Most of the time, a trade is just a trade. You give x, you get y, and you like the trade if you think y is better than x. Simple, straightforward, schoolyard to stock exchange.
Sometimes things get a bit more nuanced. Maybe x is a sure thing while y carries more risk. Maybe x is valueless today but likely to triple in value next year and y might lose all its value in the same timeframe. Maybe y is better than x but a lot more expensive. Maybe y is better than x but you think x could have gotten you z and you like z better than y. Maybe you think swapping a bunch of letters for one another makes for a poor foundational metaphor for a basketball blog post. Maybe you’d like me to get to the point.
Nuance is hard, is the point. It doesn’t make for good marketing campaigns or talk-radio calls or PTI segments or tweets. The evolution of sports media tends to demand cut-and-dry positions which divide fan bases into ever-hardening camps that cling desperately to any evidence providing confirmation of their preconceived notions. In the Knicks’ case, hardly a year goes by that isn’t cast against the backdrop of such a debate. Ewing: Franchise Player or Choke Artist? Sprewell: deserving of redemption or, ahem, Choke Artist. Jamal Crawford: Chucker or All-Star? What is a Marbury? Why is a Nate? Linlinlinlinlinlinlinlinlin!!!
This season hasn’t even started yet and already – already! – Andrea Bargnani has become a bellwether for fan opinion and a lightning rod for overwrought in-fighting and tension. This is, on its face, quite silly when you consider that his playing career on the whole has been (and I actually think both camps might almost agree on this) deeply, deeply average. Relegate his status as a top overall pick to the accidents of history and evaluate his performance on its own merits. He’s been a very good three-point shooter in three seasons, a very bad one in two seasons, and a pretty average one in two seasons. He’s used a lot of possessions without turning the ball over much, which is good, but that’s partly because he doesn’t pass much. He’s grabbed fewer than 10% of available rebounds in 5 of his 7 seasons which is very bad for a seven-footer. He’s defended poorly on the perimeter but reasonably well in the post and blocked about a shot a game. He’s made his free throws and missed his two pointers. Taken together, I don’t know what to call that besides average. Certainly, it’s hardly the stuff of season-defining controversies. And yet, here we are. Why?
I’d say there are two fairly obvious, completely practical debates and one more elusive but more important one. I’ll take the two practical issues one at a time:
1) “We gave up too much!” vs. “What are you talking about, we didn’t give up anything!”
Here’s the fundamental “x vs. y” debate mentioned above and, in this case, I guess it’s a pretty fair fight. Those focusing on only the player for player part of the deal (more fans than you’d expect) generally ignore Camby and Q-Rich (fair, as neither has any real value at this point) and build their argument around the upgrade from Novak to Bargnani. Which is fine, I suppose. The most staunchly anti-trade among us might be able to put together a convoluted argument about how all the Knicks need out of either of these guys is perimeter offense and Novak is a better pure shooter. For anyone evaluating the deal objectively, however, Bargnani is far better than Novak at creating his own looks and attacking the rim, his shooting can reasonably be expected to improve in his complementary role in the Knicks offense (though the prima facie assumptions held by some that he will immediately and undoubtedly revert to peak form are weird and not particularly persuasive), and his shot-blocking makes him a marginal upgrade from the total zero that Novak provided on defense. So, yes, the deal gives the Knicks more talent this season.
The draft picks shipped to Toronto are more problematic, however, and the tendency of some in the pro-trade crowd to pooh-pooh them reveals a level of insecurity in the validity of their position. Draft picks are, of course, draft picks and as long as the Knicks stay good a late first and a couple seconds are unlikely to be franchise changers. But then again, who knows? The same variance that underlies the argument to turn picks into present-day talent also has the ability to make them enormously valuable, as evidenced by a list of late-drafted stars that is cited frequently enough to render it cliché and will not be repeated here.
Regardless, everyone is entitled to his or her own opinion regarding the value of these picks; from a talent for talent perspective, it’s hard to call the deal a major coup or an out-and-out disaster. I think we gave up too much but I understand the counter-argument.
2) “Can you believe what we’re paying this guy?!” vs. “Who cares? It’s not my money and we were capped out anyway!”
Bargnani has 2 years and $23 million left on his deal and there are few who would dispute the claim that this is more coin than the skill set laid out above should normally cost. His contract is a product of a couple different things, among these the residual respect often bestowed upon top picks, his (relative) early-career success, and the 2009 Raptors’ general desperation to do whatever they could to convince Chris Bosh to stay. It’s a bad contract. It is.
But then again…
Expiring contracts are valuable. And that’s what this becomes in a year. More than that, it expires the same summer that Carmelo Anthony, Amar’e Stoudemire, and Tyson Chandler come off the books, thus allowing the Knicks to hit the “Reset” button if things aren’t working out. It hits the Knicks’ books at a time when they didn’t have any flexibility to begin with and then it disappears exactly when we need it to.
It’s a bad contract in a vacuum but it’s not a horrible contract for the Knicks at this moment.
So, from a practical perspective, it’s a win-now deal at the expense of future picks for a team that can afford it financially. Looked at that way, it doesn’t seem so different from the kind of trades that happen all over the NBA every season. Typically, “now for later” moves should be evaluated based on how close you think the team in question is to reaching its goal. In the case of the Knicks, and assuming the goal of a Championship, the thought that they were one Andrea Bargnani away from an NBA title seems a tad hubristic. But is it any crazier than the idea that their 2016 first rounder was going to turn into a franchise player?* Couldn’t you forgive a team for trying to get themselves that much closer in a year where its conference only has one great team and that team’s roster construction is so top-heavy that one injury could throw the whole thing wide open? Might that not be the type of calculated risk that opportunistic management should be encouraged to take, especially in a league that is probably going to have a clear-cut favorite that isn’t the Knicks every season until LeBron regresses or retires?
*Yes, actually, it’s a LITTLE crazier than that seeing as we have no idea who will be on the team in 2015 and the 2016 pick could theoretically be in the lottery. Still, that shouldn’t be the guiding assumption; its probably a mid-round pick at best.
I believe every single word that I’ve written so far and I was vocally against this trade. And the reason has a little bit to do with where I land on the two very reasonable debates outlined above but a lot more to do with a couple of other (somewhat interrelated) things: opportunity cost and the importance of identity.
The opportunity cost argument is fairly straightforward: a trade can’t only be judged based on the haul that you bring back, it also has to be judged against any other trade(s) that you could have made either 1) using the assets you sent out or 2) in order to bring in the assets you received.
Even if you like Bargnani better than what the Knicks shipped out, you should still consider whether they could have gotten more for their first rounder; after all, this is the last deal the Knicks will be able to make with an unused first-rounder as bait until their 2020 pick becomes available to move. Further, pro-traders should ask themselves whether Toronto really needed all three picks to say “Yes” to the deal. Every indication has been that they were highly motivated to rid themselves of Bargnani’s contract and I think it’s more than reasonable to worry that the Knicks bit down hard on a Masai Ujiri bluff and could have gotten their man for just the second-rounders if they’d held strong. I understand the temptation to say “Screw it, I like Bargs and we got our guy” but asset-optimization considerations like this are what separate run-of-the-mill organizations from great ones. Seriously, could you imagine the Spurs sending a first and two seconds for a player that everyone and their brother knew was not only on the block but had become the most visible holdover from an era that his team was desperate to leave behind?
While you think about that, think about this: for the better part of a decade under Scott Layden and Isiah Thomas, the Knicks marked themselves as a logical landing spot for any contract that an NBA team had come to regret and wanted to jettison and a logical source of first round draft picks for teams that had anything of value to cough up. That’s how we ended up with Steve Francis and Glen Rice and Penny Hardaway and Keith Van Horn and Shandon Anderson and whomever else you’d like to name. And that’s how we ended up without the draft picks that turned into LaMarcus Aldridge, Joakim Noah, Gordon Hayward, Omer Asik, and others.
That’s where the identity part comes in. That’s where a trade isn’t just a trade but a statement on what kind of a franchise you want to be. And this, at least I think, is why feelings on the Bargnani acquisition have become so powerful, so reflexive, so unflinching and ossified. For so many, this trade isn’t about whether Bargnani is worth Steve Novak, or a few draft picks, or $23 million dollars. It’s about whether the Knicks are pivoting back towards an approach that made them a laughingstock and brought us a decade of atrocious basketball. It’s about whether lessons that should have been learned fell on deaf ears. It’s about whether an organization that got run off the floor in the playoffs last year by probably the fifth-best team in the league really thinks it’s worth selling off some pieces of the future – however distant – to make itself one Andrea Bargnani better. And it’s about whether the Knicks even tried to make the move without giving up the first rounder.
For some, these issues are meaningless – we got a good player, we didn’t give up a good player, we didn’t screw the cap up, and that’s enough. I can respect that way of thinking, a least to a point. But for others – and I put myself in this group – these types of decisions have honest-to-goodness value and the strategic motivations that they suggest have meaning that runs so much deeper than the question of who got the better end of a fairly garden-variety trade.
It’s not Bargnani’s fault that I can’t just be happy to have him here and accept the trade at face value. He seems like a nice guy and he’s certainly a pretty talented ballplayer and he deserves a fresh start after he was buried under the weight of unrealistic expectations in Toronto. I will absolutely and unreservedly root for him to succeed. I hope he hits 40% of his threes this year and at the very least I think he’ll hit more than he has in the last couple seasons. I hope the trade proves to be a triumph and at the very least I think it will make the offense more flexible this year and give Mike Woodson some interesting lineup options. I hope the Knicks win the title and Bargnani rides a float down the Canyon of Heroes with his arms outstretched and “Volare” blaring from every speaker in earshot. I hope.
But hope is an awfully bad reason to make a trade and an even worse philosophy to guide the decision-making of an entire franchise. Hope disappoints too easily and wears thin too quickly. Hope sees shine and ignores warts and tosses away assets like poker chips in the pursuit of a big pot. Hope built the Knicks of the first decade of this century.
If you like the trade, I get it. I respect your opinion, I’m not telling you how to be a fan, I even hope you’re right and I’m wrong. Hell, I want to like the trade myself because that would mean I think that Bargnani makes them meaningfully better this year (he really might) and that this improvement might be enough to capture a title (unlikely). You want to view the Knicks as a championship contender and believe me I’m Right. There. With you.
But before I can view them as a title contender, I want to view them as one of the NBA’s savvier organizations, the type that looks at problems from all sides and attributes value to all types of assets and explores all possible solutions and makes not just any good move that becomes available but the best available move.
There isn’t a fast-forward button to a title, not unless LeBron James falls into your lap. There’s only being a smart team and maximizing on your opportunities and doing this for long enough that eventually you get over the top. And the struggle makes the victory all the sweeter.
The trade for Andrea Bargnani might have moved the Knicks a step closer to contending for the 2014 title. I’m just worried that the philosophy behind it, should it prevail, will move them a few steps further away from every title after that.