The Knicks must have reason to believe Kevin Durant is coming to New York.
That's the only conclusion to draw from Thursday's shocking trade of Kristaps Porzingis to the Dallas Mavericks.
After Porzingis and his brother, Janis, who is also his agent, met with the front office and expressed frustration with the direction of the franchise, the Knicks quickly sent him to Dallas along with some long-term contracts for a package headlined by second-year guard Dennis Smith, Jr. and two future first-round picks.
Smith was known to be unhappy with his role in Dallas, playing second fiddle to rookie phenom Luka Doncic. Dallas made this move to contend as soon as next year, which means those picks may not even be in the lottery if all goes according to their plan.
Even with his value at an all-time low, this is a disappointing package for Porzingis. The success of this trade depends entirely on their ability to sign a superstar in free agency, which has historically been a dicey proposition for the Knicks.
By swapping out Tim Hardaway, Jr. and Courtney Lee for the expiring contracts of Wesley Matthews and DeAndre Jordan, the Knicks opened up an extra $26.4 million in cap space this summer. They could be looking at as much as $75 million in room, easily enough to sign two superstars to max contracts.
That's been one of the Knicks' two primary goals this season, along with losing enough games to position themselves to draft Zion Williamson in June. With Durant, Kawhi Leonard, Klay Thompson, DeMarcus Cousins, Kyrie Irving and Jimmy Butler potentially in play this summer, the Knicks have wanted to clear out enough space to go big-game hunting.
New York went similarly all-out on free agency in 2010, making strategic moves over several seasons to clear room to make a run at LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. They struck out on the A-listers that summer, signing Amar'e Stoudemire to a huge contract when the three headliners instead teamed up in Miami.
The difference is that leading up to 2010, the Knicks didn't have to give up the face of their franchise to clear all this money. Not that they had a player as good as Porzingis during those dark years, but their cap-clearing moves were mostly inconsequential salary swaps involving the likes of Jared Jeffries and Tracy McGrady.
If the Knicks get Durant in July, as they hope to, cutting ties with Porzingis now will have been worth it. They still have their own draft pick and currently own the worst record in the NBA at 10-40. If they win the lottery and land Williamson with the No. 1 pick and lure Durant and another star to New York, they become instant contenders in the Eastern Conference.
But if Durant doesn't come, it's unlikely they'll be able to do enough with their cap space to become a contender. They were never able to come a superpower after signing Stoudemire in 2010, and giving up a lot in the following trade deadline for Carmelo Anthony.
Missing out on the Durant-Irving tier of free agents could send them into panic mode, and lead to an overpay of a second-tier name like Tobias Harris or Khris Middleton -- good players who aren't first options on title teams, but may get paid like they are.
The Knicks were in a tough spot shopping Porzingis, the most exciting prospect they've drafted since Patrick Ewing. In ideal circumstances, they would have been able to command a big package of young players and picks. Not what the Pelicans will be able to get for Anthony Davis, but certainly more than what they got from Dallas.
But they had two things working against them: Porzingis' health and his contract status.
It's been almost exactly a year since Porzingis suffered a torn left ACL, and it still remains to be seen when or if he'll play this season. In late December, the Knicks announced he would be re-evaluated in "late February." In a rebuilding year, they were in no rush to put him back on the floor. But this also made it a tough sell for another team to give up blue-chip prospects or draft picks for him without knowing how he'll look coming off a serious knee injury.
Porzingis will also be a restricted free agent this summer, and any team trading for him will have to pay him huge money. Already, there's conflicting information on his intentions in Dallas: The Athletic's Shams Charania reported that Porzingis plans to sign the one-year qualifying offer this summer, making him an unrestricted free agent after the 2019-20 season. Then, ESPN.com's Adrian Wojnarowski reported that he hasn't made that decision yet.
Porzingis could sign a five-year deal with Dallas for upwards of $150 million, or a four-year offer sheet with another team for over $100 million that Mark Cuban could match. That's a lot of money to commit to someone with Porzingis' injury, potentially without seeing him play beforehand.
With those mitigating circumstances, Steve Mills and Scott Perry were never going to get 100 cents on the dollar for Porzingis. But Smith and two nebulous future first-round picks feels like selling low.
If the Knicks get a superstar or two this summer with all the cap space they opened up on Thursday, they'll be vindicated. If they don't, they may have just set the organization back another half-decade.