Kristaps Porzingis trade: Knicks put enormous pressure on themselves to deliver stars in free agency

NEW YORK -- Before the 2018-19 New York Knicks had played a single game, before they even had a single practice, it was obvious the front office was focused on what might happen at the end of the season. With Enes Kanter's $18.6 million salary set to come off the books, they projected to have around $30 million in cap space, and there was speculation that they might try to clear more room via trade. At a press conference on Sep. 20, though, Knicks general manager Scott Perry said that management wasn't even thinking about free agency. 

"Our goal this year is really to give this 18-19 team our undivided attention and watch this young group grow," Perry said then. "You mentioned the potential for cap space -- that is really just going to be a byproduct of just how the salary structures of our individual players are right now. And so we're not going to get too caught up in looking 10 months out because we got eight or nine months of basketball to play and really understand and see what we have."

This strained credulity. Last offseason, New York signed no one aside from its rookies to deals longer than one year. There is not an executive in the league who makes plans on a one-season timeline, and mapping out potential long-term strategies is especially important for rebuilding teams like the Knicks. No general manager is going to come out and say that an entire season is essentially meaningless, but Perry didn't have to go so far in the other direction, claiming that all this projected cap room was an accident. 

The comment read as a lowering of expectations. New York fans were looking at the names who will be on the market -- Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, Kemba Walker, Klay Thompson, Jimmy Butler, DeMarcus Cousins -- and imagining (or photoshopping) them in Knicks uniforms. New York hadn't been successful in recruiting free agents in recent years, and perhaps the team had decided it wouldn't be wise to come off as too confident. 

All of that posturing, though, can be thrown out the window now. Six weeks after team president Steve Mills delivered a similar message, the Knicks made a massive, franchise-altering bet on their ability to attract free agents. By trading Kristaps Porzingis, previously thought to be their franchise player, they shed the contracts of Tim Hardaway Jr. and Courtney Lee, setting themselves up to have almost $75 million in cap space in July. Go ahead, I guess: Photoshop Durant and Irving in blue and orange. It's (theoretically) possible for New York to sign both. 

Steve Mills and Scott Perry
Steve Mills and Scott Perry have a ton of flexibility, all of a sudden. USATSI

In a way, Perry and Mills' fearlessness should be admired. Porzingis, who is still recovering from last February's ACL surgery, was by far their best and most popular player. He wasn't thrilled with the direction of the team, though, and, after reportedly meeting with him on Thursday, they decided to honor his preference to be traded. They suddenly have the sort of flexibility this franchise rarely enjoys, and the opportunity to pitch multiple stars on becoming the new faces of New York basketball, with Dennis Smith Jr., Kevin Knox, Mitchell Robinson, (maybe) Frank Ntilikina and whoever they pick in the 2019 NBA Draft growing alongside them. 

The risk, of course, is that the stars might not buy what they're selling. The Knicks want the world to believe that everything is different at Madison Square Garden now, despite the fact that, when Isiah Thomas was introduced as team president in 2003, he posed for photos with Mills and James Dolan, still the team's owner. It is too early to know if the presence of Perry and coach David Fizdale will be enough for the team to overcome its poor reputation, and it is worth noting that they were not able to appease Porzingis. At 10-40, they currently have the worst record in the league. 

Regardless of what Mills, Perry and Fizdale say publicly, this trade has inarguably raised the stakes this summer. The range of outcomes here is almost dizzying -- they could sign two superstars and draft Zion Williamson; they could sign nobody and draft, like, Jarrett Culver -- and I have no idea anymore what would count as a reasonable, realistic outcome. In a world where New York never traded Porzingis, drafting virtually any high-upside prospect and signing someone like Tobias Harris or Khris Middleton would have been seen as a step forward in its climb toward respectability and relevance. Now, should the Knicks even have those (All-Star-caliber) forwards on their radar? It feels like they made this trade with their eyes on bigger prizes. 

In July 2015, the Sacramento Kings made one of the most lopsided trades in NBA history in order to clear cap room to go after the likes of Rajon Rondo, Monta Ellis and Wesley Matthews, and Rondo was the only one who ended up taking their money -- the rest of it went to Kosta Koufos and Marco Belinelli. I am absolutely not equating this deal to the infamous Nik Stauskas pick swap extravaganza, but there is a lesson to be learned from that disaster: Placing too much emphasis on one free-agency period is a dangerous game. Landing a star requires some luck, and it also usually requires years of preparation and planning. One can only hope that New York will be ready.

CBS Sports Writer

James Herbert is somewhat fond of basketball, feature writing and understatements. A former season-ticket holder for the expansion Toronto Raptors, Herbert does not think the NBA was better back in the... Full Bio

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