When Kristaps Porzingis crashed to the Madison Square Garden floor in pain on Feb. 6, 2018, it was soon clear that would be his final play of the season.
Much harder to imagine was that it would be the final play of his Knicks career.
Porzingis returns to the arena on Thursday for a nationally televised game between the Dallas Mavericks and the Knicks, who are already showing signs of the type of chaos that helped sour the star forward on the team in the first place.
Though Porzingis enjoyed the city and the fans, the dark cloud under which the Knicks permanently reside was something he’s been glad to escape.
“I remember when I was there the expectations were always high for us, and it’s a city hungry for success in basketball,” Porzingis said Wednesday. “And for them, for the fans and for the city to be going through this year after year, it’s got to be tough. And so it’s always a lot of pressure and when things are not going right immediately, there needs to be changes, and this year is no different for them again.”
The Knicks are losing big, losing often and it took all of 10 games for speculation about a coaching change to begin. Just two days after beating Porzingis and the Mavericks in Dallas, the Knicks were blown out at home by Cleveland on Sunday. Afterward, Knicks President Steve Mills and general manager Scott Perry held a news conference to express their disappointment, unusual for any NBA team after a game in which there was no injury or trade news, but especially for one whose executives so infrequently speak to the media.
That seemed to add more pressure on second-year coach David Fizdale, whose team is 2-9 after having the NBA’s worst record last season.
Porzingis was once viewed as the player who would lead the Knicks through the turbulence. The 7-foot-3 forward was in the midst of his first All-Star season when he tore his left ACL after dunking against Milwaukee. He was rehabilitating the injury last season and the Knicks said he was set for more tests in February, about a year after the injury.
He was in Dallas by then.
Porzingis was surprisingly traded on Jan. 31 after Knicks management said he told them during a meeting that day that he wanted out. He was sent to the Mavericks in a deal that for now looks worse all the time for New York.
“It’s in the past now and I don’t want to bring it back up,” Porzingis said. “It is what it is. It happened and now I’m in a new place and looking forward to what’s ahead of me.”
The native of Latvia was booed on draft night in Brooklyn by Knicks fans not interested in an unfamiliar European player, but he quickly became a favorite once they saw him play. He isn’t sure what the reception will be Thursday.
“KP’s KP. He was an All-Star when he was here, played his tail off when he was with the Knicks,” said Tim Hardaway Jr., who was also part of the trade to Dallas. “They’re fans at the end of the day, so they’re going to give their emotions and express their emotions however they want.”
By including Hardaway and Courtney Lee in the deal, the Knicks freed up enough salary cap space to land two superstars last summer. Instead they got none, while Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving signed in Brooklyn along with DeAndre Jordan — who had come to the Knicks in the trade.
New York also got Dennis Smith Jr., but his first full season with the Knicks is off to a rough start. He struggled after hurting his back in preseason, then sat out seven games following the death of a family member before returning Tuesday in a loss in Chicago. The Knicks were outscored by 22 points in his 14 minutes and he fell to 1 for 14 for the season, with three points.
The Knicks are still owed two first-round picks from the Mavs, players who may come to the same organizational turmoil that Porzingis faced. He had four coaches in less than four full seasons, a far cry from the stability he has now in Dallas, where Rick Carlisle is in his 12th season.
“It’s obviously a positive here that there’s a coach that’s been here already for many, many years and won here and is well-respected here,” Porzingis said. “It’s tough as a player, of course, but it’s not something I can affect really. So it happened that way in New York and everything is a learning experience, a learning lesson for me.”