Sports

The Knicks’ Fandom-Murdering Kristaps Porzingis Trade Is the Nadir of Sports’ Moneyball Era

Porzingis, wearing a brown suit coat, waves to the crowd.
Kristaps Porzingis at Madison Square Garden on March 13, 2018.
Abbie Parr/Getty Images

Kristaps Porzingis, who was 19 years old and mostly unknown in the U.S. when the Knicks drafted him in 2015, quickly won over New York fans with his play—he blocks shots and dunks like a classic big man but shoots 3-pointers with a soft touch—and his sly charisma. He was the first young player the Knicks had developed in 20 years who seemed like he could be the centerpiece of a championship roster … and on Thursday the team traded him to Dallas for two draft picks and middling point guard prospect Dennis Smith Jr.

Knicks fans, a group in which I am unfortunately included, were not happy. “He was the one lit candle in the room, and they blew it out,” wrote preeminent team blogger Seth Rosenthal. “I legit might have to call it a day at work,” a friend wrote to me. Bronx-born Desus and Mero personality Desus Nice was at a publicity event at the Television Critics Association conference when he found out, and …

Into this void of helpless despair, however, rushed national basketball writers ready to explain why the transaction was Actually Good for the Knicks, because it leveraged a distressed asset (Porzingis suffered an ACL tear last season and was reportedly unhappy with the Knicks’ organizational “culture” [of constantly being the worst and most embarrassing team in the NBA]) into two more valuable assets (draft picks and available salary cap space to spend on potential future free-agents). “The Porzingis Trade Is Smart Even If Knicks Fans Are Losing Their Minds,” said Sports Illustrated. ESPN’s Kevin Pelton wrote that the Knicks “won” the trade, explaining that “shedding” Porzingis’ “$17.1 million cap hold” would create “upward of $70 million in cap space.”

Knicks president Steve Mills leaned into the spin. Mills isn’t much of a basketball talent evaluator or manager of workplace culture, but he is a savvy operator and salesman—he has to be, to still have a job. He packaged the Knicks’ old-fashioned dysfunction (running off the best and most beloved player on the team because he was becoming increasingly aware that the franchise was driven into a ditch years ago by a dope who inherited it from his dad) as New Smartness (judiciously maximizing contract efficiency and building a winning organizational atmosphere). “When you try to think about how you want to build your team for the long term, you don’t want to commit a max [contract] to a player who clearly says to you he doesn’t want to be here,” Mills said. “That would be a disservice for our organization and disservice to our fans.”

On one level, this analytic rationalizing is not wrong or unwelcome. For the most part, using statistical evaluation to understand why players and teams succeed or fail makes it more interesting to follow sports. The Knicks were able to get the Mavericks to take on two players (Tim Hardaway Jr. and Courtney Lee) who had salaries disproportionate to their level of performance. And there are, indeed, a lot of good free agents available this summer. As such, many Knicks fans have begun talking themselves into the trade, noting that Golden State’s Kevin Durant, New Orleans’ Anthony Davis, and Boston’s Kyrie Irving reportedly have interest in filling the team’s now-abundant cap space. Irving’s statements in particular are being enthusiastically parsed for foreshadowments of New York-related intentions. I’ve been getting texts all morning from a fan of otherwise formidable intelligence who’s convinced himself that Porzingis was just Brook Lopez with better marketing.

But we need not overthink this. Everyone’s first reaction was right. This is a hateful, crap transaction made of sadness and failure, it should make every Knicks fan feel like someone kicked them in the stomach, and the explanations for why it was actually OK are just evidence of how stupid some things about contemporary sports fandom are.

The Northwestern football blog (!) Bring Your Champions, They’re Our Meat (!) put it succinctly in a recent post about how advanced statistics and the fetishization of The Process have warped the nature of rooting for a team:

Here are some of the things that have happened as a direct result of broad analytics movements in sports and sportswriting: convincing fans that watching a complete and utter garbage shit team do Wile E. Coyote plans for years at a time is not only the smart way to enjoy sports but any other way is for neanderthal dimbulbs who call into sports radio shows with names like Headbutt Stan; looking at the same trades where shitty basketball players move around because the NBA’s salary cap is a miserable rube goldberg contraption as genius moves because now players and draft picks are called “assets”; podcasts where people basically list how much money everyone makes for hours each week.

Maybe it’s that I’m getting older. Maybe it’s that my unrealistic hopes for a redemptive championship season mostly rest on a different pile of laundry. But what I want out of my NBA team is to be able to turn on the TV at night and, for two-plus hours, watch players who I know and like play decent basketball. I don’t turn on the TV to watch a balance sheet or the appreciation in value of a futures contract. Kristaps Porzingis, at some point soon when he returns from injury, will be playing decent basketball. He will be dunking, making long three-pointers, and winking at cameras. He’ll be having fun, and someone will be having fun watching him. I liked being that person. I liked sharing those hours of my night with this particular player, pumping my fist in my living room like a goofball when he blocked a shot and then ran the floor for an and-1. (“Let the big man eat what he kills!”, I would say out loud to no one in particular.) I liked my blue and orange PORZINGIS shirt. I liked his cool nicknames, like Porzingod and Three 6 Latvia. My day-to-day life won’t be improved now by virtue of the increased marginal likelihood of the Knicks maybe signing someone better to take his spot in the future. Kristaps was on the team already! Cap space is not my guy. Future flexibility is not my guy! He was my guy.

Now he’s gone. And the Knicks have turned the hope that the end of their season might involve his Garden-stirring return from injury into the certainty that it will involve 32 more games of probable losses incurred by overmatched rookies and reclamation projects. They’ve presented this failure to their fans by wrapping it in the cover of Moneyball (which, it should be said, was actually about how Billy Beane made a cash-poor small-market franchise perennially competitive, not how he finished 27 games out of first place despite having more resources than anyone else in his sport). They’re selling the idea that anticipating the possible acquisition of good players through a complex series of transactions involving open-market competition for talent against the rest of the NBA—and the idea that the New York Knicks will somehow win this competition against teams that have a history of being run competently—is more rewarding for fans than keeping the guy who’s already good. And everyone’s buying it! It’s depressing, man. They’re pissing on our legs and telling us that it’s raining assets, and we’re letting them do it.