Are the Knicks deviating from their plan or following it?
Sit here, children…plenty of room down in front. Take a pillow if you like. There’s juice boxes in the bin.
It’s story time.
Once upon a time there was an NBA team in a bit of a pickle. For starters, they weren’t very good. Over a 5-year stretch, they averaged 25 wins per season and didn’t sniff the playoffs. They’d gone through three coaches over that span of time, and even fired their president in the midst of all the losing. They also engaged in some of the most egregious spending of any team in the league, paying middling players far more than they were worth.
That this NBA team just so happens to be located in one of the league’s two major markets made all this spending that much worse.
Things got so bad; in fact, in order to gear up for a summer in which some of the league’s best players were going on the market, including arguably the very best player, they had to attach an asset to dump one of those horrendous contracts. Not just any asset either; an All-Star in his early 20’s was sent packing.
Maybe all of this shouldn’t have come as a surprise given the fact that the owner of the team was only running things because the owner’s father had built an empire that the owner stood to benefit from through nothing more than sheer genealogical luck.
Thankfully though, all was not lost. This team had a well-respected coach, one seemingly destined for success as a head man ever since he was an assistant for one of the most respected coaches in the league. They also had a bevy of young assets that by themselves weren’t much, but could easily grow into a positive supporting pieces or potential trade chips down the line.
Low and behold, come the summer that they’d been gearing up for – the one that the new front office had planned for, a plan they never once deviated from – they struck gold. No, they didn’t get the second piece they were hoping for, but it was only a matter of time until that came to fruition.
They got the guy that mattered.
Yeah, I know…there’s a lot of differences between the Knicks and the Lakers.
For one, Los Angeles is the most storied franchise in the NBA with an owner that has the namesake of a man who did it better than anyone. The Knicks, much to the chagrin of our collective superiority complex as New Yorkers, have won two championships in 73 years1 and have, if not the most derided owner in professional sports, one of the prime contenders.
The Knicks also just traded away someone who’s already been an All-Star, as opposed to D’Angelo Russell who only found himself once he got to Brooklyn. The ceiling on each player is not comparable, although neither is the risk. New York has also done a healthy amount of losing this year, unlike Los Angeles in 2017-18 season, but they also own their own draft pick, which LA did not.
Perhaps most notably, unlike the Lakers, New York still employs one of the men who has been here for almost all of this losing. For many fans, the mere presence of Steve Mills is enough to cast doubt on every action the Knicks take, simply because he has been involved in so many poor decisions in the past.
Yet it was Mills, along with general manager Scott Perry, who has stood before us so many times over the last 18 months and said, in different iterations, that for the first time maybe in their history as a franchise, the Knicks were going to build things “the right way” and “not skip any steps.”
“This is an opportunity for us to build something from the ground up and something that we think is sustainable in terms of winning.” – President Steve Mills and GM Scott Perry have their sights set on the future.
— NEW YORK KNICKS (@nyknicks) April 12, 2018
Following the team trading away its best young player since Patrick Ewing, it would be easy to use these words as a “gotcha” moment. One could argue that this trade amounted to a dissolution of the right way and instead was a reversion back to the same way.
Same Old Knicks, that is.
Before we get to the logic of this assertion, let’s get two things out of the way:
- The notion of using a young, All-Star level player – injury or no injury – as a mechanism to salary dump anyone, let alone one signed so recently by someone still running things, on its face, is abhorrent.
- Whether it is 10%, 50% or 90%, the New York Knicks under this regime bear some responsibility for not being able to foster a stronger relationship with Kristaps Porzingis and2…his people.
These two clouds hovering above all of this cannot be ignored, and the parties involved need to be held accountable. They certainly have been.
So yeah…what’s done is done, and it should be criticized appropriately. The question in front of us now is whether this trade somehow represents a deviation from the process this front office staked out from the onset, or does it simply put themselves in better position to follow it?
For many, the idea of opening up an ungodly amount of cap space in a summer that just so happens to represent a potential seismic shift in league power is the equivalent of putting all the chips into the middle of the table. I myself used this exact analogy when I first reacted to the trade last week. This, it would seem, is the opposite of “the right way” and instead amounts to betting little Suzy’s college fund on black.
Is it really, though?
Let’s start with an important distinction: for many organizations, building “the right way” means building slow and steady, and doing so through the draft. This is somewhat by default. Of the three methods for acquiring star players, 1.5 of them are closed off to many NBA teams.
The reality is that the Indiana Pacers and Sacramento Kings of the world are never going to get a meeting with a top-ten player. Moreover, trading for one is now also fraught with peril. Sure, you can get one for a period of time, and you might even get a Paul George to re-up unexpectedly. But this is the exception, not the rule, and with players exerting their power like never before, small market teams aren’t often going to trade a known asset for the mere chance at something greater.
Somewhere between 20 and 25 NBA teams operate in this reality. The rest – the Miami’s and LA’s of the world – get a buffet of all three options. The Knicks should be in this latter group, but are usually in the bathroom dry heaving when the food gets served. As a result, only once in their history have they been in position to get a plate and stand on line.
2010, of course, didn’t work out so well. Whether it was slumping James Dolan in his black turtleneck, Donnie Walsh in his neck brace, or the immortal Tony Soprano donning a beard, things didn’t go according to plan with LeBron.
Some people also mention 2016, when the team couldn’t get a meeting with Kevin Durant, but remember they a) had no cap space with which to make a signing because Phil Jackson had spent it on Joakim Noah3 and Courtney Lee and b) still employed Carmelo Anthony, who just so happened to play Durant’s position. They never had a chance at KD back then.
They do now.
There’s only about six or seven players who truly matter in the league at any given time, and KD damn near tops the list. Perhaps improving your odds to land such player seems like a prudent gamble to take.
Yeah but it’s the Knicks…who’s going to play for this joke of a franchise?
Look…we have no idea what motivates players. What we do know is the evidence that is reported. When Kyrie demanded a trade, New York was on his list. When Kawhi Leonard started making waves, New York was rumored to be a spot his people favored as well. When the Jimmy Butler saga started going down, he had the Knicks on his list, although later backtracked when it was clear they weren’t interested. And then just this week, Anthony Davis had New York right next to LA as a preferred landing spot.
For all of James Dolan faults and for all of the “dysfunction” surrounding the team, the Knicks keep landing on trade lists (and from recent reports, they do for more than just leverage). It’s why, from day one, opening up cap space was always part of the plan. It’s what you do when you have the luxury of playing in one of the NBA’s major markets and have all three player acquisition options open to you.
It’s why, even if there weren’t copious amounts of smoke billowing around New York and Durant’s free agency (something that never existed in 2010 with LeBron), if the Knicks failed to position themselves to make a run at him this summer because of what happened in 2010, it would be akin to taking a vow of celibacy after one date that ended in a spilled cocktail, the words “I don’t like you, in that way…like, at all,” and a hearty handshake4. It would, in short, be organizational negligence.
But isn’t trading away a potential franchise player just as bad?
In an ideal world, of course; but the Knicks aren’t operating in an ideal world. They’re operating in one where said potential franchise guy wanted to be here less than LeBron did in 2010.
Really, the trade comes down to this: as Zach Lowe noted on his recent podcast with Kevin Arnovitz, the Knicks are essentially wagering that a second max slot and a bevy of young players and draft assets, all of which can be used to acquire a third star, is more appealing to Kevin Durant than an unhappy Kristaps Porzingis and much less in the way of future picks to be used for deal-making5. I know which one I’m placing my bet on.
If Durant didn’t come, you’d still be stuck with an unhappy Unicorn, with the only way to possibly placate him being to start winning by any means necessary, even it meant signing a lesser player with all that cap space.
That’s skipping steps, and the opposite of building things the right way. It’s the opposite of sustainable. It’s the opposite of putting yourself in a position to compete for a championship. Most of all, it’s the opposite of patience.
Theoretically, if the Knicks whiff on KD and company this summer, they could simply sit free agency out, stocked with draft picks (perhaps Zion?!?!) and young players. AKA they could continue to rebuild in a slow and steady manner.
That it has since come out, courtesy of Marc Stein of the New York Times, that the Porzingis brothers requested a meeting with New York’s brass and threatened to leave the team and continue his rehab in Spain if he wasn’t traded to one of four teams by the deadline is almost besides the point, just like it’s besides the point that Porzingis could have effectively held the organization hostage – not the other way around – if he refused to sign a long-term deal come July.
No, the Knicks didn’t go all in; they merely diversified their risk portfolio. Keeping Porzingis, on the other hand…that would have been pushing all the chips into the middle of the table, and would have been doing so with a pair of sevens, a hope and a prayer.
Did they wish KP had bought in? Of course. Did they wish this trade was a move they never had to make? Almost certainly. But is it one they had to make if they indeed wanted to continue on the plan Scott Perry set out when he was hired? You betcha.
Again, there are three ways to build in the NBA: free agency, the draft and trades. Following the Porzingis deal, the Knicks have more cap space than any team in league history, seven first rounders over the next five years – including a likely top-five pick this season – and a bevy of young trade chips to rival any team outside of Boston or LA.
All of this, in a market that keeps coming up again…and again…and again, every time one of these big-name guys becomes available.
Does this mean things will work out as planned? Of course not. Hell, things didn’t even work out perfectly for the Lakers, who didn’t wind up needing the Mozgov money they unloaded with D’Angelo Russell to sign LeBron after all. But they played the odds. It’s what you do when you have an NBA team in one of these rare markets. New York keeping it’s doors open right now isn’t a deviation from the plan; it’s finally employing a plan they should have been using all along but never got out of their own way long enough to employ it.
Now they sit and wait.
Of course, if all the chatter surrounding KD and Kyrie turns out to be white noise, the Knicks brass will truly be put to the test. If they respond by inking non-stars to max deals instead of holding steady and waiting for the next moment to use their assets wisely, they would be publicly shamed, and rightly so. In that case, it would indeed be the Same Old Knicks to the nth degree, and yes, very much the wrong way to build a team.
If they do swing and miss though, and use all their cap space to take in some bad, one-year money to acquire more assets, then for the first time in maybe forever, we will know this talk of patience and sustainability is legit.
Time will tell which road we end up traveling. Most are expecting failure, and maybe it happens that way after all.
Or maybe, finally, a new story will get written this time around.