When the New York Knicks agreed to trade Kristaps Porzingis, Tim Hardaway Jr., Courtney Lee, and Trey Burke to the Dallas Mavericks for Dennis Smith Jr., DeAndre Jordan, Wesley Matthews, and two first-round picks, there were two recurring discussions: how Porzingis would fit in with the Mavericks and the $30-plus million in cap space the Knicks opened up for this upcoming offseason.
Meanwhile, Smith’s arrival in the Big Apple has received little to no attention. And the second-year point guard is an intriguing long-term fit with the Knicks.
The writing was on the wall for Smith with the Mavericks. After trading up to select forward Luka Doncic in the 2018 NBA Draft, the Mavericks began to gradually run their offense through him and rightfully so. He has put together a superb rookie season, can handle the rock, score on a consistent basis, and has become a point forward; his emergence made Smith the odd man out.
Now the point guard has a much-needed change of scenery and could be everything the Knicks need. For starters, the Knicks have been in search of a point guard who can score on a nightly basis and run an offense with ease for the majority of the current decade. Whether it be his raw quickness, ability to drive past defenders, run the fastbreak, or find the open man, Smith possesses a skill set capable of running an offense. Last season he averaged 15.2 points and 5.2 assists per game.
This season he has been less productive when called upon, but has improved his shooting efficiency. In the 32 games he played with the Mavericks this season, Smith shot 44.0 percent from the field and 34.4 percent from beyond the arc. While those figures don’t scream excellence, they’re improvements over what he shot in his rookie season (Smith shot 39.5 percent from the field and 31.3 percent from beyond the arc in the 2017-18 season).
Sure, he needs to continue to shoot with efficiency and improve defensively, but Smith will have a golden opportunity to do so with the Knicks.
With Emmanuel Mudiay and Frank Ntilikina out of the team’s rotation due to injury, Smith will continue to be head coach David Fizdale’s starting point guard. Fizdale has also publicly stated that he intends to give Smith the chance to improve himself, per ESPN‘s Ian Begley.
“I want to put the ball in his hands a lot and get him out in the open court and get him a lot of space. Give him some freedom to make some mistakes and while he’s learning. At the same time I want to challenge him to do more defensivey. To think more of himself defensivey. But man, there’s no doubt about it. The kid’s a talent and hopefully we can bring it out consistently,” Fizdale said.
After an underwhelming performance Sunday afternoon against the Memphis Grizzlies where he finished with just eight points, Smith put together a well-rounded game Tuesday night against the Detroit Pistons. Finishing with 25 points, six assists, and five rebounds, he played to his strengths and showed the Knicks what he’s capable of.
The Knicks were viewed as a team who made sense for Smith in the 2017 NBA Draft. Instead, they selected Ntilikina with the number eight overall pick. Had then-president Phil Jackson not been calling the shots, perhaps the point guard’s Knicks’ tenure would’ve started a year and a half sooner. Regardless, he now has the chance to play himself into a long-term role with the organization.
Smith is still 21, under team-control through 2021, and can take on three roles going forward for the Knicks. In an ideal world Smith would blossom over the next two months, play with confidence, and give president Steve Mills and general manager Scott Perry reason to believe that he can be their franchise point guard. If he could do so it would give them one less position to worry about this offseason.
With in excess of $70 million in cap space, the Knicks will have room to sign two max free agents this summer. Currently owning the worst record in the NBA (10-43), they project to, at the very least, have a top-five pick in the upcoming NBA Draft. Whoever the Knicks select in the first round will likely be in their starting five to begin the 2019-20 season; the same goes for rookie forward Kevin Knox who is showcasing the ability to a reliable go-to scorer.
With Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard, Kyrie Irving, Klay Thompson, Jimmy Butler, Kemba Walker, and DeMarcus Cousins projected to hit the open market, the Knicks will have a plethora of high-profile free agents who they can pursue.
At the same time, while they have to make a blockbuster signing given the void that exists on their roster with the now official departure of Porzingis, expecting the Knicks to sign two stars is absurd. The last time an NBA team signed two stars in free agency was back in 2010 when the Miami Heat agreed to deals with LeBron James and Chris Bosh. Could the Knicks pull off such an offseason themselves? Yes, but to expect the hypothetical to become a reality is far-fetched.
If Smith gels in Fizdale’s offense the Knicks could focus on signing a star wing and building a deep bench. Concurrently, management could be feeling the heat for trading Porzingis — even though he made it clear he wasn’t going to re-sign with them — and looking to sign two stars, one of them being a point guard such as Irving or Walker. In the case they’re able to do so while also signing a premier wing, Smith could stay in the team’s starting rotation and help run a two point guard set.
On the other hand, if the Knicks would rather have a free agent signee run the offense without interruption, Smith could serve as the team’s sixth man. He could come off the bench, play 25-30 minutes a night, and be on the floor at the end of games for scoring purposes.
The 21-year-old gives the Knicks options and it doesn’t make sense to disregard his presence; he’s the most certain aspect of their return on Porzingis’ services.
Smith may not be the focal point of the Knicks’ future, but there’s no reason why he can’t be a part of it.