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May mailbag, part one: Kevin Durant, Ja Morant, G.O.A.T.s extant & eating apples

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Winding down spring with a spring in our step

Houston Rockets v Golden State Warriors - Game Five Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images

We’re less than a month from the draft and almost a month away from free agency. Some of our dreams will rise; some hopes will crash. So let’s mailbag. We’ll never be as young and innocent as we are right now.

1) Does any part of you want the Knicks not to sign Kevin Durant/Kyrie Irving? So that the team grows more “organically”?

— Stumbling and Bumbling

Yeah. Sometimes, yeah.

If S&B’s verb had been “try” rather than “sign” I’d be emphatic in my “yeah.” The scariest take I’ve seen of late has been advocating the Knicks trade away the #3 pick to move down and save some money so there’s enough cap space to sign two max free agents without having to trade or cut loose Dennis Smith Jr./Frank Ntilikina/Damyean Dotson/Allonzo Trier. That bugs me.

When Miami assembled their Big Three in 2010, LeBron James, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade all took un poquito less than every last dollar to make it work, so the Heat wouldn’t just be them three plus nine replacement-level players. Hell, Carmelo Anthony, who’s made a career out of getting every last dollar the way Nicolas Cage has, took $5M less than he could’ve when the Knicks re-signed him in 2014.

If Durant and Whoever Else want to come to New York, let one or both of them take a couple million less in year one to give the team flexbility to put the best roster around them. I don’t want five years of Cam Reddish over R.J. Barrett or Rui Hachimura over Jarrett Culver so the Knicks can offer KD $38,150,000.00 instead of $36,150,000.00. We already saw with Melo in 2011 why trading four quarters for a silver dollar doesn’t make any sense. Or cents.

And make sure you’re sitting — what if the Knicks make that kind of trade and none of the big free agents sign here?! I. Will. Lose. My. Fucking. Mind. I’m not waking up July 4th to a world where Durant is a Clipper, Kyrie and Anthony Davis are Lakers, Kawhi’s staying in Canada and R.J. Barrett is teaming up with Trae Young while the Knicks head into next year even younger and rawer than they were last year. Nah-uh. No way.

There is undeniable appeal to valuing your homegrown youth and letting it grow into what it will be. My hope is that the Knicks have their eyes on top-end talent this summer because they want to build a sustainable success story, one that rolls over into the future. That’s culture change. That’s why I’m so high on the #3 pick, whoever it ends up being. Because that’s someone who can play third/fourth banana while Durant and Whoever Else wrap up their arcs and then assume a bigger role as we look toward the latter half of the next decade. My fear is that the Knicks will trade in their long-term future for a three-year run and then be left starting over from scratch in 2021-22. Then again, the world is a graveyard. Maybe it’s best to live for the now and not bank on any then.

2) An existential quandary care of @Observeman24:

Check out these scouting reports on Smith and Morant from the same website last year and in 2017.

PLAYER A

  • Excellent shot-creation upside. He has a quick first step and uses slippery crossovers, spins, in-out dribbles, and changes of pace to create space.
  • Major potential as a transition threat with his handle, speed, and unselfish passing ability. Terrific athlete who explodes for open-floor dunks and has the top-gear speed to zoom by defenders. Crafty finisher who absorbs contact well, though he still must get stronger.

PLAYER B

  • Explosive athlete; soars through the lane, uses both hands to dunk and finish in traffic, major threat in transition.
  • Shifty ball handler and creative finisher. Uses quick crossovers and stepbacks to get open. Gets to the rim with ease.
  • Shooting hampered by inconsistent footwork and getting to his set point early, ruining momentum.

Someday the future will differentiate Temetrius Morant from Dennis Smith Jr. For now, we’re left with two guards who’ll be 20 and 21 when next season drops and whose strengths and weaknesses overlap. In the meantime, @Observeman24’s question hints at an interesting wrinkle in spacetime. What if the Memphis Grizzlies don’t draft Ja at #2? What if someone makes them an offer they can’t refuse and leaps up to that spot to draft Barrett? If Zion Williamson and R.J. are off the board, what do the Knicks do?

Are the Knicks in “take the best player available mode”? Is that player Morant? Is Culver a shoo-in if the two Duke studs are already taken? Is there any reason to draft Ja when DSJ is already here, paired with Frank Ntilikina as the league’s sexiest backcourt? I asked P&T’s dean of draftniks, Jonathan Schulman a.k.a. Stingy, for the quick lowdown on J.M.:

“...Morant’s handle and passing acumen is leaps and bounds ahead of DSJ. Also willingness to involve teammates is [a] critical difference. Athleticism and quickness is better too. But slight of build, compared to Smith Jr. being built like a little rock. DSJ can finish through contact. Not as easy for Ja. Defensively [Morant] is a [goddamn] lost cause. Doesn’t care. Doesn’t try. And puts his whole team at a disadvantage constantly as a result. DSJ prob [a] better shooter. But Ja very reliable [free-throw] shooter. So six in one, half-dozen the other there.”

So to answer your question, @Observeman24: if the Knicks draft Ja, they should trade Smith, if only so they don’t have two Jas. Or two Smiths. Whatever.

3) If Durant and/or Anthony Davis become Knicks, will either of them be (or become) the greatest player to wear the Knicks jersey? What would have to happen for the fanbase to view them as such?

— Vive le Frank

No. They would not be the greatest players ever to wear the blue-and-white-and-for-a-while-there-black-and-on-some-weird-ass-St.-Patrick’s-Days-even-green-and-orange.

Durant will be 31 next year, five years older than Carmelo when he arrived in New York. KD’s prime is behind him. He’d certainly be among the greatest players in NBA history to play for the Knicks, but this is a franchise whose core identity is bringing in great players past their prime: Jerry Lucas. Spencer Haywood. Bob McAdoo. Paul Westphal. Maurice Cheeks. Kiki Vandeweghe. Dikembe Mutombo. Tracy McGrady. Jason Kidd. Rasheed Wallace.

The next time Anthony Davis plays 80 games or reaches a conference finals will be the first. I’m not hating on him for that. The Pelicans didn’t surround him with greatness; I don’t think Davis underachieved, given what he had to work with. But all G.O.A.T.-talk resides in reality. We can’t project someone into the pantheon based on would’ves and could’ves. AD could reach a bunch of conference finals or a couple NBA Finals and still not be the greatest Knick ever.

Don’t sleep on the Knicks’ historical Big Three. A five-time All-NBA honoree, Willis Reed was the literal centerpiece of two championship teams, winning All-Star, Finals and NBA MVP in 1970 and Finals MVP again in 1973; he was MVP runner-up in 1969. In the 1952 and 1953 seasons, the Knicks lost in the Finals to the (Minneapolis) Lakers. Before they’d finally beat the Lakers in ‘70 and ‘73, Reed single-handedly beat the Lakers up.

Walt Frazier’s career similarity score most closely matches up with James Harden and Wade. Many fans remember his epic 36-point, 19-assist, 7-rebound masterpiece in Game 7 of the 1970 Finals when the Knicks won their first title. Did you know Clyde was named to six All-NBA teams and seven All-Defensive teams? Did you know he ranked in the top five in field goals made in five different seasons, but only once ranked that high in attempts? He was efficient, he stepped his game up under the brightest lights and he put up arguably the greatest performance on the biggest winner-take-all stage in NBA history. Plus every single night he’s alive he saves us from Wally Szczerbiak’s inanity. That alone is worthy another ring, maybe two.

Both Reed and Frazier have acknowledged Patrick Ewing as the greatest Knick of all-time. You wanna call him out for the lack of rings? Choke on it, bub. Ewing is the only reason the Knicks have enjoyed ANY relevance since 1973. Franchises, especially historically inept ones (looking your way, baseball club in Queens), love to hide beyond narratives that absolve them of their guilt in creating ineptness. So the Mets have spent 35 years hiding behind “Drugs derailed Dwight Gooden’s path to Cooperstown,” rather than admitting that having a pitcher throw 218, 276.2 and 250 innings from age 19-21 is more likely to have damaged his arm.

Ditto the Knicks and the “Ewing was great, but he just couldn’t get past Michael Jordan” canon. F*** that noise. Chicago paired MJ with Scottie Pippen and eventually Dennis Rodman. Shaq played with Penny Hardaway, Kobe Bryant and Dwyane Wade, all when they were young and spry. David Robinson was Patrick Ewing until he lucked into a sunset starring Tim Duncan. Karl Malone spent almost 20 years being spoon-fed by John Stockton and vice-versa. Even Charles Barkley enjoyed his prime alongside Kevin Johnson, and if you don’t remember what KJ was like then you better ask somebody who does.

The best and brightest the Knicks cast alongside #33 in his prime were John Starks and Charles Oakley. A coalition of the willing, for sure, though not quite of the able.

Reed and Frazier put forth Herculean efforts to lead the Knicks to glory. Ewing took them as far as any mortal could. The Big Fella didn’t reach his first ECF until his eighth season. Next year is Davis’ eighth. For he or Davis to lap Reed, Frazier or Ewing they’d have to win it all. I very much hope we’re re-visiting this question in next June’s mailbag.

4) When I eat apples I also consume the entire core. I can’t eat an apple without eating the entire thing. Does that make me a bad person?

— Mogaba

It doesn’t make you a bad person. But it is making you more toxic by the day.

That’s all for now, friends. Stay tuned for part two, coming soon!