By now you’ve probably heard the news; former Knick Chris Duhon has been traded to the Lakers. DOOOOOOM!
Oh yeah, also Dwight Howard.
Those damn Lakers – are they lucky, or good, or both? I’m gonna go with “both,” or maybe 68-32 lucky-to-good. They traded for Ramon Sessions, who proceeded to crap all over himself during the playoffs and held a slam-dunk player option for next season. He then managed to blow the slam dunk by voiding his option, allowing the Lakers to make a play for Steve Nash. That’s luck.
There is very little luck, however, in their play for Dwight Howard. This is a team that understands the NBA landscape and is willing to maximize its leverage as a Landmark franchise –a team every star wants to play for. This is a game the Knicks have been trying to play, and not always successfully.
How do you play this game? If you are one of the few Landmark NBA franchises, you don’t have to worry about hitting the lottery jackpot. Even with the draft and the salary cap, the new post-Decision NBA culture has given big-market teams the advantage. Star players on small market teams are holding the now-familiar “trade me NOW” hissy-fit at the rate of 3 or 4 per season. As a GM for any one of the big-market teams, you need only to stockpile whatever assets you can through the draft, sit back, and let the star free-agents-to-be and inept small-market GM’s do your job for you.
To master this game a front office needs two skills. The first is the ability to draft reasonably well with fewer lottery picks. The Lakers, like the Knicks, don’t use their draft to build a younger roster, OKC-style. They use their limited draft picks and young players as trade chips to acquire veteran talent. The Lakers have drafted in the lottery ONCE since picking Eddie Jones in 1994, and they just moved that lottery pick – Andrew Bynum – for a superior player. That is a pretty clear case of maximizing one’s assets. Since drafting Bynum in 2005 the Lakers have made only TWO first round picks, not including selling Toney Douglas to the Knicks – Jordan Farmar at 26 in 2006, and Javaris Crittenton at 19 in 2007. Neither amounted to much, but they managed to package Crittenton, along with the second-round rights to Marc Gasol in their deal for Pau Gasol. That’s three first rounders in eight years, and two of them were crucial in landing players the caliber of Dwight Howard and Paul Gasol.
Now look at the Knicks recent draft history - it’s not as bad as you might think. They’ve drafted in the lottery five times in the past 11 years, but never in the top-five: Nene at 7 in 2002, Mike Sweetney at 9 in 2003, Channing Frye at 8 in 2005, Danilo Gallinari at 6 in 2008 and Jordan Hill at 8 in 2009. That’s a pretty decent list – only Sweetney is a certifiable bust. Hill looked decent off the bench for the Lakers last year, Channing Frye has carved out a fair career in Phoenix, and Gallinari and Nene are very good players (but in very different ways). Add in the fact that they stole Wilson Chandler and David Lee with late first-rounders and Trevor Ariza and Landry Fields with second-rounders, and it’s hard to say that the Knicks have drafted poorly.
Now, you may have noticed that many of the players on that list have played their best ball with teams other than the Knicks, and you also may have noticed that 5 lottery picks seems a bit light for a team that was consistently awful most of those 11 years. That leads us to the second front office skill, the one that the Knicks have never even approached – patience. The players are desperate to move, and the small-market teams are desperate to make a quick, face-saving deal. The big-market team is the only player in this game who is in a position of relative strength. The Lakers played their Andrew Bynum card beautifully. They waited out his injury problems, waited out Kobe’s “Trade Bynum” tantrums, they managed finally get a healthy season out of the kid last year and they immediately shipped him out this summer. The Knicks should be operating this way, but thanks to a certain wannabe musician, they do the exact opposite. This summer they dealt with a Houston team desperate to dump salary. Houston had a 40-year-old backup big to deal. They managed to turn him into two young bigs with a modicum of upside and two second-rounders. The Knicks walked into Houston’s summer garage sale and acted like they were in Christie’s auction house.
The Melo deal was another fine example. The Nuggets were being held hostage by a player who said he’d only play for the Knicks. The Knicks had all the leverage, and they had no business paying as much as they did. The Knicks were a mugger, holding a knife to some poor girl’s throat and telling her, “Take all of my money.” Some would say the best piece they gave up was Gallo, and the acquisition of Melo made him superfluous. That’s not how this business works. The Knicks front office is in the business of gathering basketball assets – if they don’t fit the roster, they can be traded for pieces that do. Gallo was a huge asset, and they dumped him like he was nothing. Draft picks are assets, and the Knicks toss them away to rival GM’s like candy. I get the Knicks plan; they are building a veteran roster that is built to win yesterday. But the Lakers have shown that their big-time name and some careful asset management can turn a team of quality veterans into a team of even more quality veterans, so long as you don’t operate your franchise like a drunken trust-fund brat at a high-stakes poker table.
(P.S. You may have notice that I left Iman Shumpert off the list of quality Knicks picks. No, I haven’t forgotten Shump. I’m just hoping the Knicks front office has.)