“With the 26th pick in the 1994 NBA draft, the New York Knicks select Charlie Ward from Florida State University.”
These words, spoken on June 29th, 1994 by then-commissioner David Stern, represent the end of an epoch in New York, and the beginning of a new science of roster-building. It wasn’t because the Knicks were drafting a franchise player, or even their point guard of the future. It was because from that day forward a “win now” policy was put in place, favoring older, established, and famous players in favor of youth, upside, and the unknown. Ward, drafted over 20 years ago, is the last Knick draftee to stay in New York past his rookie contract. Everybody to be drafted after him (Iman Shumpert the most recent addition to the list) has either been traded for more established assets, or simply let go for nothing.
How common is it for an NBA team to continually unload it’s young players before their rookie contacts are up? It isn’t common at all. In fact, of the 30 teams in the league, only three others currently lack a draftee on at least their second contract with the team (and of the other three teams, none go even close to as far back as 1995 to re-invest in their own “homegrown” talent). So it is an unprecedented strategy that the Knicks have married themselves to over the past twenty years. And one that history views as curious, to say the least. Every team that has experienced any long-term success in the NBA has been built at least partially via the draft. Yet the Knicks have opted to eschew building through youth completely. And it may not be much of a coincidence that over the last twenty years they own one of the worst combined records in the league.
What happened back in the mid 1990s, and why does the strategy continue today?
Despite the fact that the Knicks, as an organization, had experienced much success in the draft, selecting the rookie of the year in both 1985 and 1988 (Patrick Ewing and Mark Jackson) and a host of other long-tenured contributors (Trent Tucker, Gerald Wilkins, Kenny Walker, Greg Anthony, and Hubert Davis), a decision was made by then President of Basketball Operations Dave Checketts to enter “win now” mode. In 1997 they traded all three of their first-rounders from the year before for the marginally talented and highly-paid veterans Chris Mills and Chris Dudley. The moves were good enough to help keep the team out of the lottery for the next 4 years and even make an improbable run to the NBA finals. But then an interesting thing happened: the Knicks stopped being competitive, yet continued to shed their picks and recent draftees as if the Checkett’s Doctrine was etched in the Foundation Stone upon which Madison Square Garden was built.
For twenty years and counting, the Knicks have been trading picks like each draft would be the last. And the picks they’ve been forced to keep (by the Stepian Rule, which forbids teams from trading their 1st round pick two consecutive years) they’ve hastily found a way to move for the players they prefer: namely any older, more famous, and even more highly paid player that is available to them.
Now, in 2015, the Knicks are staring into the face of a long and painful rebuild. They have their pick, which, coming off of the team’s worst regular season performance in franchise history (17-65), is the #4 pick in the draft. It will be their first time in the lottery in six years, when they drafted Jordan Hill 8th (only to trade him eight months later for the extremely-famous-and-even-more-extremely-oversized contract of Tracy McGrady). But will they keep the pick, or will this pick simply be leveraged into a more established player to help the team get back to respectability sooner rather than later?
Jackson, thus far, has been both strangely candid and miserably aloof in his vision for the Knicks since taking the reigns from Layden/Thomas/Walsh/Grunwald/Mills. His biggest move as president was the re-signing of 30 year-old Carmelo Anthony to a five-year,$124,000,000. After seeing his star player lose half the season to injury, Jackson’s window to make that investment pay off is closing. With all the top prospects in the draft this year all being teenagers, it is hard to see how any of them come into the NBA and make an immediate impact. Traditionally, it takes several years for even the greatest of prospects to develop their NBA bodies and minds. Given the team’s history, and its current needs, it seems all but destined that whomever the Knicks select in this draft will only be passing through on their way to their next stop.
However, Phil Jackson, in his inaugural address last year, promised to bring about a “culture change”. This vague allusion could simply mean installing his trademark Triangle Offense and nothing more. Or, more significantly, it could mean something far more dramatic: namely the long over-due dismantling of the Checketts Doctrine, which has dictated Knicks culture for fifteen years too long now.
Because of the Stephan rule, Jackson cannot trade the pick until at least one second after it’s made (this, courtesy of Jackson’s predecessor trading the team’s 2016 pick for the somewhat-famous-yet-still-ridiculously-overpaid former #1 pick Andrea Bargnani). This, it seems, is a good thing, as even the most cynical fans will get to see Jackson’s selection, at the very least, wear a Knicks hat and smile in pictures with Commissioner Silver before being traded away.
But even if Jackson does decide to trade the player, it wouldn’t necessarily be the worst thing for the long-term health of the organization.
The problem with a long-term rebuild is that the Knicks don’t own their 1st round pick in next year’s draft. (They traded it not once but twice, the first time in a swap of picks with Denver for Carmelo Anthony back in 2011, and the second time outright to Toronto for the aforementioned Andrea Bargnani). So it’s hard to sell fans, and even more importantly owner James Dolan, on a lengthy rebuild when Denver and Toronto will be reaping the benefits of any Knick suckage in 2015-16. But Jackson does have an option with the #4 pick that can help mitigate the issue: trade it for a lower 2015 pick and a 2016 first round pick.
The talent in this draft is considered to be deep, but outside of the two centers at the top of the draft, the rest of the lottery remains opaque. Picks 3-14 lack a consensus as to where the most value can be had, indicating that the teams may not be gaining or losing much if the picks were to be reshuffled. So trading down to acquire a future 1st round pick may be the best way to maximize the payoff from their historically bad 2014-15 season.
Unfortunately, trading down for a package of futures is easier said than done, as it takes a trade partner that a) covets a player in the top four of this year’s draft, and b) has picks of value to trade. As of now, there are twelve teams that have already traded their 2016 first round pick or are precluded from trading it by the Stephan rule (Brooklyn, Cleveland, Dallas, Golden State, LA Clippers, LA Lakers, Timberwolves, Grizzlies, Heat, Thunder, Blazers, and Kings). Of the remaining 17 teams, six potentially own more than one 2016 first rounder:
Phoenix owns their own pick and Cleveland’s (protected 1-10).
Chicago owns their own pick and Sacramento’s (protected 1-10).
Toronto owns their own pick and the lesser of the Knicks and Nuggets’.
Philadelphia owns their own pick and the Lakers’ (1-3), the Heat (1-10), and the Thunder’s (1-15).
Boston owns their own pick and the Net’s (unprotected), the Mavericks’ (1-7), and the Timberwolves’ (1-12), as well as 5 2016 second round picks.
Denver owns their own pick as well as the Blazers’ (protected 1-14), Grizzlies’ (6-14 only), and the right to swap picks with the Knicks.
It is not unreasonable to think that the Celtics could be interested in repackaging their litany of picks to move up to #4 this year. They own the #16 and #33 in this years draft, and could throw in either their own pick or the unprotected Nets’ pick in 2016 along with a 2nd rounder or two. Such a trade stands to mutually benefit both teams; however, there is also the inherent risk of trading a future star to a division rival that tends to stymie these kind of transactions.
Philadelphia, with their multitude of future draft assets, is also a potential partner, but already owns the #3 pick in this year’s draft and is, like Boston, a division rival.
That leaves the intriguing prospect of dealing with the Nuggets once again, in an effort to undo some of the damage that has been lingering since 2011. Denver owns the #7 pick, but they are facing losing their current point guard (Ty Lawson), who is rumored to have mutual interest in playing for the Mavericks next year. The best PG prospects in this draft are likely to be taken with the #3 and #4 pick respectively, so it is possible that they may have significant interest in moving up from #7 (where DraftXpress has them selecting Duke swingman Justise Winslow) up to #4. And the cost of doing business with NY would, of course, include giving the Knicks the right to reverse swap picks, effectively taking back their own 2016 pick (while sending Denver’s pick to Toronto).
It will be interesting to see what ultimately becomes of the Knicks’ 2015 draft pick. If it is traded in the minutes, hours, days, or weeks after the draft for Dwight Howard, Pau Gasol, Al Jefferson, or Kobe Bryant, it will be clear that the Checketts Doctrine remains in effect and there will be no true culture change taking place during the Phil Jackson administration. However, if Jackson is serious about reversing course, he has more options than simply taking the best Triangle player, or the most complementary player to Carmelo Anthony, with the #4 pick. The rebuild in New York stands to be a lengthy one, but there may be opportunities this June to lay a foundation for the next decade of Knick basketball. Will Phil Jackson take the opportunity should they arise, or will the policies of presidents past continue to plague the Knicks’ future?