There Is A Master Plan, After All: Unbelievable turn of events Friday, as the Knicks announced the trade of their top two scorers, Jamal Crawford and Zach Randolph, for three spare parts. Most sports fans would normally be angered at such a move, one which might signal that the team doesn't care about winning this year (especially with the Knicks off to a good start this year), but instead the media, and most fans, are excited by these trades. The reason is simple: the gameplan is clearly to clear cap space in 2010 for a run at some of the premium free agents available.
SML Called It: On Monday of last week, I was chatting with MC Bias and DWil of Sports On My Mind when the conversation turned to the Knicks' hot start. I pointed out that Jamal Crawford and Zach Randolph were both playing like potential All-Stars, and that now their trade value was probably as high as it's going to get. They'll vouch for me. The Knicks, and Coach D'Antoni, were purposely pumping up - inflating - their stats. After a horrible preseason in which Crawford struggled to play in the new system, D'Antoni gave him a green light to chuck away. The result is that Crawford leads the NBA in 3-pointers at the time of the trade, and is averaging close to 20 ppg. Randolph? Apparently also given a green light, on that extends all the way to the three point line, too. Randolph was shooting from anywhere, even attempting numerous three-pointers, without nary a complaint from the coach. Thanks to their inflated, offense-heavy numbers, their trade value was as high as they ever were while wearing Knick uniforms.
Knicks GM Donnie Walsh must have felt the same way, too. Bottom line: yes, the Knicks didn't get back much talent for their top two stars; on the other hand, what talent could they reasonable expect to get back? Randolph's lack of trade value had already been established - the Knicks acquired him from the Blazers purely for cap space... in 2009! Remember, they trade Steve Francis straight up for Randolph, and Francis' contract is on the Blazer's books for $17 million this season, even though the Blazers cut Francis before last season even begun.
Crawford had maybe a bit more value, but combo guards have a bad rep in the NBA, and are the most plentiful position out there. No less than 15-20 teams have SGs with better "value/talent" than Crawford, so there isn't that big a market for Jamal. The Knicks were rumored to have come close to a TJ Ford for Crawford trade last offseason, but the Raptors ended up trading TJ Ford to Indiana for Jermaine O'Neal, a better talent and shorter contract than Jamal Crawford.
In the end, it's hard to argue that the Knicks could have gotten a better deal than the two deals they got. In fact, these deals are so improbably good for the Knicks, you really have to wonder if Commissioner David Stern didn't pull some strings. If I was a fan of another team, I might formulate a conspiracy theory.
Donnie Walsh Collects: In all likelihood, though, what really happened here is that Donnie Walsh called up two of his good friends, and two people whose basketball careers he has heavily influenced, to collect a favor. In Chris Mullin of the Warriors, it can legitimately be argued, as I did when discussing the T-Wolves trade of Kevin Garnett to the Celtics, that something almost shady took place. Namely, Mullin is leaving the Warriors front office at the end of the season, and seems a good bet (at least according to the local NY newspapers) to end up in the Knicks' front office. Did he help his future team at the expense of his current employee?
Short answer: Not really. Al Harrington didn't have much value, and was openly feuding with Don Nelson, coach of the Warriors. He clearly stated he wanted to play for the Knicks and "father figure" (Harrington used that exact phase in the introductory press conference) Donnie Walsh. Chris Mullin, even if he didn't want to trade Harrington to the Knicks, really couldn't have gotten a much better deal.
The Clippers Always Suck, Part 205: Clippers coach and acting GM, Mike Dunleavy, on the other hand, is harder to explain. Seriously, WTF?!? Adding Zach Randolph, when the Clips already have Marcus Camby and Chris Kaman... someone is going to the bench. Why make that move? Do they have something else in the works? Kaman's deal is long, as is PG Baron Davis, meaning the Clippers are over the cap until 2011. This deal beats the hell out of me. Best I can figure, the Clippers are going for it now, even though they haven't proven they are even a .500 team. More likely, we are seeing the value of having a GM, like Donnie Walsh, who has accrued favors and goodwill throughout his 20 plus years in the NBA. I said this at the time of the still inexplicable trade that Walsh made, sending Renaldo Balkman to the Denver Nuggets for absolutely nothing. Nothing. Balkman has had some strong games for the Nuggets thus far this season, and has worked his way into their 8-man rotation. A talented player, too talent and cheap to give away for nothing. My guess at the time? Walsh was either paying back a favor to Denver coach George Karl, or building good will towards a future favor. Such transactions must take place in NBA. The Randolph trade seems like such a transaction, from the Clippers perspective. Especially when they happily agree to throw in Cuttino Mobley for Mardy Collins, which clearly was meant to give the Knicks another guard, so they wouldn't have to play Stephon Marbury (more on that later).
Clearing Space For 2010 Free Agents: With these two trades, the Knicks are now $40 million below the $64M salary cap in 2010. There are only two players left with guaranteed deals in 2010 for the Knicks: Eddy Curry and Jared Jeffries. You can bet they will both be gone. Well, Eddy Curry definitely. The Knicks will keep him off the court (where his value can only diminish by struggling in the uptempo offense, in Walsh/D'Antoni's opinons) with his "injury". How to get rid off Curry? Well, presuming Walsh has used up all his favors, the most likely scenario is to inflate David Lee's stats next, and use him as the bait in a trade to get rid of Curry. Perhaps something like Lee and Curry to Sacramento for Brad Miller? Miller is another 2010 expiring contract whose style of play is more effective for D'Antoni's system than Curry's is.
It is, in my opinion, a good move to trade Lee before he has to sign a multi-year extension. One of my pet peeves is how people - media people and fans - quickly classify someone like Zach Randolph as "lazy", yet call David Lee "hard-working". Both are 6'10. Randolph has no jumping ability whatsoever. I can say that in 90+ games as a Knick, I have not seen him dunk. Maybe he did, and I missed it, but either way... he's got zero vertical leap. The Knicks have used David Lee and even Wilson Chandler for the opening jump ball, but not Randolph. Yet, despite having less ups than most forwards (including most SFs) and centers in the NBA, Randolph still gets his 10 rebounds every single night. The reality is that he works hard... at rebounding.
And Randolph gets his 20 points every night, too. He works hard... at scoring. He has moves, and range that improves every season.
What Randolph doesn't work hard at, and barely tries really, is defense and team-oriented passing. He's a notorious ball hog with poor defensive habits.
David Lee, just for reference... the hard worker... is a poor scorer who had yet to develop any moves. He leads the team in getting his shot blocked. His defense is just as bad as Randolph's. He rebounds pretty well, though not so much this year as he is hampered by a foot injury (bone spur). That's because while Randolph uses quickness and basketball acumen to get his rebounds (like Ben Wallace or Dennis Rodman did), David Lee uses his elite second and third jump skills (few players in the NBA can match Lee's ability to jump back up after the first jump) to grab rebounds. Lee is the prototypical "lazy NBA player who relies on his natural abilities and doesn't work hard at his game", yet he reputation is the opposite. But I digress. Back on topic.
Curry will be gone. He will be traded solo, or with David Lee if necessary. Or, if it really comes down to it, the Knicks may even package Curry with their most valueable asset right now - Wilson Chandler. Whatever it takes, you can bet Curry will not be on the cap come 2010. Jared Jeffries is insignificant. His $6M in 2010 mean nothing. D'Antoni has stated that he sees Jeffries as his starting center, in the "mold of Boris Diaw". If he really means that, then Jeffries will stick around, maybe even until 2010 and beyond. Or maybe the Knicks are just trying to pump up his value. His value will be pumped up (remember: Jeffries has a long contract, but not that expensive) that the Knicks could likely trade him if they want to.
2010 Is Not All About LeBron James: First things first. Yes, the first option for the Knicks come July 1st, 2010, with the $40 million in free space, will be LeBron James. But if it does not work out, remember this: July 15, 1996 (I bet Frank Isola loves the link to his old archives... homeboy has been at the NYDN that long?!?).
The Knicks freed up a ton of cap space that year. It was the last time they were under the cap, in fact. They set out initially to team Patrick Ewing up with the foe that defeated him so many times: Michael Jordan.
It didn't work out that way, though. So the Knicks went with plan B: sign a second tier SG - a little known sweet shooter from the Pistons who just finished his rookie contract named Allan Houston; a third tier PG from the crosstown Nets team that just had a break out year - Chris Childs; and use the rest of the cap space to trade for a fading, but still premier, forwards in the league - Larry Johnson.
In 2010, LeBron James will chose between the Knicks and the Cavs. The Nets, thanks to their inability to get to Brooklyn (a huge break... if the Nets had made it to BK, I honestly believe that would have been his number one choice), have turned this into an even, two team race. The Knicks may not win LeBron, though.
Even if they don't, though, consider these names (among others): Chris Bosh, Dwayne Wade, Manu Ginobili, Joe Johnson, Amare Stoudemire, Steve Nash, Dirk Nowitzki, Yao Ming, Tracy McGrady, Michael Redd, Ray Allen, Paul Pierce.
The most underrated star of the class: Joe Johnson - desperate for a relevant market, entering his prime (29), and undervalued, meaning he wouldn't be signed at first banana money. Wouldn't $15 million a year make it work? How about Amare + JJ teaming up to reunite with ex-coach Mike D'Antoni?
How about aging Nash taking a discount, and once again teaming up with Dirk Nowitzki, only also with Manu Ginobili? You don't think $40 million is enough to sign all three players, especially when they are all on the decline?
Or even if the Knicks can't sign too many free agents, they still have enough cap room to take someone else's cap clogger. Think of the Orlando Magic, for example. They tied up too much money in Dwight Howard and Rashard Lewis. Considering that the team is likely stuck in a rut, one where they win their division every year, but get knocked out in the second round every year... until they acquire a legit point guard... they may come to the point in July 2010 where they decide they need cap flexibility to retool around D-Ho. They may be happy to give the overpriced Rashard Lewis up for nothing, much the same way Zach Randolph has now been traded twice in the last 18 months for little in return other than salary cap space down the line!
Or the Nuggets may entertain a similar decision about Carmelo Anthony.
The point is: 2010 isn't necesarily about LeBron James. It's about all the moves that can happen that will allow the Knicks, just like they did back in 1996, to rebuild the team.
2008 Isn't Done Yet: The most popular argument against these trades is that the Knicks seem to be giving up on their current season, one in which they are, for all intends and purposes, still in the running. They got off to a good start (6-3), and seemed to be on their way to playoff contention.
I'm inclined to believe that the Knicks will still win close to 40 games, and compete for the 8th seed. First off, the guys traded - Randolph and Crawford - weren't great defenders. The new guys are much better (Mobley, Harrington, and thomas). The Knicks now lack an inside scorer, but they'll probably set some sort of record for 3PT attempted this year that make even Nellie wanna puke. Has an NBA team ever attempted more threes than twos?
Still, D'Antoni gets an extra 10 wins a season out of his teams based on pure stupidity/lack of disclipline by other teams. Those Suns teams really shouldn't have run more than 50-55 games every year, but they got 60-65 thanks to other teams making bad decisions and trying to run with them. That's a big part of why they never lost to bad teams (teams that typically lacked disclipline).
The Knicks have already done the same so far this season to bad teams - the Grizzlies, Bobcats, Heat, et al - and again yesterday. They they were down to a seven man rotation (with the bench being Malik Rose and Anthony Roberson!!), they still beat a more talented Wizards team (we'll quote Seth from Posting and Toasting on this one: "they still had two All-Stars, size, and a bench over the Knicks") because the Wizards thought they could run with the Knicks.
End result: 122 pts for the Knicks and a win. D'Antoni's system guarantees the Knicks will win way more games than their talent dictates they should... and for that reason they will compete hard for that 8th spot. Al Harrington and tim thomas are good fits for D'Antoni's system... they can handle the ball, pass it well, rebound above average for their size, and shoot the three while playing aggressive defense (read: ball hawking and jumping lanes versus fundamental style defensive, like the Spurs). The Knicks should remain an interesting, fun team to watch play. D'Antoni's style won't make the Knicks legitimate contenders (much like I never though the Suns were true contenders), but it will make the Knicks bigger winners than their talent might indicate.
Interesting Final Sidenote: Both tim thomas and Al Harrington used the word "freelance" to describe their skills in interviews during yesterday's game. Are they consultants?
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