So here we are. The Knicks have just made a trade that has been brutally lambasted by nearly every knowledgeable Knicks fan I’ve spoken with, based on a lot of relevant statistical information I see no reason to repeat here. I want to talk about this in terms of practicality and overall scope as an effort in team-building, or perhaps even better, team-trashing.
At the end of last season, basically all of us could agree on several things about this team. First, we hated that we didn’t have a first round draft pick because of yet another awful trade for a bad player, which made tanking an irrelevant strategy for the year. We pieced together a team with several free agents, two of whom we unanimously regarded as the laughingstock of NBA backcourts; Aaron Afflalo and Jose Calderon. I don’t recall a single person hoping we could retain their services, and to my relief, we haven’t. The Knicks convinced Afflalo to opt out by giving him no reason to believe he had a place on the team in the latter half of the season, the first great thing to happen this offseason. We also found a team willing to absord Calderon’s nearly $8 million deal this season, giving the Knicks a chance to scrap the awful backcourt experiment that was signed last summer in an attempt to field a team competitive enough to compete for a 7-8 spot in the playoffs last year. Without a draft pick, it made sense in a vacuum to sign those veteran players to short contracts to field a competitive team, but it became clear at about the halfway point of the season it was a wasted effort.
We also agreed that Porzingis should probably play more minutes at the 5 in an increasingly smaller NBA, although with his smaller frame it wouldn’t be wise to subject him to the type of punishment that can require against some of the bigger frontcourts in the league. But are big frontcourts really a thing anymore? How valuable is a double-double center without range in today’s space-and-pace NBA? The best “true” bigs in the NBA have the ability to make shots in the 15-20 foot range, or even further, such as Marc Gasol, Lamarcus Aldridge, Damarcus Cousins, Serge Ibaka and Hassan Whiteside. Traditional bigs have been disappearing faster than the bee population, in part because it is becoming harder and harder to find a place for them on the court as teams employ more lineups with all five players capable of spreading out around the three-point line, causing switching nightmares in the pick-and-roll and rendering their rebounding/paint-protecting abilities all-but irrelevant as they were extended out to the top of the key in and endless succession of P&Rs.
Anyone who would listen to me knows that I rode HARD for the Golden State model last year. And make no mistake, I was wrong that they could not be beaten, and I’ll be the first to admit that. There were two, perhaps three teams (we’ll never know if San Antonio could have matched up with them, but I’m gonna say because Duncan couldn’t have stayed on the floor that they would have been a less difficult matchup for Golden State than OKC was in hindsight) that could employ the type of spacing lineups with a big that had the athleticism and ability to switch any screen to match the spacing ferocity that Golden State forces on a team. The value of a traditional big, therefore, has gone down. Not to say that teams don’t still need one on a night-to-night basis, but the value of a player like Robin Lopez is not what it was even two years ago. Make no mistake—RoLo is an awesome guy to have in any locker room, he is a productive player, and he’s dependable (the man played 82 games in 3 of the last 4 years). He was on a good contract and what he did do, he did well. The thing is, what he does is fast becoming an irrelevant skillset.
I’m not going to try and convince you that Rose is about to have some sort of career renaissance and become a productive point guard after everything you’ve already read that suggests otherwise. Rose is the definition of damaged goods and even the most optimistic projections have him as a league-average point guard in a league full of talent at that position. But the Knicks were not going to upgrade that position in this offseason in any meaningful way—would you want to sign Conley to a 4-year max contract, a player now 30 years old with his own injury issues? I stand on some rocky ground here to suggest that this trade was a good thing for the Knicks, but only in relation to what they do around it. If the team signs Dwight Howard (which I have no reason to believe they will, but I’ll entertain the theoretical) then this is yet another awful short-sighted move that the entire fanbase would be correct to be pissed off about. But if this is part of a two or three year plan to tear down the roster, then I think it’s a great start.
Could we have gotten a first-round pick for Lopez? Not likely. And certainly not without taking back long-term $$ from a team seeking its own cap relief to scrape their way out of a bad contract after they find out they made their own short-sighted move in free agency. But we did find a way to get out of a contract that would have lasted 3 more years and provided the team with no real value at a position that frankly, Porzingis should be starting at. Kristaps provides rim protection and is not fast enough to keep up with the new 4 position in this league. In the playoffs, Durant and LeBron played the 4. You want Kristaps trying to guard that? Are you kidding? Kristaps has a few years to develop into a better defender, but at the 5, he could at least hide by going under screens and hanging back, remaining close to the paint where he would be most effective in a defensive set, rather than being stretched out to the corner 3 as he so often was last season. I see no way to not play Kristaps at the 5 going forward, which leads me to believe that this team shouldn’t be looking to sign a traditional center this offseason anyways. Everyone keeps pointing to how we need to replace the center, but to my mind, we already have. Melo and Kristaps should play the 4 and 5 respectively now, and that’s just the only way to play basketball going forward in my mind.
I’m aware there will be a thousand arguments about the validity of that thought alone, but if the Knicks really are transitioning to a more fully-realized small-ball approach, then I think this was a good way to get cap relief, blow up the unbelievably terrible backcourt we trotted out last year, and pivot Kristaps to his more-natural position at the 5. What we need now is a 3 and a 2, not a 5 and a 1. And those positions are a lot easier to fill nowadays.
I say this trade is impossible to grade without what comes after, so maybe I’m writing this too soon. We should wait until after free agency’s dust has settled to really think this through, but in today’s world of instant reaction and much-too-soon evaluation, that is just not possible. Remember, Golden State was done when they were down 3-1 against OKC. I heard nobody suggest otherwise. OKC had figured them out, Stephen Adams was the perfect 5 to wreak havoc on their system, and then somehow, OKC lost. We repeated the exact same platitudes after Cleveland went down 3-1 in the Finals, citing all the historical data and how Cleveland couldn’t keep Kevin Love on the floor and the matchups were simply too much to overcome, but we all know what happened next (and a lot of what happened is Golden State just didn’t make shots. If they were nearly that cold against OKC, they would have lost that series in 5 or 6. Let it be forever remembered that a team that suddenly begins missing all of it’s wide-open threes when that is the reason their engine runs in the first place may be beatable). In the NBA, and in sports and the world in general, all that matters is what happened today. Tomorrow, a new narrative can replace it just as easily. The only true way to evaluate something is in a broader scope of perception, but we seldom allow ourselves to do that because of the urgency to give our opinions as soon as something happens. It can be likened to how we think of our relationships with people—we can have weeks and months and years of positive experiences, but one major slight, deception or betrayal can cause an incredible momentary emotional reaction and that one day can change everything about how we feel.
Let’s not be victims of the moment here. Let’s not assume that Derrick Rose is coming to save the Knicks, because he’s not. Anybody arguing this trade as an immediate boon to the team is wrong. It is only in the larger scope of what is done in relation to it that this trade can be viewed as a success or failure. In life, you may take a job that initially seems like a life-changing positive event, and find in a year that you’re in fact miserable to go there every day even though the pay is better and it seemed like a pragmatic and smart move at the time. And let’s not kid ourselves, the Knicks were not competing for a title next year, even if by some miracle they signed Conley and Whiteside AND Batum. They still wouldn’t be good enough, and that’s just a fact. This was always a two-year rebuild at the very least, and to my mind, the team is in a better position to do this than they were two days ago. Nothing we did was going to make us better than Cleveland next year, and that’s okay. In no world should the Knicks be attempting to have a championship contender this year, or even next year, because the NBA already has enough contenders that we couldn’t possibly pass in that timeframe. And that’s okay, because this type of move can either demonstrate that the front office does in fact realize this and knows the roster needs to be torn down so as to wait for next summer’s much more robust free agent class and arm ourselves with another lottery pick or two to do a true rebuild, or… gulp… it will show yet again the unforgivable short-sightedness of this team we love to hate and that they’ve sacrificed future assets in favor of an unrealistic chase for a title they have no hope to compete for.
Finally, I’ve read that the front office thinks they could attract a marquee name like Kevin Durant with this move, and I think that’s smoke and mirrors. Or at least it better be. There’s no way in hell Durant is coming to New York anyways, he’s signing the 1-and-1 deal with OKC and that’s all there is to it. And seriously? He would choose the Knicks over Golden State or Miami? If he leaves (and he’s not leaving, stop falling for the click-bait people) we are too far down the list for Derrick fucking Rose to change his thought process. I’m wrong all the time, and if I’m wrong here and Durant decides to come save the Knicks, I’ll eat crow every day until I die of whatever disease you would likely contract from making crows the centerpiece of your diet. But I’ll go out on a 40-foot wide limb and say that Durant is not going anywhere this summer because it would be a stupid decision on his part and he is comfortable where he is. If it attracts anybody, let it be Horford or Batum, someone worthy of the first step in the rebuild that is also a realistic target and will make the team better. Horford could be the 4 that allows Melo to play the 3, and if we just flipped Lopez for a more expensive upgrade in Horford and got rid of the worst backcourt in the NBA in the process without giving up any assets, this was a great decision.
We will either feel a lot better or a lot worse about this trade in two weeks. but right now, I’m going to be an optimist and give the team the benefit of the doubt (that admittedly they’ve done very little to earn). If we sign a marquee free agent at the 2 or 3 and otherwise just stuff the roster with short deals on players with upside, I’ll be thrilled. It will give us a chance to move Carmelo for the future 1st rounder we covet along with other assets, and to reshape the roster for 2018-2019, the year this team should be looking at. It sucks to be thinking of the next two seasons as simply a bridge to cross, but haven’t we all been clamoring for a complete teardown for years now so we can actually build a functioning team going forward? Think of it like going to college; those first two years you take all of your general education classes, none of which serve as anything more but a way to get accepted into your major program and finally get some real work done. Sure, it blows, but you get a chance to warm up to the process and collect some memories and habits to succeed in the future.
If that’s indeed what they are doing, I am all for this deal and can see the sense behind it. If not, though… I don’t even want to think about it. This franchise and its fanbase deserves better, and maybe, just MAYBE, they’re going to get it. We deserve a teardown, not a prop-up. You don’t fix a house by remodeling the kitchen and updating the furniture, you tear the shitty thing down and start from the foundation.
Let the arguing commence.