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Welcome To Obscurity, Kristaps

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Kristaps Porzingis played against the Indiana Pacers on Sunday, his first game action in more than a month. It was in a late January game against these same Pacers that Porzingis experienced soreness in his right knee, departed after just 11 minutes, and began his fifth stretch of injury-related inactivity of just this regular season. Unreliability is ultimately what doomed Porzingis in Dallas. The huge Latvian made his triumphant return Sunday not for Dallas but as a member of the dreaded Washington Wizards, to whom he was traded at the February deadline, in exchange for two disgruntled guys who were playing their way out of rotation jobs in D.C.

Porzingis looked good! The Pacers had not one healthy player on their entire roster who is qualified to defend him, but still! He made a tasty meal of the puny reserves thrust into the job, put up an efficient and team-high 25 points in just 21 minutes, knocked down some threes, blocked some shots, kept the ball moving against traps and double-teams, and even threw down a couple mighty jams. All in all it was as much as the Wizards could ever have hoped for from a player who the much more serious Dallas Mavericks were aching to be rid of. What’s more, Porzingis looked genuinely happy and enthusiastic about playing some basketball, something that has not been consistently true of him since at least January 2020. In a possible sign of an undiagnosed brain injury, Porzingis seems excited to wear the jersey of the Washington Wizards. “I think the main thing is, as soon as I got here I felt comfortable right away,” he said after the game. “I’m just excited to be a Wizard.”

It occurred to me—right about the time that several of the 27 or so fans in attendance on Sunday rose to their feet following a delicious Deni Avdija-Kristaps Porzingis fourth-quarter alley-oop—that this is as far as Porzingis has been from the NBA limelight since he was an 18-year-old playing for Sevilla in the EuroLeague. Porzingis was the fourth overall pick in the 2015 draft, and was handed superstardom at the precise moment that he put on the hat of the New York Knicks and walked across the stage to shake Adam Silver’s hand. His skills developed well and quickly as a Knick, but mostly during the dreaded Phil Jackson era, when the team was perhaps more committed than ever to doing stupid and self-destructive basketball things, in addition to the usual stupid and self-destructive organizational things.

A knee injury ruined Porzingis’s third NBA season, right as he appeared to be making the leap from honorary superstardom to genuine, earned superstardom. The Knicks declined to offer him a rookie extension, and then in January 2019 traded him to the Mavericks for a selection of bad players and a draft pick that would eventually become Quentin Grimes, by way of Keon Johnson. The move to Dallas paired Porzingis with Luka Doncic in what was expected to be the most exciting duo of European superstars ever assembled, and for a team hoping to make the leap from plucky all the way to genuine title contender. That never really worked out, in large part because Porzingis has just never, ever been able to stay healthy. He played in 57 of 75 Mavs games in his first full year in Dallas, then 43 of 72 in his second, and finally 35 of 56 this season, prior to the deadline. The Mavs won 58 percent of the time that a healthy Porzingis was in their lineup, but Porzingis missed roughly a third of all their regular season games. The whole “availability is a skill” thing is super dumb and annoying, but when you are an NBA player bringing home a maximum-value salary worth 25 percent of your team’s salary cap, availability is, ah, very extremely important.

The trade to Washington releases both Porzingis and the Mavericks from the burden of disappointment that comes with loading real-deal title aspirations onto the shoulders of a man whose skeleton is not always up to the job of simply hauling itself around. The Mavs may not be better on paper post-trade, but there is hope at least that what they have on paper will now more regularly match what they have on the floor, ending the miserable holding pattern that defined too much of the Porzingis era. By reputation and potential, Spencer Dinwiddie and Davis Bertans are several tiers below a 7-foot-3 former all-star who Kevin Durant once described as a “unicorn.” But they have the advantage of being ambulatory, and for exhausted Mavs fans it’s enough that they are simply not Porzingis.

For Porzingis, this will be the first time in his six-year NBA career that he isn’t expected to deliver a franchise to some imagined promised land. Or, at least, that any pie-in-the-sky ambitions entertained by his bosses are pursued far from the attention of the outer basketball world. The Wizards have as their top organizational priority convincing Bradley Beal to allow them to pay him the most expensive contract in the history of the sport. Porzingis’s role in all this is to be alive and to have name recognition and to be marginally better at basketball than someone named Anthony Gill. If it works—if 20 games of an upright Latvian doing pick-and-pops with Ish Smith is enough to convince Beal to play out his prime years in Washington—uhhh, great! The Wizards get to enjoy five years of ludicrously expensive semi-relevance! If not—if Beal opts out of the final year of his current deal this summer and signs elsewhere—Porzingis will get to be The Man on a deeply cursed roster hoping to sniff the play-in tournament sometime before the heat death of the universe.

Neither of those outcomes sound especially exciting, but the role probably represents a right-sizing for Porzingis. He’s incredibly talented, but playing basketball for a living on a wiry 7-foot-3 frame is tough on the bones and sinew, and it’s probably time to accept that a season of the type generally associated with a real title push—70-plus healthy games and then the grinder of playoff hoops—would be the exception. Washington is about as far from serious title contention as you can get without self-yeeting down to the developmental league. Porzingis has finally landed with a team that is quite literally happy and thrilled to contend for a play-in berth. There are worse gigs: Don the jersey, run around for 21 minutes, throw in some buckets, win a few, lose more than a few, rest when the joints get achy, and hope that the conference once in a while sinks to your level.

Porzingis has another year on his current deal and then a player option for 2023–24. Who knows how this will play out—certainly the Wizards have no history whatsoever of offering massive long-term contracts to players whose bodies are breaking down—but that’s tomorrow’s problem. There’s a possible future where Porzingis stays upright, enjoys the liberation of lowered expectations, and plays his way back to superstardom. But if he doesn’t, he’s at least finally landed somewhere where they’ll happily accept him for exactly what he is.

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