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October P&T mailbag, part one: trading rosters & why bad drafts can be good

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For Halloween, let’s try on a different team.

New Orleans Pelicans v Portland Trail Blazers Photo by Sam Forencich/NBAE via Getty Images

First things first: I was so focused on getting this mailbag done and published I didn’t see that Alex Wolfe literally just published a piece about players purportedly already lining up contracts with teams long before free agency begins. He includes an insightful series of names and numbers that Bobby Marks lists which are especially relevant to the Knicks, so check Alex’s piece out first. Then circle back here for some lemonade and slow-churn conjecture.

1) If you could switch the Knicks’ roster 100% with any other team right now that didn’t make the playoffs, who would it be?

— garfzilla

The obvious answers are Golden State, New Orleans, and Memphis. Maybe Phoenix. If you throw in draft picks, Minnesota appeals. Let’s use former lovers to answer this question.

Golden State reminds me of my last big ex-. You know how it goes: we broke up, didn’t see each other for a few months, then when we did we fell back into old patterns for a while, some of which were more fun than others, but it ended for good and good riddance. The Warriors figure to do the same: with Steph Curry and Klay Thompson healthy, Andrew Wiggins on a team that doesn’t need him to be what he’s not, Draymond Green, Steve Kerr and either the #2 pick in the draft or whatever bounty that yields in a trade, expect Golden State to return to its pattern of winning.

I wonder how many years of their glory would be worth trading our connection to these Knicks. If GS had two great years left, then fell apart, would that be worth it? It’d be fun while it lasted. But I imagine it’d also feel a little empty, and wrong, and temporal. Not built to last. Not yours, really. That’s what hooking up with my ex felt like.

Minnesota offers reasons for excitement. Karl-Anthony Towns, despite the neo-Puritans forever harping on his defensive impurities, is a helluva player. D’Angelo Russell, despite haters harping on his shortcomings, is someone I’ve enjoyed watching since Ohio State. Malik Beasley was putting up 20+ a night after being traded to the Wolves from the Nuggets. And Minnesota has the top pick in this year’s draft. Who wouldn’t want a piece of that? Me. The Wolves remind me of an ex- who was the most beautiful, creative, captivating person I’ve ever known, who was also the worst.

Their beauty led them to manipulate everyone around them; their creativity was a way of hiding what they were afraid of reality shining a light on; they captivated because they didn’t know how to sustain a healthy, equal relationship of any kind. For all their charms, for all the people they entranced into wanting them, they were one of the loneliest people I’ve known. I’ve never wanted anyone so badly or walked away from someone as sure of myself as I was with them. The Wolves have existed since 1990 and only once, in 2004, did they ever win a playoff series. So yeah, they seem to have a lot going for them, but when there’s that many red flags, don’t fall for it. I’m passing on Minnesota.

Basketball-reference.com has a feature where if you click on any franchise’s history, it has a photo listing of the greatest players in their history. The Knicks’ sixth-greatest player is Carl Braun, a Hall of Famer who played a dozen seasons as a Knick, made five All-Star teams and two All-NBA* teams (one of those years was before the NBA existed, so in 1948 Braun was All-BAA). The Memphis Grizzlies’ sixth-greatest player is Mike Miller. I don’t care how promising Jaren Jackson Jr. and Ja Morant and Brandon Clarke may be. I’m not trading down to that. The Grizzlies aren’t even worthy of comparison to a former lover. They’re that sad sack you meet in grad school who has a crush on you that you politely decline, only to learn 10 years later they’re still writing nasty blog posts about you because God forbid you just weren’t into them. Some shit is too sad to bother with. C’est la Memphis.

I suspect a lot of people would pick the Pelicans. Makes sense. Who wouldn’t wanna watch Zion Williamson, Brandon Ingram, Jaxson Hayes and Lonzo Ball the next few years? I don’t know how Stan Van Gundy will do in New Orleans, but he’s is easily one of the league’s most outspoken and thoughtful interview subjects; hearing SVG’s postgames, after years of Knick coaches stuck under James Dolan’s media policy, would be as refreshing as the talent-rich roster he’d bring with him.

But — and feelings are not facts, I know, so I say this as an obvious outsider; I’m sure Pelicans’ fans would point out everything I’m missing or eliding — it just feels like it’s all come together too easily. New Orleans winning the Anthony Davis lottery felt engineered, and even when they’re forced to trade him they win the Zion sweepstakes and acquire a buttload of picks and young talent. I’d be thrilled if Ingram or Lonzo were a Knick; the Pelicans have both, plus Williamson, plus 4 picks in this year’s draft.

I once dated someone who was born into beauty and money and an easy life filled with important connections. They could never see beyond their good fortune. It warped their notion of what they should grant others who were less fortunate. In the end I couldn’t square reality with their delusions. I can’t imagine rooting for the Pelicans. Maybe that’s a poverty mindset from years of being a Knicks fan. But they’ve just had too much come together for them. Rooting for them would be like laying in a king-sized bed with silk sheets while a stunning but myopic lover lightly snores next to you, while you stare up at the ceiling and know it’s all somehow wrong. Been there. Not going back.

In the end, I’d pick the Suns. It helps that they have lots of players I enjoy watching: Devin Booker. Ricky Rubio. Deandre Ayton. It helps that they have been historically fun to watch play, from the Tom Chambers/Kevin Johnson teams to the Charles Barkley squads to the Steve Nash/Amar’e Stoudemire outfits. But the clincher for me in 2020 is the same reason I liked them in 1990: they wear blue and orange. Sometimes finding what you want is as simple as not complicating it. I trust my partner today more than anyone I’ve ever known. Simple. And perfect.

2) Why do people who know that this draft is very bad still even consider trading assets to move up or acquire additional picks in this draft?

— Visions of future Shump

Partly because a lot of people in a lot of professions know the appearance of action is often more appreciated than actually doing something or admitting there’s nothing to be done. Every draft and every trade deadline we hear the same breathless gossip from NBA “insiders”: expect a flurry of actvitity! Especially this year, because fill in the blank — ‘cuz teams are punting due to how great the Warriors are; ‘cuz they’re clearing space before the big summer free-agent frenzy; ‘cuz COVID; etc. But I don’t believe there’s such thing as a “bad draft,” or rather I don’t believe most teams have any way of identifying such a thing. Even when drafts look bad in retrospect, there are always useful players to be found. Take 2013 and 2014.

28 players were taken in those two lotteries. Know how many ever made an All-Star team? Two. Victor Oladipo and Joel Embiid. That’s it, and even those two players present significant injury questions 6-7 years into their careers. Oladipo was the second overall pick in 2013. Embiid went third in the much ballyhooed 2014 class, the one we kept hearing was on part with 2003 (LeBron/Carmelo/Wade/Bosh) and 1984 (Hakeem/MJ/Barkley/Stockton). One ho-hum draft, one hyped to the rafters, and lottery-wise, almost nothing to show for it. Does that makes them total write-offs? Totally not!

The two most impactful players from 2013 came outside the lottery: Giannis Antetokounmpo went 15th and Rudy Gobert 27th. There’s also Otto Porter, Cody Zeller, Ben McLemore (resurrected in Houston), Kentavious Caldewell-Pope, CJ McCollum, Steven Adams, Kelly Olynyk, Dennis Schröder, Tony Snell, Gorgiu Dieng, Mason Plumlee, Reggie Bullock, Tim Hardaway Jr. and Andre Roberson.

The vaunted ‘14 class featured less wattage than its less-celebrated predecessor, but quality players were still there if you knew where to look: Aaron Gordon, Marcus Smart, Julius Randle (hate ‘em if you want; he’s not without merit), Elfrid Payton, Doug McDermott, Zach LaVine, Dario Šarić, Jusuf Nurkić, T.J. Warren, Gary Harris, Rodney Hood, Clint Capela and Bodgan Bogdanović all went in the first round. The second was no slouch, either, featuring Nikola Jokić, Jerami Grant and Laurie Anderson Spencer Dinwiddie.

This come up in a mailbag a few months ago — more teams have had success with picks 27 and later than they have the 8 pick. So while I’m not expecting a new front office to succeed picking in a spot where almost all other NBA front offices have failed for 20 years, and while there’s a whole heaping pile of kvetch regarding the 2020 draft, I’m confident there are meaningful players to be found. Someone could’ve traded up in 2013 for McCollum or down in 2014 for Jokić. Someone will again this year. If we’re lucky, this year it’s the Knicks.

That’s all for part one. Part two will drop sooner than later. Hopefully Trump does, too.