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June mailbag: D’Angelo Russell, ranking the young Knicks, amputation and P&T superlatives

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Hopes and dreams, rebounding and astounding

NBA: Playoffs-Philadelphia 76ers at Brooklyn Nets Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

We’re a few days away from the Knicks’ annual playoffs: free agency. Who’s coming? Who’s going? Those answers will come with time. Today we unveil epiphanies you’ll only find in the P&T mailbag.

1) “How much for D’Angelo Russell? If Kyrie [Irving] goes to the Nets [and] the Knicks strike out on everyone except maybe injured Kevin Durant, do you offer the max to D-lo?”

— PG Kawhi

Five years and $158 million? Nah. Especially if the Knicks sign KD. Then you’re locked into a 32-year-old coming off the worst injury in the game and a guy whose strengths all involve having the ball in his hands, which would diminish whatever returns remain from said 32-year-old.

But what if Russell would sign for less? And what if Brooklyn’s moves this summer lead them to let their restricted free agent leave? Would that justify the Knicks longing after the lefty? How does one view Russell at this point in his career?

Last year was a (to this point) career year for D-Lo, setting personal bests in minutes, shooting from the field and from three, points per game, assists, assist-to-turnover ratio, offensive rating, PER and true shooting percentage. His assists jumped while his turnovers held steady. He made his first All-Star team. That’s a lot to like.

Plus, Russell won’t turn 23 until after next season’s All-Star break. Honestly, if he wasn’t the guy who betrayed Nick Young betraying Iggy Azalea and he wasn’t the pet cause of obnoxious Nets fans last year — if he was some random bloke on the Magic named, say, Heywood Jablomie — I think more Knick fans would be on board with signing him. But those who aren’t make a strong case, too.

Russell’s numbers plummeted in his first playoff experience. Reasons for this could vary — the Nets played a far superior opponent; the 76ers have better individual defenders to throw at D-Lo than most teams; it’s normal for players to struggle the first time they encounter a good team zeroing in on them and only them for a week or two. It’s easy to imagine Russell paired with an established leading man having an easier time against defenses not completely tilted toward him. But there’s no guarantee he would. As the Houston Rockets and so many erstwhile lovers have proven time and time again, foreplay and sex, like the regular season and the playoffs, are not at all the same. Getting close and getting the job done are very different things.

Russell’s regular season production comes with a few noteworthy caveats. He took 59 percent more shots last year than he ever had before, including a whopping 9.3 3-pointers per 36 minutes. The Nets handed him the keys to the offense and didn’t even try to give him a curfew. According to Zach Lowe, Russell was third in the NBA in pick-and-rolls per 100 possessions, yet the Nets were a middling 18th in points per possession on such plays, a rate that was the same with or without Russell running them. So while he was always doing a lot, the question remains if he was really doing a lot.

Russell is going to get paid, period. The Lakers exist, ever-bumbling and desperate to wake up from the nightmare where they’re the old Clippers. The Suns exist, ever the Suns. The Timberwolves can smell Karl-Anthony Towns’ trade request brewing. The Pacers have been a solid, respectable team the past couple of seasons, and maybe another scorer alongside Victor Oladipo can take them to new heights. Per Kevin O’Connor: “Teams will enter the summer with a projected total of $474 million in salary cap space... more money than the past two offseasons combined — $176 million in 2017 and $154 million in 2016.” The league has means and dreams. A 22-year-old All-Star who put up 21 and seven dimes is getting paid.

The Knicks just drafted two wings and signed some more. The only guards currently under contract are Frank Ntilikina, Dennis Smith Jr. and Allonzo Trier, who to this point are not Joe Dumars, Isiah Thomas and Vinnie Johnson (Kadeem Allen has a two-way contract). Assuming Kyrie and Kemba Walker sign elsewhere, would you rather commit $25 million-plus to D-Lo for 4-5 years or keep your powder dry for a run at someone else down the road?

Maybe you’re holding out for someone who plays defense? You are, aren’t you? I know. I get it. We all want that. And you pro’ly noticed that subject hasn’t come up here with regards to Russell. That’s no coincidence. He doesn’t defend well. But here I’m gonna defend him, or at least defend guys who aren’t known for defending. We’re all in love with this notion of the two-way stud who does it all. You watch the best teams and see guys like Kawhi Leonard and Durant and Giannis Antetokounmpo and you say “That’s where it at.” And yeah, it is.

But that’s like watching porn and thinking “Oh man. Yeah. That’s where it’s at.” No. That’s not. Go out into the world looking for whatever your “that” may be and you’re gonna mostly be disappointed. Most of us walking around are not in the 99th percentile of porn performers or NBA defenders. Most of the All-NBA First Team (Nikola Jokić; James Harden; Steph Curry) isn’t there for their defense. Ditto Kyrie and Damian Lillard on the Second Team and Kemba and Blake Griffin on the Third.

Ultimately, I don’t see D-Lo to the Knicks happening. Too many questions marks and too many other teams likely to offer the max or something close to it. But if the Knicks did land him, I’d be more curious than concerned.

2) “In a fantasy world where...Frank Ntilikina, Kevin Knox, Mitchell Robinson, Dennis Smith Jr. [and] Allonzo Trier reach their full theoretical potential, who’s the most valuable player?...‘reaching theoretical potential’ meaning maximization of skills already flashed, not adding new skills. So not a scenario where Mitch becomes an incredible passer and Frank becomes an off-the-bounce assassin.”

— Visions of Future Shump

In order of ascension:

5) Peak Knox is Rashard Lewis. A big forward who spaces the floor. Add some muscle and shooting accuracy and he could average 20 points and 6-7 rebounds a night.

4) Peak Trier is Ricky Pierce. There are other sixth men with reps as unrepentant gunners, like Lou Williams, Jamal Crawford and John Starks. But those cats were more combo guards than straight shooters, especially in their early days; they rang up assists. Pierce was a straight killer on offense, getting buckets with little regard for anything else. If Trier develops a catch-and-shoot game to match his Iso-Zo moniker he’ll be a Sixth Man of the Year someday.

3) Peak DSJ is Baron Davis. An athletic volume scorer who gets assists and rebounds, too. If you’re mapping a trip to Title Town and he’s your best or second- or third-best player, put on a pot of coffee and get back to the drawing board. If he’s lower on the depth chart, gas up the car and get going.

2) Peak Ntilikina is Darrelle Revis. He’s not Deion Sanders. He’s not a threat on both sides of the ball. But he can disappear the other team’s primary perimeter threat, and that completely changes the geometry and topography of a game. Frank gets the nod over DSJ because hops come and go, but wingspan is forever.

1) Peak Robinson is Bill Russell. There were brilliant, impactful big men defenders in the 1960s. But there was only one guy who did all the things, things no one thought to ask for ‘cuz those things just weren’t done. Only they were. By Bill. Mitchell, at the rim and on the perimeter, makes scoring a living hell. He defends like Cerberus. Peak Mitchell Robinson is Bill Russell plus a mythical three-headed dog. That = “the most valuable.”

3) If you could go back in time and be guaranteed that the Knicks would win the lotto this year, would you lop off your non-dominant-hand pinky to do so?

— Alex Wolfe

Scion for Zion? Nah. I’ve already talked myself into him signing here in 2024. And I love the piano too much to give up any digits. Take away my left-hand thumb and I can’t play Bach anymore. I’d rather watch Lance Thomas play for the Knicks until he’s 60 than give up that. Even a cast ain’t worth it. Thomas hasn’t even been here five years. Y’all cry like he’s Herb Williams or Gerald Williams or some shit. Eddy Curry was a Knick for five years. We didn’t suffer through Eddy Curry to whine about Lance Thomas. Suck it up.

4) “Please rank the P&T contributors according to looks, smarts, and sense of humor.”

— James Marceda

Sense of humor:

3) Joe Flynn is funny like Seinfeld. He’ll take an idea you’d gloss right over and slow you down to highlight its absurdity.

2) Stingy. A very Mitch Hedberg-like tempo. He’s like the quiet guy in the bar who doesn’t say much and speaks softly, but the three or four people who can hear him always sit by him ’cuz he’s cracking fools up the whole time. You norms can enjoy your Bud Light Orange and your Hoobastank karaoke friends. Him and his are just fine under the radar.

1) James Marceda. The Robin Williams of P&T. Always up for the joke. Even has the all-caps voice down, like Williams when he went into hyperdrive. But he’s not a one-trick pony. Sometimes the jokes come in quiet and unassuming.

If Walt Frazier were confronted with the breadth of Marceda’s comedic subject matter, he’d whisper a humbled “infinite range.”

Juuuust enough silliness to keep you on your toes.

Speaking of which...

Smarts:

I’m only gonna list the winner here, ‘cuz I’m smart enough to know I’ll never work for this site again if I rank any more concretely than that. The winner is Chiniqua. Her wit comes out in her writing, her wisdom in her tweets.

Looks:

Again, there can be only one. It’s Bunsy. Disagree? You’re free to be wrong.


That’s it for this month. I’m teaching three summer classes in a month starting in July, so we’ll aim for a mailbag then but you may have to hold your breath till August. Hold it til it hurts. You’re pretty when you cry.