Well, that escalated quickly. From the time ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported Kristaps Porzingis had requested a trade from the New York Knicks in his meeting with management to the time The New York Times’ Marc Stein reported that a deal was imminent with the Dallas Mavericks, an entire 43 minutes had gone by. And just like that, it was done. Kristaps Porzingis is a Maverick, along with a trio of his former New York teammates, and Dennis Smith Jr. will join 2017 draftee Frank Ntilikina in the Knicks’ backcourt.
The full terms of the deal, so we have them for posterity’s sake: New York sends out Kristaps Porzingis, Tim Hardaway Jr., Courtney Lee, and Trey Burke to Dallas for Dennis Smith Jr., DeAndre Jordan, and Wesley Matthews, along with a pair of possible first-round picks that can convey as early as 2021 and 2023, but also could be as late as 2025 and never (instead rolling into a 2025 second-rounder). Both picks that convey, be it two firsts or a first and a second, will be Dallas’s own, so the Knicks will have an active interest in the Mavericks’ long-term future for the foreseeable future.
There are a ton of moving pieces in this deal, with short- and long-term aspirations on the line both teams and most of the players involved. The marquee name here is Porzingis, but unlike a lot of blockbuster trades, we won’t have a chance to see the Latvian big man in uniform for the Mavericks any time soon. He’s still rehabbing an ACL injury suffered nearly a year ago and while it’s not certain that he won’t feature for Dallas this year ahead of a pivotal summer, we can be reasonably confident that he won’t be his full self and won’t give us a true look at what the partnership of he and Luka Doncic will be when he’s (hopefully) healthy next season.
“Next season” are the key words there, because there’s no guarantee Porzingis is in Dallas past the 2019-20 campaign. He’ll be a restricted free agent this summer and the Mavericks will extend a $4.5 million qualifying offer, but there were immediate rumblings that he was considering taking the qualifying offer in order to get into unrestricted free agency in 2020. Those reports were quickly shot down by Wojnarowski, but it remains a possibility that Porzingis won’t be as happy as he expects to be now that he’s away from the dysfunction in New York. That said, the history of a player with his talent taking the qualifying offer after a major ACL injury is not particularly lengthy – would Porzingis really turn down a max or near-max offer from the Mavericks to play for $4.5 million and take on the huge risk that his value will hold up until 2020? The most likely scenario here is that Porzingis’s camp put it out there that he’s not a sure thing to re-sign with the Mavericks, perhaps in an attempt to coax out the maximum qualifying offer from Dallas, which would give him the option to sign a fully guaranteed five-year max contract with no options either way, starting at 25 percent of the 2019-20 cap and going up by 8 percent of that figure each year.
The Max QO is a tool rarely used by teams and was most recently tendered to Jimmy Butler by the Chicago Bulls before the two sides came to an agreement on a five-year contract with a player option on the final year, rather than a straight five-year max, as the Max QO entails. Tendering the Max QO also forces other teams to step up their offer sheets for Porzingis from two non-option years to three, reducing the chances Dallas could get caught matching a 2+1 contract for Porzingis and not retaining him as long as they want to. He could still sign a 3+1 somewhere and leave in 2022, but at least they’d get a few years to convince him to stay in Dallas with Doncic and the team they build around their two stars.
The price for Porzingis was steep for the Mavericks. Up to two first-round picks go to New York in addition to the loss of Smith, who is just a year and a half into his career. On top of the picks and the recently-picked talent, Dallas has to take on a combined three years of Hardaway and Lee after 2018-19. It’s the kind of price you pay for a sure thing and Porzingis is anything but that, though they have more access to his medical information than we do publicly. Comparisons between Porzingis and other players who have suffered ACL tears are difficult, if only because he’s a different player than nearly anybody we’ve seen in NBA history. A 7’3 behemoth who is an all-world shot blocker, post-up player, and outside shooter is not exactly a common occurrence, at least on this planet, and how exactly he’ll recover from this injury is an unknown. Add in the uncertainty surrounding his contract situation and it’s nothing short of a massive gamble for the Mavericks.
Dallas was slated for significant cap space this summer, enough to bring in a max free agent and still have about $20 million to spend on the rest of their team. Instead, Porzingis represents their free agent coup, as they’ll likely operate as an over-the-cap team this summer. Porzingis’s cap hold plus Hardaway and Lee will count for nearly $50 million on their books and while they could still move on from their major acquisition to open up about $27 million in space, that would be a downright travesty for them. The most likely scenario is that they’ll tender qualifying offers to their three restricted free agents (Porzingis, Dorian Finney-Smith, and Maxi Kleber) and use their mid-level exception to add outside talent. I’ll take a deeper dive into their summer plans in June, when the 30 Teams in 30 Days series will make its return on Early Bird Rights.
The Mavericks also generated a traded player exception they can use at any time over the next year. Since they’ll be an over-the-cap team this summer, the $12.9 million exception will remain on their books through January 2020 and provides them with another way to add talent around their current core. The exception cannot be used to sign a new player in the summer, but they’ll be able to use it to trade for someone from a team who sours on a player or simply needs to open up the last remaining bit of cap space this summer and would be willing to replenish one of Dallas’s lost first-round picks as a result.
It should also be noted that the three “other” players they acquired in the deal should help them. Hardaway represents an offensive upgrade over Matthews and will give the Mavericks another wing creator, though there’s a significant chasm between the two defensively. Burke will immediately step into a point guard role in Dallas; whether he or rookie Jalen Brunson will start might be up to competition over the next few weeks. Lee is the X-factor for Dallas. Can he bounce back from what has been essentially a lost year in New York and contribute? Or is he essentially $12.8 million of dead weight on their books next year?
Grading this deal for Dallas is an even bigger “wait and see” mentality than with most trades, given that we likely won’t see Porzingis this season. We’ll need to see how his knee responds when he’s able to get back out on the court, how he fits with Doncic, and what kind of commitment he’s willing to make to Dallas before ever really taking the floor for them. Dallas is a far cry from New York in terms of organizational stability, but it would be hard to blame Porzingis if he were somewhat wary of making a long-term commitment to any particular organization after what he’s been through with the Knicks.
From New York’s point of view, they’ve pushed all their chips into the middle of the table for free agency. Historically, that’s not a gamble that’s worked out for many teams, but the Knicks seem to be confident they can buck the trend. They can now open up $72.3 million in space, a number that includes the cap hold for the No. 1 pick in June’s draft, which is far from a sure thing for them even if they finish with the league’s worst record. Each spot they drop down in the draft is worth, on average, about $800,000 in extra space, though at some point a team can have too much money to spend. Still, the Knicks will be in heavy pursuit of a number of big-name free agents, from Kevin Durant to Kyrie Irving to Kemba Walker. Should they get a commitment from Durant and a star point guard, this deal makes it such that they don’t have to make any moves to get off of salary; they can just outright sign two max deals to add to their team in a big way.
What an Irving or Walker signing would mean for the newly-acquired Smith remains to be seen, but they could always re-flip him this summer, when he’ll still have most, if not all, of the trade value he has today. Smith’s particular skills seem like they would make him a natural fit to play off the ball next to a superstar at point guard, but he already made noise this season in Dallas with regards to unhappiness with his role next to Doncic.
A lot is riding on this summer, but it’s not an absolute imperative that they nail down two max signings. Unlike their big-market brethren in Los Angeles, who need to build rapidly around an aging LeBron James, the Knicks’ current core includes Smith, Ntilikina, Kevin Knox, Allonzo Trier, Mitchell Robinson, and whichever stud rookie they get at the top of the 2019 draft. Should they win the Zion Williamson sweepstakes and still not hit a pair of home runs in free agency, they can always roll that space over to 2020, at which point their entire core will still be under contract, with the exception of Trier, who will be a restricted free agent with a $9.7 million cap hold. It will be natural for people (myself included) to be immensely negative with New York should they strike out in free agency, but they’ve made their rather large bet that Porzingis won’t be worth tying up all that space and losing out on the chance to nab two massive difference makers this summer or next.
Due to Dallas’s obligation to Atlanta, the Knicks weren’t able to get any short-term help for their lottery odds in the race for Zion, but the two firsts they picked up from the Mavericks are nothing to sneeze at. At the very least, they add to New York’s ammunition in a possible trade for a superstar down the line and while those picks don’t have a ton of present value, there’s no telling where those picks could be by the early-to-mid-2020s. Should things not work out in Dallas, the Knicks could be sitting on a gold mine, but at the very least, they got another pair of bites at the proverbial apple to add young talent to their team. They hope will be in need of an influx of such players to keep their star-studded dynasty alive.
As for the immediate future, the buyout vultures should be immediately circling over Jordan and Matthews, both of whom may not last long in a Knicks uniform. Both players would immediately be the biggest prizes to be won on the buyout market, should they even last in New York past the deadline. The Knicks can package them together or sell them off separately between now and February 7 (though they can’t aggregate them with other salary), but the more likely scenario is that they will agree to buyouts in an attempt to latch on to a playoff team for the stretch run of the year.
Matthews won’t lack for suitors; high-end contenders can never have enough 3-and-D wings, despite a dip in production this season. In particular, the Houston Rockets seem like a natural home for him as they continue to search for difference-makers on the wing who can play both ends in a playoff series. Houston can dangle Brandon Knight and a first-round pick to pick up wing help at the deadline, but if they’re able to sign Matthews after he finalizes a buyout with the Knicks, that could save them some cash and that first-rounder.
Jordan’s market will be thinner due to the glut of centers throughout the league. The fit was never quite right in Dallas, despite the years-long courting the Mavericks put on him, and some of his warts become more pronounced with each passing year. Throw in a decline in athleticism and Jordan’s prospects of being a starting center on a playoff team after a buyout are just about nil. The Los Angeles Lakers might view him as an upgrade over Tyson Chandler, but if not, he’ll be relegated to searching for a backup job in Philadelphia, Milwaukee, or Golden State (should they lose out on Robin Lopez).
It was understandably lost in the shuffle that the Mavericks had to cut Ray Spalding to open up the roster spots necessary to make this trade. Spalding was drafted in 2018 at the bottom of the second round and the rookie out of Louisville has so far played exactly one minute of NBA action in his career, but it would surprise me if he makes it through the waiver process without somebody putting in a claim on him. His G League numbers are nothing to write home about, though the Texas Legends mostly used him as a post-up threat. Standing 6’10 with long arms, Spalding might be better used as a roll man in pick-and-roll, rather than a one-on-one scorer down low.
Perhaps the most attractive aspect of Spalding is his contract – since the Mavericks were a cap space team last summer, they were able to sign him to a near-Hinkie Special. Spalding agreed terms on a four-year contract at the minimum every year, with 2018-19 fully guaranteed and 2019-20 half guaranteed, plus two more non-guaranteed years in 2020-21 and 2021-22. With no team option on that final year, a team couldn’t pick him up and make him a restricted free agent in 2021, but that could still be a very valuable deal should he pan out to be any level of NBA player. He won’t fit into a minimum salary exception, but teams can use traded player exceptions to make waiver claims, which a number of teams should do for Spalding’s services. There are no fewer than 39 traded player exceptions throughout the league which could fit Spalding’s rookie minimum salary, though some of those belong to teams who have already passed on him (Dallas can’t claim someone they just cut and if the Knicks were interested in him, they would have included him in the trade).
The teams with available exceptions and a roster spot are mostly taxed out and wouldn’t want to take on the extra expense for Spalding’s salary, though Charlotte has the requisite exception, a roster spot, and isn’t close enough to the tax to be bothered by it. Fit wouldn’t necessarily be important for a Spalding destination, as he’s not ready to play NBA basketball at this point in his career, but it would be a smart asset play for someone who either has a roster spot or can quickly create one before he clears waivers on Saturday.