For the past several months the majority of Knick-related discussion has centered around the draft, and who Phil Jackson should target with the franchise’s first top-five pick since 1986. With an unusually deep draft in the forecast for later this June, there has been talk that the Knicks should perhaps trade down in the draft in order to acquire future/multiple picks while still drafting one of the many promising prospects projected to go in the top fourteen spots. It is a reasonable idea in theory, given the dearth of talent on the current roster and the plethora of owed picks due to be shipped out over the next few years. However, at the same time, for a team that hasn’t had the opportunity to select a top-five prospect in almost thirty years, it seems crazy to even consider opting out of the position. But without a clear consensus on the best prospect between 4-14, trading down is an option the Knicks need to at least consider. Which leads Knick management, and their nerve-wracked fans, to ask: does precedent dictate that trading down typically works out in favor of the team dropping down, or does high draft position trump all else?
Here is the list of trade-downs involving lottery picks over the past 15 years:
2000: Chicago trades #7 (Chris Mihm) for #8 (Jamal Crawford) + cash
2000: Houston trades #9 (Joel Przybilla) for #15 (Jason Collier) + future 1st rounder (#22 pick in 2001 draft (Jeryl Sasser selected))
2001: New Jersey trades #7 (Eddie Griffin) for # 13 (Richard Jefferson) + Jason Collins and Brandon Armstrong
2003: Memphis trades #13 (Marcus Banks) + 27 (Kendrick Perkins) for #16 (Troy Bell) + #20 (Dahntay Jones)
2005: Portland trades #3 (Deron Williams) for #6 (Martell Webster) + #27 (Linus Kleiza) + 2006 1st round pick (#30 Joel Freeland)
2006: Chicago trades #2 (LaMarcus Aldridge) for #4 (Ty Thomas) + Viktor Khryapa
2006: Minnesota trades #6 (Brandon Roy) for #7 (Randy Foye)
2006: Philadelphia trades #13 (Thabo Sefolosha) for #16 (Rodney Carney) + 2007 2nd rounder (Kyrylo Fesenko selected) + cash
2008: Minnesota trades #3 (OJ Mayo) + Jaric, Walker, and Buckner for #5 (Kevin Love) + Mike Miller, Jason Collins, and Brian Cardinal
2008: Indiana trades #11 (Jerryd Bayless) + Ike Diogu for #13 (Brandon Rush) + J Jack and J McRoberts
2010: New Orleans trades #11 Cole Aldrich + Morris Peterson for #21 (Craig Brackins) and #26 (Quincy Pondexter)
2011: In a 3 way trade, Sacramento trades #7 (Bismack Biyombo) for #10 (Jimmer Fredette) + John Salmons; Milwaukee trades #10 (Jimmer Fredette) for #19 (Tobias Harris) + Stephen Jackson, Beno Udrih, and Shaun Livingston
2013: Minnesota trades #9 (Trey Burke) for #14 (Shabazz Muhammad) and #21 (Gorgui Dieng)
2013: Dallas trades #13 (Kelly Olynyk) for #16 (Lukas Nogueira) + 2 future 2nd rounders
2014: Philadelphia trades #10 (Elfrid Payton) for #12 (Dario Saric) + 2nd rounder + future 1st rounder
2014: Denver trades #11 (Doug McDermott) for #16 (Jusuf Nurkic) + #19 (Gary Harris) + future 2nd rounder
Of these 16 examples, there are two clear winners: Minnesota with the Kevin Love trade and the Nets with the Richard Jefferson trade. But at the same time, there are only two that turned out to be one-sidedly bad: Portland letting multiple All Star Deron Williams go and Chicago mis-valuing Ty Thomas over LaMarcus Aldridge.
All the other trade-downs on the list amount to lateral moves for the most part, with a few examples of teams coming out slightly richer (trading down from Jimmer Fredette to Tobias Harris and a few productive veterans was certainly a prudent move for Milwaukee in 2011, until they proceeded to ship Harris to Orlando to rent JJ Reddick). And time may still prove some of the recent trade-downs to be brilliant maneuvers by teams like Philadelphia and Denver.
But, for now, the data on trade-downs is, for the most part, inconclusive. All else being equal, it’s probably best to just draft the best player available. But in Knickland, “all else” is never equal to going all in with any given hand. They are, as usual, in a unique position of both rebuilding and trying to win a championship in the next few years, leaving it unclear how, exactly, a 19 year old fits into the team’s plans. And there are fringe advantages to be had in a salary-restricted league to save a few dollars here and there, which trading down accomplishes, or for accruing a diversity of young, cost-controlled players to round out a roster, which trading down also allows (assuming Jackson is still able to draft the player he likes best in this draft).
But there is also the risk of getting too fancy, as Minnesota apparently did in 2006 when they, supposedly had a deal in place to swap Brandon Roy with Houston, which Portland thwarted by drafting the player Minnesota wanted in the hopes of getting Roy for themselves. Minnesota was left getting nothing else in return for Brandon Roy, who went on to become rookie of the year and earn three consecutive All Star selections, leaving the Timberwolves looking unnecessarily foolish.
In the NBA, the best laid plans can go awry, as they more often than not do for the New York Knicks. And they more often than not do for the Minnesota Timberwolves too, which bears on ominous warning, for they are the franchise that attempts the Trade Down more than any other. As they now prepare to add the 3rd #1 pick in a row to their roster as custodians of the league’s worst record, that alone may be reason for Phil Jackson to steer clear of the Trade Down, and take the more conventional path of selecting the best player available and keeping him.