Fallout of Kristaps Porzingis’ injury still hangs over Knicks

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The packed crowd at Madison Square Garden is the first thing you notice, of course, because blissful, pre-pandemic scenes always blitz people with memories of the way life used to be. The next thing you see on this Kristaps Porzingis tape is his extreme skill and athleticism as he breaks away from the most athletic player in the game.

Giannis Antetokounmpo is holding Porzingis’s jersey like a middle-aged weekend warrior would at the local Y. Trey Burke is screening the Bucks’ franchise player at the left elbow, and his 7-foot-3 teammate is freeing himself from the defender above the foul line, preparing to take a pass from Kyle O’Quinn.

But when the Bucks’ Jason Terry jumps into the passing lane, the Unicorn does a very Unicorn-ish thing: He stops on a dime like a wide receiver coming out of a break, splits Terry and Antetokounmpo on a hard dive to the basket, and takes Quinn’s bounce pass into the air for a high-flying dunk over the Greek Freak while camera lights flash around them.

The basket put the home team up 31-30 with 8:51 left in the second quarter. The Knicks owned a 23-31 record entering that February 6, 2018 game, and were fully expected to miss the playoffs for a fifth straight year. But the fans that night still had the 22-year-old Porzingis in the air, posterizing the Freak on the way to his first All-Star Game as a proud member of Team LeBron. If you can’t sell winning to your customers, you can sure sell that kind of hope.

Yet much like the most recent spurts of Knick prosperity — Linsanity in 2012, Melo’s 54-win season the following year — this one ended far too quickly. In fact, it lasted about two seconds after that dunk over Antetokounmpo before a fallen Porzingis reached for his left knee. The fans couldn’t even get out of their seats before their delight ran smack into devastation.

No ticketholder that night ever would’ve thought he or she was watching the last on-court act of the Porzingis passion play in New York. Off the court, nearly a year later, the injured Knick walked into the office of Steve Mills, and told the team president and general manager Scott Perry that he wanted out, and that if they didn’t trade him he would leave for Europe. The Knicks made the deal with the Mavericks, who sent back Dennis Smith Jr., Wesley Matthews, and two first-round picks. Oh, and DeAndre Jordan, who was supposed to help persuade his Olympic teammates and friends Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving to fill the Knicks’ expanded cap space.

Instead Jordan joined Durant and Irving in Brooklyn, putting a rotten cherry on top of a summer that made the Knicks’ decision to deal Porzingis look only slightly better than Charlotte’s decision to deal Kobe Bryant in 1996. Over time, after the Knicks signed Julius Randle with some of the cash they were saving for KD and Irving, the trade has looked less disastrous. Entering Friday night’s game in Dallas, Randle, who is only eight months older than Porzingis, was outscoring him (23.2-20.7) and outrebounding him (10.6-9.3), though the Mavs’ star was beating his counterpart in player efficiency rating (22.26-19.73). And Marcus Morris, another 2019 signee, was traded for a late first-round pick that ultimately helped the Knicks land Immanuel Quickley.

Smith was a disaster, and while Porzingis has been a high-level Maverick when healthy, and while teammate Tim Hardaway Jr. has started 95 games, the three players the Knicks received in the deal are all employed by other teams.

But if Randle establishes himself as a healthier, more productive power forward than Porzingis in the coming years, and if the Knicks hit on at least one of those two Dallas draft picks, hey, the Porzingis trade won’t turn out to be such an apocalyptic event after all. In the end, maybe the Knicks should have called KP’s European bluff (the way the Nets should’ve called Kobe’s European bluff before letting him go to the Lakers via Charlotte), and gambled that his injury history would have compelled him to sign up for a long-term run in New York. Time will tell.

Meanwhile, if you’re a fan who wants to recall how the Knicks started to develop a draft pick into a star for the first time since they were gifted Patrick Ewing, go back and look at the video of Porzingis’s final Garden play. Just stop it after the dunk follow-through on the Freak, before the crash landing and the grab and the fist pounding the floor.

Freeze it right there, in the air, and remember a fleeting moment of Knicks ecstasy before some more long winters of Knicks agony.

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