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May mailbag, part two: plan B free agents, Draymond vs. Carmelo and guess who’d’ve won the Knicks the ’94 title

Let’s put the WTF in “What if?”

Golden State Warriors v Oklahoma City Thunder Photo by J Pat Carter/Getty Images

Part one of the May mailbag had a definite culinary theme, touching on organics, goats and apples. Part two is more our typical stock-in-trade: half-baked opinions cooked juuuust long enough to be passable chew toys for a couple days’ worth of comments.

1) If the Knicks strike out on the big free agent fish...what would be a solid plan “B” for this off-season?

— David_SelfHatingKnicksFan

1) Don’t do anything stupid.

2) Be on the lookout for young up-and-comers you can sign to team-friendly, non-cap-killing deals.

3) Don’t do anything stupid.

4) Explore renting out extra cap space to teams willing to trade draft picks for financial relief.

5) Don’t do anything stupid.

By “don’t do anything stupid,” I mean don’t repeat 2010. The Knicks had money to burn that summer, couldn’t land LeBron James, and ended up giving five years and $100M to Amar’e Stoudemire when his knees were uninsurable and no one else was breaking down his door offering the full max. If Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard, Klay Thompson and Kyrie Irving sign elsewhere, you don’t gotta give Jimmy Butler every last red cent to fill the hole in your heart.

By “don’t do anything stupid,” I also mean don’t repeat 2011. The Knicks bid against themselves and overpaid for Carmelo Anthony, sending away, among other pieces, Danilo Gallinari, who this year received one more vote for All-NBA than any Knicks did, plus a draft pick and pick swap that later became Dario Šarić and Jamal Murray. Carmelo gave New York three-plus quality seasons and is currently unemployed. The Knicks traded too much for too little, too soon.

Today, again, the Knicks have a group of — to varying degrees — youngsters with abilities. If they strike out on signing a big-time free agent, stay the course. Develop your kids. Whatever you do, don’t behave as if missing out on signing people this summer is the end of the world. Champions aren’t just built with big-name moves; smarter, smaller transactions create a composite foundation of future success. There are always other players becoming available. Here’s some, this summer and next:


Marcus Morris, Terry Rozier (restricted free agent), D’Angelo Russell (RFA), Paul Millsap (team option), Bojan Bogdanovic, Patrick Beverly, Goran Dragic (player option), Eric Bledsoe, Khris Middleton (player), Malcolm Brogdon (restricted), Nikola Mirotic, Julius Randle (player), Elfrid Payton, Nikola Vucevic, Boban Marjanovic (so easy to root for), Greg Monroe (just joking; remember the hysteria when the Knicks didn’t land him a few years ago?!), Jamal Crawford, Al-Farouq Aminu, Seth Curry, Danny Green, Jeremy Lin (perchance to dream...), Ricky Rubio, Tomas Satoransky (RFA)


Jaylen Brown (RFA), Gordon Hayward (player), Joe Harris, Caris LaVert (RFA), Jamal Murray (RFA), Malik Beasley (RFA), Draymond Green, Eric Gordon, Domantas Sabonis (RFA), Danilo Gallinari (OAKAAKUYOAK), Avery Bradley, Pat Connaughton, Anthony Davis (player option — doubt he ever hits unrestricted free agency, but stranger things have happened — Chris Smith played in the NBA), Jerami Grant (player), Kyle Lowry, Serge Ibaka

Every year, stars move. Often unexpectedly. The Knicks need to stay in position to strike whenever and wherever the iron gets hot.

2) Why do people use the coded draft term “star potential” instead of what they actually mean — can score independently of their teammates? Is it because scoring independently of their teammates is too specific and it’s more rhetorically successful to use nebulous terminology? Draymond or Carmelo: who is better?

— Remyswords

Carmelo. Despite what Draymond thinks.

We’re mostly all adults here, yes? We know the deal. Draymond Green is a wonderful, original, multi-dimensional two-way force. We know it. We appreciate it. You know how every season there are a few opposing players you watch and wonder what it’d be like to see them over 82 games? DeAndre Jordan was eye-opening in his limited stint last year. Draymond is someone I’d enjoy watching close-up for a while.

Carmelo Anthony may not be as original as Green. He’s not nearly as multi-dimensional and was never, even at his best, a two-way force. We know it. But come on.

Come on, man. We know better around here than to overestimate Melo. That don’t mean you gotta go all the way to the other side.

Still... Draymond didn’t enter the league hyped for his “star potential,” while Melo did. Why? Maybe it’s as simple as the world changes faster than we recognize, and we’re always slow catching up.

For example: home-court advantage is a thing. Everybody knows it. Players are more comfortable shooting in an arena whose sight lines they’re accustomed to. They get to sleep in their beds and eat home-cooked meals. There’s the psychological boost of playing in front of cheers instead of boos. Those truths were truths in 1970, 1990 and today. And yet...

This graph is from a piece Tom Haberstroh wrote four years ago. It gives a number of reasons why road teams fare better than they used to: the rise of the three-pointer means less contact and fewer potential foul calls, which removes the human element of referee bias. Back in the day, when video scouting was all done via VCRs, home teams enjoyed advantages as far as access to and volume of information that road teams didn’t; as technology has democratized access, that advantage no longer exists. Raucous home crowds have been diluted as more teams sell more tickets to more corporate hacks vitanuls clients. A truth is changing, or has changed. But how many of us know it?

We equate greatness with scoring because most of us first pick up a basketball for the same reason: we wanna get the ball in the hoop. I was playing at the Y last week and my daughter was in the gym with me. She did not ask about working on post-entry passes or proper defensive rotation or off-hand dribbling. She wanted to get the ball in the basket.

I don’t think that desire ever goes away. If you’re out for a drive or a walk and you pass by a pickup game, and just as it’s almost out of your vision a shot goes up, where do your synapses focus? Do you linger ‘cuz you wanna see if the rebounder keeps the ball held, or how quickly the team that shot gets back in their transition defense? Nah, man. You wanna see if the shot goes in.

There’s a Simpsons where Mr. Burns, generally one to avoid the unwashed masses, decides he wants to join Homer’s bowling team, the Pin Pals. He does, and he’s terrible.

Good luck leads Burns to roll the title-winning shot. After he does, he claims the trophy for himself and makes the case for his and all selfishness:

Homer: Woo hoo! We won! We won!
Burns: You mean, I won.
Apu: But we were a team, sir.
Burns: Oh, I’m afraid I’ve had one of my trademark changes of heart. You see, teamwork will only take you so far. Then, the truly evolved person makes that extra grab for personal glory. Now, I must discard my teammates, much like the boxer must shed roll after roll of sweaty, useless, disgusting flab before he can win the title. Ta!

The talent disparity between good and bad NBA teams is closer than you might think. Last season the Knicks had the third-worst point differential, at -9.2 points per game. That means, on average, over every quarter, the Knicks were outscored by 2.3 points. Over 12 minutes of competition, one of the worst teams in the league was only one basket worse than their opponents. Now picture how much the talent levels even out when you’re talking the second round of the playoffs, the conference finals, the Finals. The competition trends toward equilibrium. The ability to score a bucket when everything else is being neutralized by strategy and variables outside one’s control requires a focus and drive anyone who’s ever hated their job can relate to.

Scoring matters. Scoring determines who wins and who loses. Literally. Dwight Howard was a fabulous rebounder in his prime, and rebounding matters. Chris Paul’s led the league in assist percentage a half-dozen times. Cool story, bro. In the end, the only number on the scoreboard that determines who wins is points.

Because scoring matters, scorers matter. There are always balanced teams that give off a feel-good vibe, that during the regular season appear to add up to more than the sum of their parts and excel. Remember the post-Melo Denver Nuggets? They were a starless wonder bunch, ready to change the world one egalitarian shift at a time. Ty Lawson was their leading scorer. The wins kept rolling in and a breathless George Karl marveled why no one had been smart enough or brave enough to try it before.

“It really boggles my mind...[i]n basketball you can win playing zone...playing slow-down basketball...playing fast...with the 3-ball...with the post-ups. You can win 25 different ways. It seems like everybody likes to be creative on how to win a basketball game. But (it seems) there’s only one way to win a championship in the NBA, and that’s with superstars.

“Why can’t you win with 10 really good players? Maybe not the top five at their position, maybe not even the top 10 or top 15, but what about a guy at every position in the top 15, top 20? And they play hard and they play as a team. And then you have one of the best benches in the game. Why can’t that win a championship?

I really feel we’ve had too many good-bad players. I’d rather have above average and no bad. The formula is you’ve got to have three great players. Why? Why are we hung up on this?”

The superstar-less-and-loving-it Nugs went on to win precisely zero playoff series sans Melo, falling to a Thunder team featuring Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden, then a Laker team led by Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum, and finally a Golden State squad with Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Harrison Barnes and Draymond.

Analytics deepens our understanding of the intricacies of the game. As time goes on and we dive deeper and deeper into our evidence, truths will change. Truths are changing. Still, as far as we’ve come, as much as we’re differentiating all the ingredients that go into winning, perhaps we’re still hung up on scorers for a reason.

3) If KD brings us a championship, does that clear his serpentine name?

— Jslashnoel

Durant went to Golden State to unlock his full potential as a basketball player. I’m glad he did. I never knew how much he could do — on both ends — until he, like LeBron in Miami, basically went to grad school. You’d rather have seen him in Oklahoma City enduring the Russell Westbrook Waking-Life-As-Sleep-Paralysis nightmare?

That cat’s no serpent. He’s an odd duck. He’s Kevin Durant. You know who he is.

4) Why do you hate Frank Ntilikina? What has he ever done to you, HUH?!?

— Drew Steele

I don’t hate Frank Ntilikina. I root harder for him than any other Knick. My fiancee and daughter tease me about my crush on him and every game point out that I’m making excuses for him that I wouldn’t for other players, and how quick I am to praise him for anything good that he does, no matter how mundane.

I’ve said since the Knicks drafted him I don’t think it’s fair to judge him until his fourth season. His first impression as a Knick featured a bruised knee and an ankle injury; he missed most of the last few months last year banged up. He’s been marooned and miscast on a couple of God-awful basketball teams. Surround him with good players and a clearly-defined role and I think he’ll show us more and more of what made him a lottery pick less than two years ago.

Yet to this point, Ntilikina hasn’t just been a bad shooter. He’s been atrocious, somehow dropping from 39% to 37% on two-pointers and 32% to 29% from deep. He makes Ronnie Brewer look like Allan Houston. And it’s not like shooting is his Achilles’ heel. His whole game was heel-y last year. His defense didn’t level up; his assist and rebounding percentages both decreased. If Ntilikina weren’t so handsome — if he looked like, say, Jerome Robinson or Popeye Jones — most of y’all stans would’ve dropped him like a bag of dirt already.

I understand supporting Frank. I get all the dreams of upside and wingspan. But if you’re convinced he’s gonna pan out, you’re either a prophet or a fool. I def don’t hate the man. But if you need to think I do to better wrangle your own precarious feelings, I’m whatever Gotham needs me to be. Call it in.

5) Wait. You think [Marcus Smart] is better than Derek Harper? Blart can’t even score in the 2010s, let alone in the ’90s!

— alwayswrong

I have never said Marcus Smart is better than Derek Harper. Smart isn’t in Harper’s league. That’s a yarn spun by P&T resident trickster James “Loki” Marceda. I have said if Smart were on the bench for the ’94 Knicks, they’d have won the championship.

Remember how tight the margins were in those Finals. All seven games were decided by single digits. Only five points separated the teams for the entire series. In the Knicks’ four losses they never reached 90; in each of their three wins they scored 91. The biggest difference between the teams was pro’ly their guard play.

Vernon Maxwell, Sam Cassell and Kenny Smith shot just 38% from the field that series, combining to average 29 points per game and 38, 22 and 27 minutes, respectively. Amazingly, they were clearly the superior backcourt. Outside of Harper, New York’s backcourt of John Starks, Greg Anthony and Hubert Davis scored just 23 per on 35% shooting. Pat Riley only trusted Anthony with 11 minutes a night; Davis played a tad over five minutes per game and was benched entirely for two games.

Most people remember Starks going 2-of-18 in game 7. Did you know he also shot 3-of-18 in Game 1? The whole series seemed to turn on the Harper & Starks show. When both shot well, New York won; when they didn’t, they didn’t. Mira:

GAME 1 (L): NY guards 10/41, 29 points
GAME 2 (W): Starks/Harper/Anthony 15/26, 41 points
GAME 3 (L): Harper 9/15, 21 points; the other three guards 7/23 for 22
GAME 4 (W): Starks/Harper/Anthony 15/30, 45 points
GAME 5 (W): Starks/Harper 13/27, 33 points
GAME 6 (L): Starks 9/18, 27 points; Harper and Anthony 2/12, 10 points

In Game 7 Harper scored 23 on 8-of-16 shooting. The other guards? No. Pat Riley infamously kept a fresh Rolando Blackman chained to the bench throughout the Finals, despite the veteran, even in his last season, showing above-average touch from deep. If Blackman could do anything, it was shoot, and he was no defensive sieve; Michael Jordan once called Ro his toughest matchup. To this day, Riley and Blackman have never spoken about Riley’s refusal to call Rolando’s number. The coach sent the player letters, but Blackman has never opened them. Riley’s take?

“The biggest mistake I ever made,” he told the New York Daily News in 2006.

Maybe a few minutes here and there from the four-time All-Star would have kept Harper or Starks a little bit fresher. Maybe that would have made the difference in a series and final game that were forever a single-digit affair.

Or maybe Marcus Smart, whose defense would have fit right in with that team and who seems to shoot better the higher the stakes, would have done something good in that series. Something. Anything. Anything would’ve been one more thing than Greg Anthony or Hubert Davis provided.

Merry May June y’all. See you at the end of the month, when it all starts to go down, for better or worse or something else we can’t even imagine.