward youth
With or without a healthy Porzingis, the Knicks should not have fancied themselves a playoff contender.
Before the Unicorn went down against the Bucks, New York was 23-31, a full four games behind the eighth-seeded Detroit Pistons. Following a surprising 16-13 start to the season, the Knicks promptly dropped 18 of next their 25 games. Though Porzingis lobbied his front office to act as buyers at the trade deadline, New York was better off doing the exact opposite, especially in the wake of his ACL tear.
Prior to Porzingis’ injury, the Knicks reportedly “remained hopeful of making a playoff run and planned to operate at the deadline with intentions of remaining competitive,” according to Begley. Once he went down, however, Begley figured the franchise “probably will recalibrate those plans and look to play young players such as Frank Ntilikina and Trey Burke more often in the final 27 games.”
Trading the 23-year-old Hernangomez, who earned a first-team All-Rookie nod last season, doesn’t appear to align with that organizational goal. However, the big man had been lobbying for a trade in recent weeks, according to Begley, as he found himself frustrated with his third-string role behind Enes Kanter and Kyle O’Quinn. While the Knicks likewise listened to offers on O’Quinn and also tried to free themselves of Joakim Noah’s onerous contract, per Begley, both remain in New York following the trade deadline.
According to ESPN.com’s Adrian Wojnarowski, “Knicks general manager Scott Perry said Wednesday that he’d like to acquire a young, athletic player at the deadline,” which he accomplished by trading for Mudiay. The 2015 No. 7 overall pick is shooting a career-best 40.1 percent overall and 37.3 percent from three-point range, but his playing time trended down from 30.4 minutes as a rookie to only 17.9 this season. New York didn’t give up much to acquire Mudiay—McDermott will be a restricted free agent this summer, while Mudiay remains on his rookie contract through 2018-19—although his arrival puts head coach Jeff Hornacek in somewhat of a bind.
In Frank Ntilikina, this past year’s No. 8 overall pick, the Knicks already had a young, offensively challenged point guard. While the rookie expressed confidence after the trade, telling reporters, “We can both play with the ball, we can both play off the ball, so it might be great for us,” Hornacek must confront a delicate juggling act when doling out playing time to the two young floor generals. He’s also been relying on both Jarrett Jack and Trey Burke in recent weeks, which begs the question of whether he’ll be able to find enough minutes for all four players.
Since the Knicks own their 2018 first-round pick and the NBA will change its draft-lottery odds beginning next season, the final two months of the season should be an all-out tank war. Following Porzingis’ injury, New York should be everything in its power to force itself into that mix.
Trickle-down effects to 2018-19
Not only will the Knicks likely make their fifth straight trip to the lottery dais in June, but a sixth visit may be in store following the 2018-19 season.
Given the timing of Porzingis’ injury, he likely won’t be cleared to play by opening night. Milwaukee Bucks forward Jabari Parker didn’t return until recently after suffering an ACL tear in his left knee last February—granted, it was his second such injury to that knee. Then-Minnesota Timberwolves guard Zach LaVine likewise tore his left ACL in early February 2017 and didn’t make his Chicago Bulls debut until mid-January 2018.
Porzingis is seeking a second opinion before going under the knife, according to Begley, but he’s “expected to be sidelined for at least 10 months” following his surgery. That puts his timetable to return at the beginning of December at the earliest, a full month-and-a-half into the 2018-19 season.
If New York’s blowout 113-88 loss at the hands of the Toronto Raptors on Thursday is any indication, it may struggle to remain competitive so long as Porzingis remains sidelined. That could put the Knicks into an early hole next season, too. With north of $70 million in guaranteed salary already committed for 2018-19, they’ll largely be limited to salary-cap exceptions to round out their roster if Enes Kanter doesn’t decline his $18.6 million player option. (Spoiler alert: He won’t.)
Even if the Knicks land a can’t-miss prospect in the 2018 draft, they’re likely to fall far below .500 at the beginning of next year. That could convince them to focus on freeing up salary-cap space for the summer of 2019, when free agents such as Kawhi Leonard, Jimmy Butler and Klay Thompson can all hit the market.
Only $1 million of Lance Thomas’ $7.6 million salary for 2019-20 is guaranteed, whereas Noah will be entering the final season of his four-year, $72.6 million deal. By then, the Knicks may have an easier time finding a taker for his expiring contract, but if not, they could always use the stretch provision on him as well. With Kanter off their books and only Courtney Lee, Tim Hardaway Jr. and Ntilikina signed through 2019-20, New York may have the cap space to be a legitimate free-agent destination in July 2019.
That largely depends on how the Knicks handle Porzingis over the next 18 months.
Impact on Porzingis’ extension talks
Since he’s heading into the final year of his rookie contract in 2018-19, Porzingis will become eligible for an extension this summer.
Before his injury, New York shouldn’t have had much to think about. As the Knicks’ lone franchise cornerstone, the team likely would have handed him a five-year max deal worth in the neighborhood of $150 million at midnight on July 1. It would have cost New York some salary-cap flexibility in the summer of 2019, as Porzingis’ cap hold of $17 million will fall far short of his starting salary in a new max deal, but refusing to give him such a contract offer could run the risk of alienating him.
Porzingis’ ACL tear may not change that calculus at all. Perhaps the Knicks see enough progress from him between now and the October extension deadline that they offer him the max deal he would have received had he avoided said injury. Then again, New York could have reservations about handing out such a massive contract without seeing how Zinger fares upon his return.
“We hadn’t talked about that prior to this injury, and we won’t get into that now about him,” Perry told reporters during a press conference Wednesday. “He is obviously a very important member of this basketball team and this organization and part of this New York community. And we’ll deal with at that appropriate time.”
If the Knicks do hope to make a major free-agent splash in 2019, it would behoove them to hold off on signing Porzingis to an extension. Allowing him to become a restricted free agent isn’t without risk, though, as he could sign a shorter offer sheet with another team to ensure he reaches unrestricted free agency more quickly.
Weighing the pros and cons of each approach is sure to haunt Perry at night throughout most of 2018.