Basketball is a game of probabilities and uncertainty. If Raymond Felton takes a wide open layup, even if the shot rolls agonizingly off the rim, we would recognize that — results notwithstanding — it was a good possession. Similarly, if Raymond Felton makes a shot with two men in his face, even if the ball drops, that’s nevertheless a bad possession. Regardless of the result, we know that if the Knicks create more offensive possessions like the first scenario, they will be in better shape.
This extends to the front office. Trades, drafting, and free agent signings are all imperfect sciences – no front office can ever make the right move every time. With this in mind, it is often more important not to judge the outcome of a move, but the process and thinking that went into that move.
Which brings us to the Andrea Bargnani trade. Because in this case, the process behind the trade is more distressing than the actual trade itself.
The proposed move, which will likely send Steve Novak, Marcus Camby, a 2016 1st round pick, two future 2nd round picks and a signed and traded spare part still to be determined – possibly Quentin Richardson – to Toronto for Bargnani, if nothing else provides great insight into how ownership thinks. It is yet another example of a front office that has proven to be reactive, shortsighted, and inexplicably scornful of the cheap and often productive labor that can be achieved through the draft. To illustrate these points, let’s introduce two general process rules:
General Process Rule #1: Making a move because another team makes a move is bad process.
The proposed trade is reminiscent of the Yankees-Red Sox front office arms races in the mid-2000s, culminating in the New York front office signing the immortal Kei Igawa to a five-year contract.
It is pretty clear that the Bargnani move is a grasping-for-straws, desperate attempt to one-up the crosstown rival Brooklyn Nets, who improved (and joined the Knicks in the NBA AARP/”First round picks? We don’t need no stinkin’ first round picks!” Club) by trading for Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce.
The Nets, frankly, have nothing to do with how the Knicks front office should operate. Building an NBA team is extremely difficult, and making moves to “keep up” with supposed contenders breeds desperation and fear. Sports, and human behavior in general, is just too difficult to predict for that. More on this in a bit.
General Process Rule #2: Unless you are truly one piece away from a championship team, don’t trade first-round picks for bench players:
Particularly injury-prone, defensively-challenged, poor-rebounding bench players who have long been accused of showing poor effort.
Some defenders of the trade have said that a late first-round pick and two second-rounders is a small price to pay for a title contender looking to get better. After all, this team is in “win-now mode.” Unfortunately, there are three major problems with this.
For starters, this first-round pick is in 2016. The Knicks have zero players definitively under contract for 2015-2016. Winning 54 games in the 2012-2013 regular season means absolutely nothing about how good the Knicks will be in 2016. This pick is just as likely to be in the lottery as it is in the late-first round.
What’s more, this team is not a title contender, and there is no evidence that Bargnani will make them one. Just because this rant is getting a bit wordy, I’ll let others pick apart Bargnani’s game, but just know that he has played 66 games in the past two seasons, plays little-to-no defense, rebounds very poorly for his position, and doesn’t shoot threes consistently enough to stretch the defense. (He also doesn’t shoot threes better than Steve Novak, perhaps the world’s best three-point shooter. Novak has unfairly gotten very little attention in the discussion of this trade, just as he unfairly got little attention this year from Coach Mike Woodson. Alas.)
Adding an inconsequential piece does not make the Knicks title contenders. To argue that the Knicks are genuinely competing for an NBA championship is laughable, with the Bulls presumably adding Derrick Rose, the Pacers getting a year older, the Nets retooling, and, oh yeah, the Heat returning as two-time defending champions armed with the greatest player since Michael Jordan. This team is far from a title contender, and mortgaging more of the future for this illusion of a present title chance has been this front office’s delusional process for over a decade.
And it is a terrible shame to recklessly dangle draft picks in a salary cap system that rewards rookie contracts. The NBA salary cap is extremely restrictive, yet the Knicks have routinely declined to keep their draft picks and reap the benefits of young players on team-friendly contracts. As I’ve written before, NBA teams competing for scarce resources in a harsh financial environment need to find unexpected value and bargains to compete at an elite level. The draft is the perfect place to get a leg up. And on Sunday, the Knicks again chose to disregard the value of the draft, something the team has done for the last decade.
People who like the trade have pointed out that draft picks don’t always work out. This is undeniably true. It is also partially my point. Draft picks, just like everything else in basketball, are calculated risks. It is very possible that the Knicks would have made a poor selection with that 2016 pick, and with those two second-rounders as well. But a team that has a rational process, that thinks about basketball and business decisions in terms of calculated risk, knows that those picks are valuable and not expendable appendages to be thrown about at will. A rational front office with a more coherent philosophy knows better.
Ultimately, this trade might not mean very much. Those picks might prove to be valuable, or they might not. Camby and Novak both have poor contracts, and neither is better than an 8th man or so. This trade is no blockbuster, and the results might be relatively inconsequential.
But this trade is distressing primarily because of the process and the philosophy that informed it, a philosophy guided by delusions of title-winning grandeur and big names, an offensive lack of patience in roster-building, and an obvious deficiency in understanding how to maximize value in the 21st century NBA.
Like all things in basketball, we don’t know exactly how this trade will work out. But, like an off-balance, fadeaway 20-footer from Felton that makes us yelp, “Nooooo!” the fact that it happened at all is the problem.