Photo: Jonathan Daniel (Getty)

The Knicks sent franchise centerpiece Kristaps Porzingis to the Mavericks on Thursday in exchange for a couple of future picks, two players they have no use for, and Dennis Smith Jr., an unhappy, defensively challenged, and poor-shooting point guard who struggled to fit with Luka Doncic and whom the Mavs were already actively trying to dump—and whom the Knicks already passed on in the 2017 draft.

Assuming the Knicks don’t know some horrifying secret about Porzingis’s long-term health—unlikely, because the Daily News reported that he was “essentially cleared to play”—they have just traded away a mildly annoyed and confused young superstar with absolutely no leverage in exchange for cap space. That was cap space that needed freeing, by the way, only because of dumb moves the Knicks made themselves. The Knicks managed to turn one of the best young players in the league into a sweetener that allowed them to get Tim Hardaway Jr.’s contract off the books. That’s as bewildering and pathetic as it sounds.

The Knicks, with their delusions of grandeur about their city and their historic place in the NBA, could perhaps convince themselves that this was the first step towards forming a Zion-Kyrie-KD big three. (It’s “like when a child thinks everyone is their best friend,” Nathaniel Friedman noted in GQ.) But even taking into account the fragility of Porzingis and the fact that he was still a hunk of potential, everyone else who likes the Knicks was pretty bummed about the loss of a guy they’d invested years of hope into, with no promise of a worthy successor.

Today, however, there’s been a fascinating jump from a few outlets to explain the trade as an Actual Smart Move by the New York Knicks, and this isn’t just nonsense coming from Stephen A. Smith. Here’s The Ringer, generously rating the team’s young players in a blog called “The Knicks Are Dreaming Bigger Than Kristaps Porzingis.”

The Knicks now have the cap space to sign two players to max contracts this summer, and more than enough assets to potentially make a serious trade offer for Anthony Davis.

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Viewed from a different perspective that’s free of the past, Knicks president Steve Mills dumped a disgruntled player who teased superstar ability but couldn’t stay healthy for a talented young point guard, draft picks, movable contracts, and the cap space to change the course of their franchise.

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In Sports Illustrated, Andrew Sharp echoes those notes of approval:

The first way you can tell this trade was the right decision? The Boston Celtics and all their fans almost certainly hated it. Ditto for the Golden State Warriors. The Knicks began Thursday without enough cap space to sign Kevin Durant, and by Thursday afternoon they had $74.6 million to spend this summer—enough space to sign both Durant and an additional superstar on a max contract. They also have Kevin Knox, Frank Ntilikina, Dennis Smith, Jr., and seven first–round picks over the next five years—those are trade assets for a third star.

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What these pieces are essentially doing are congratulating the Knicks for being a basketball team that exists. Cap space is not a synonym for “good players,” and having it is nothing more than a starting point. The Knicks’ plan, so far as it is one, is the same plan that every rebuilding team in the history of the league has had: hit big in the lottery with a guaranteed stud, sign the two best free agents on the market, and also deal some guys who are currently entirely made of theoretical upside for another proven superstar. The difference is that the first step of such a plan doesn’t usually involve punting a player as good and young as Porzingis.

It’s technically possible that a year from now all the Knicks’ dreams come true and their new team of stars is in first place. But there are just so many holes in this pipe dream to take it seriously. The Lakers and Celtics could both offer better packages for Anthony Davis; even with the worst record in the league, the Knicks have a better chance at getting the fifth pick in the draft (Rui Hachimura?) than they do landing Zion or R.J. Barrett in the top three; and does anyone actually have faith in the Knicks’ front office to successfully court Durant and Irving, two of the most mercurial players in the league?

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Even if the Knicks eventually turn this grand dream into a reality, it’s still gross to see them getting praised by writers who insist that there is something wise or virtuous about what the team has done. Sharp sums it up well in this paragraph, which is basically, “If you ain’t first, you’re last.”

The Knicks now have a chance to build an honest-to-god title contender this summer. That matters. Keeping Porzingis and playing things “smart” would have been a great way to impress NBA Twitter and then win 43 games next year. Purely from a process standpoint, this was the better play.

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Elsewhere, he says, “If New York had found another way to trade Hardaway and then stretched Courtney Lee and spent all this summer’s cap space on B–list stars like Kemba Walker and Tobias Harris to pair with Porzingis—does that 47-win team really move the needle?”

The argument being made here is that a 2019-20 Knicks team—led by a handful of intriguing guys including Porzingis, Next Summer’s Lottery Pick, and a Very Good Free Agent or two—fighting to get to the playoffs for the first time in what feels like forever and winning more games than they have since 2013 is not only a bad outcome but an incorrect way to build an NBA team.

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The easiest thing an incompetent franchise can do is sell the promise that they’ll be contenders in the future, so why praise one for doing just that? And why be so dismissive of the middle ground between bad and world-beating? To act totally scornful towards the idea of a franchise taking small steps to improve into fun competitiveness not only underrates just the value of having a team fans actually care about in the day-to-day, but also completely ignores how teams like the pre-Durant Warriors, the Spurs, and the Mavericks won their titles.

Making smart draft picks outside the prime spots, bringing in the right free agents to fit a coherent system, and then finally, only when the time is right, risking the big trade that completes the puzzle is a far trickier way to build a basketball team, but it’s also been the way that’s historically most successful. Of course, the Knicks’ brain trust would have to be pretty smart to pull off that kind of rebuild, and nothing they’ve done in a very long time would give you faith that they’re capable of it. Instead, they’re just hoping Kevin Durant likes their shitty franchise enough to take their money. It’s their choice to go that route, but nobody needs to pat them on the back for doing it.