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Kristaps Porzingis a long way from unicorn days as Knick

He came back an enemy, which was a fait accompli when he engineered his own exit from New York City. That’s the rule. That’s the code. You get shipped out of town, you’ll get a few years worth of thanks-for-the-memories standing O’s. Even if you leave as a free agent, the folks around here get it: go get yours, my man. Godspeed.

But when you leave the way Kristaps Porzingis left?

Then you’re going to get booed during pregame introductions. He was booed as a Maverick. He was booed Wednesday night as a Wizard, if a wee less lustily. He will likely be booed the rest of his days, or until the Knicks win another championship, which might be the rest of everyone else’s days.

“It was better, less booing,” Porzingis said, laughing. “Some of the fans are easing up on me a little.”

It has been five years since Porzingis’ last play as a Knick, four since he was traded away, a one-time cornerstone who now resides in the ether of Knicks history as a footnote, somewhere alongside Linsanity as an all-too-brief supernova.

“The way the trade happened … I did some dumb stuff,” Porzingis said. “I sent out some cryptic tweets, the whole process was just a mess. I didn’t like the way it ended here.”

The years do funny things as they pass in a mad blur. Porzingis and his brother, Janis, forced the Knicks’ hand almost four years ago, when KP was still recovering from a torn ACL in his left knee. The Knicks called the brothers’ bluff and exiled Porzingis to Dallas.

Kristaps Porzingis shoots over Julius Randle during the Knicks' 116-105 loss to the Wizards.
Kristaps Porzingis shoots over Julius Randle during the Knicks’ 116-105 loss to the Wizards.
Jason Szenes

And it’s hard to say, four years on, who’s better off for the divorce.

Porzingis had a fine game Wednesday, 22 points and 11 rebounds, two blocks, and the Wizards led wire-to-wire in a 116-105 victory over the pancake-flat Knicks, who once again are turning Madison Square Garden into a hometown house of horrors.

“I like the rims here,” Porzingis said with a smile. “They’re maybe just a little softer. Maybe it’s the colors of the arena.”

The Wizards are a scuffling team. The Knicks are (most nights) a slightly better one, though still incapable of escaping the NBA’s hamster wheel of win-a-few, lose-a-few. The team has moved on. The player has moved on. Still, it’s impossible to believe it has been five years since everything changed with Porzingis.

“He can shoot, make the right plays, defend, he’s a 7-footer that can shoot all the way out to the 3-point line,” Kevin Durant famously said during KP’s rookie year. “That’s rare. And block shots — that’s like a unicorn in this league.”


Kristaps Porzingis, who scored 22 points and grabbed 11 rebounds, makes a move on Julius Randle during the Knicks' loss.
Kristaps Porzingis, who scored 22 points and grabbed 11 rebounds, makes a move on Julius Randle during the Knicks’ loss.
Jason Szenes

It was a high compliment that became a burden. With the blessing of hindsight, it’s possible to see that, even at his best, Porzingis was never going to be that. Giannis Antetokounmpo became a unicorn. Nikola Jokic became a unicorn.

Porzingis? He may not have elevated his ceiling to those heights. But on the night of Feb. 6, 2018, he had been freshly named to his first All-Star team. He was averaging a career-high 22.7 points at age 22. The Garden fans weren’t quite as smitten as they’d been early in his career, when they swooned at everything he did. But it was all still in front of him.

And that night, the locals were falling back in love, hard. Porzingis made four of his first five shots. He blocked three shots. Early in the second quarter, he took a backdoor feed from Kyle O’Quinn, threw down a vicious dunk, posterizing Antetokounmpo in the process.

The Garden exploded in a spontaneous spasm of glee.

And, just as quickly, the crowd hushed.

Porzingis had landed wrong. He was grabbing his left knee with his left hand, pounding the Garden floor with his right. Immediately, it was clear this was bad.

What wasn’t apparent until much later was how completely the destinies of both Porzingis and the Knicks were about to be upended. It would have been unimaginable on Feb. 6, 2018, to believe that dunk would end up being the last thing Porzingis ever did as a Knick.

But that’s how it worked out.

“It didn’t work out as I envisioned,” Porzingis said. “New York is the standard, it’s so high … the crowd is always into it. Tonight they would get two buckets in a row and the crowd goes crazy. It’s just a special, special place.”

Porzingis has become a nice NBA player; he averages 22.2 points for the Wizards. But he is 27 now, and nobody sees unicorns anymore. On the right team, in the right situation, he could be a big help. The Knicks’ ship has passed; they’ve got different leadership now and an entirely different blueprint back to relevance. It is hard to ever imagine that fit here.

Once upon a time, it would’ve been impossible to believe there would ever be a better fit. Five years rush by in an eyeblink. A player goes up for a signature dunk as a unicorn and by the time he comes down everything has changed. A team moves on. So does a city.

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