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P&T March mailbag part 2: point guards, Wilt Chamberlain & wherefore art thou Knicks?

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We got your NBA talk on lockdown during the lockdown.

New York Knicks v Toronto Raptors Photo by Mark Blinch/NBAE via Getty Images

Part one of this mailbag came out fewer than 48 hours ago and it somehow feels like it was 2018. Time gets fuzzy when you spend your days hiding in the present from a potentially scary future. So here in part two we’ll try and stretch our mental muscles by looking at the recent past, the way-back past and the permanent past.

1) Do you prefer the draft or targeting young free agents/likely available trades for point guard?

— cctoastt

If the Knicks go “best player available” in [the] draft and it’s not [a] point guard, how much would you offer Fred VanVleet?

— Tigerkid

Here’s how the Knicks have acquired all their primary point guards since 1994:

Traded for Derek Harper.
Drafted Charlie Ward.
Signed Chris Childs.
Traded for Mark Jackson.
Signed Howard Eisley.
Traded for Stephon Marbury.
Signed Chris Duhon.
Signed Raymond Felton.
Traded for Chauncey Billups.
Linsanity.
Traded for Felton.
Shane Larkin was a thing.
Traded for Jose Calderón (who I keep remembering as “Shane Calderón”).
Traded for Derrick Rose.
Jarrett Jack was also a thing.
My man Mudiay!

Signed Elfrid Payton.

That’s some potpourri. The Knicks not only haven’t drafted a starting point guard since Ward, they haven’t drafted a point guard. Period. I didn’t realize this till researching their draft history, but for the past 25 years the Knicks are the biggest size queens this side of Nicki Minaj. Since Ward — not counting players whose draft rights were traded away — the Knicks have drafted 18 power forwards and/or centers versus 19 players at all other positions combined:

Point guards = 0
Shooting guards = 7
Combo guards = 3
Swingmen = 3
Small forwards = 1
Combo forwards = 5

Given the organization’s repeated inability to sign or trade for a meaningful point guard, their repeated refusal to draft at that position and the likelihood that there are five lottery-likely point guards in this summer’s whenever’s draft, I prefer the draft. Wholeheartedly.

Regarding Fred VanVleet: There are two reasons why last summer figures to be a bigger blowout than whatever/whenever the next free agency period is. One, there were more teams with more money eyeing more big-time players. Two, the salary cap is determined by revenues. Next year’s cap already has dents from the nine-figure loss in revenue after Daryl Morey caused a stir for being human and the coronavirus killed off 20% of the regular season and any likelihood of a postseason featuring paying customers. How might that impact FVV’s asking price?

Last year at 28, Ricky Rubio got 3 years and $51M from Phoenix after putting up 13 and 7 on sub-par shooting from the field and from deep. VanVleet, 26, is averaging nearly 18 and 7, and though he makes the same 40% of his shots as Rubio did a year ago, Vanvleet shoots an above-average 39% from deep. So if he’s younger and putting up better numbers in major categories, he’s due to make $20M or more, right?

If he is, let someone else be that change in the world. I don’t want him for that amount. And a cursory look beneath VanVleet’s numbers give reason for the Knicks, specifically, to be wary of him.

VanVleet is a valuable, even attractive piece on good Raptor teams. But he shoots below-average from everywhere inside the arc, from the rim (55%) to 3-10 feet (19%) to the midrange (29%) to the long midrange (34%). He creates most of his action; no Raptor regular scored a lower percentage of unassisted two-pointers and only Pascal Siakam and Kyle Lowry had fewer 3s set up by teammates. That strikes me as the profile of a guy who whose efficiency would drop on a team with inferior shooting and playmaking, a guy whose production depends on isolating volume shooting that’d cost younger players with more upside shots.

There’s more we could talk about, but this is a five-question mailbag, not fredvanvleet.com (spoiler: that site doesn’t exist). I imagine VanVleet, fresh off a two-year, $18M contract that he’s outperformed, is going to be looking for Rubio money or more. I imagine he could find it. I hope it’s not here.

2) If the Knicks (or Nets) never existed and New York was getting their first NBA team in the year 2020, what would they be called?

— Walt Clyde Phraser

The New York At Least They’re Not Vaulting To The Head Of The Line To Get Their Players Coronavirus Tested Ahead Of More Vulnerable People. Call ‘em “the Valladolid” for short.

3) If you could watch any player in person in the history of the NBA in their prime, who would it be? My choice would be either Pistol Pete Maravich or Bernard King.

— kenbannister

Because I saw Shaquille O’Neal in his prime, I’d like to see Wilt Chamberlain in his.

The greatest team athlete I’ve ever seen is Wayne Gretzky. If you’re bored at home, check out The Great One’s stats sometime. Bonkers. One way to express his dominance: at 21, Gretzky’s 92 goals and 120 assists gave him 212 points, shattering the previous record by 60 and besting second-place finisher Mike Bossy by 65. Gretzky’s assists alone put him in the top-20 in points; if you only counted his goals he’d have finished sixth.

Shaq’s the most dominant basketball player I’ve ever seen. Imagine Zion Williamson with another four inches and 25+ pounds. People went wild last month when Zion bent the rim.

Maybe I’m jaded.

It never gets old seeing world-class anythings — athletes, certainly — concede the obvious superiority of a competitor. No one could guard Shaq. No one. You could guard him with three or four guys — sometimes — but never just one. It was a trip watching the league try to balance the rules against reality. Shaq wasn’t just impossible to guard; he was impossible to officiate. The only semi-effective defense against him was fouling him. Forcefully.

I miss the excitement of seeing someone impossible doing impossible things. Shaq was the NBA’s Jurassic Park: something too big and powerful to ignore or control. Wilt was basically Shaq multiplied by Gretzky. I can’t imagine that. I’d love to have seen it live.

4) In P&T history, [who] is your favorite player to argue about?

— Headband RJ

Over six years at P&T I’ve defended my share of doozies. I generally don’t enjoy arguing about players, period. I enjoy opinions colliding and creating mutations in one another, but all too often dogmas raise their canine little heads and you get a 40-comment thread where no one has any interest in changing their ideological diapers. It stinks.

There have been three strains of argument that bugged me more than most: the people who flipped out when the Knicks didn’t pick up Shane Larkin’s option; the crew who blamed every failure Tim Hardaway Jr. ever had on account of him being the son of a rich pro athlete; and the Frank Ntilikina Rorschach test that’s been going on since 2017.

We all invest at some point in potential rather than reality. I was convinced the Knicks pissed away the original Luka Dončić when they traded the rights to Miloš Vujanić to Phoenix in the Stephon Marbury trade. But what on Earth did any y’all see in Shane Larkin that made you think you were about to miss out on something big? Steph Curry’s dad was an NBA player. Jerome James’ dad was a longshoreman. The father’s hunger doesn’t determine the son’s. I don’t have it in me to revisit all the Frankuments, other than to say what I’ve said since he was drafted: you won’t know anything remotely definitive till his fourth season, which is next year.

5) The Knicks are the most valuable basketball franchise...so why do you think we always seem to be a step behind in...our basketball development program?

— New York Stories

In the short story “The Theologians,” J.L. Borges presents Aurelian, a religious scholar forever jealous of John of Pannonia, his peer. Aurelian grows obsessed with eclipsing John. Initially the fixation was strictly professional: “There are those who seek a woman’s love in order to forget her, to think no more of her; Aurelian, in a similar fashion, wanted to surpass John of Pannonia in order to be rid of the resentment he inspired in him, not in order to harm him.”

Eventually, Aurelian grasps how to defeat his rival. While composing a report for the Church higher-ups on recent heresies, he inserts a sentence which perfectly crystallizes his argument. Convinced he read the words somewhere, Aurelian realizes they’re from something John wrote. Aurelian faces a dilemma: he can get rid of the quote, but that will weaken his argument; he can use it without citation, plagiarizing his secret nemesis and inviting public humiliation if he’s discovered, and nights of self-torment even if he isn’t; he can use it and cite it, which in the context of the theology under discussion would unfairly paint John as a heretic.

Aurelian chooses this final option. John is convicted of heresy and burned at the stake. Borges writes, “Aurelian saw for the first and last time the face of the hated heretic. It reminded him of someone, but he could not remember who.”

Years later, Aurelian is killed in a forest fire, wood and flame connecting the men in death as in life. Aurelian, in heaven, speaks with God, who is “so little interested in religious differences that He took him for John of Pannonia . . . in Paradise, Aurelian learned that, for the unfathomable divinity, he and John of Pannonia (the orthodox believer and the heretic, the abhorrer and the abhorred, the accuser and the accused) formed one single person.”

What we think we see in others is rarely the truth. Aurelian was a religious scholar. If that leads you to assume he held certain priorities in life, you’d have a lot of company thinking that and you’d all be wrong. Aurelian was jealous and insecure and envious and vengeful. That more than anything explains the rest of the story.

We assume wealth tells us something about value, and that value is a thing that reflects and informs the people who benefit from it. The Knicks are worth four-something-billion dollars. Every NBA team’s monetary worth is measured in billions. If that leads you to assume the Cosa Nostra who get first dibs at the profits hold certain priorities in life, priorities like the team winning games and playing hard and caring about the community, you’d have a lot of company thinking that. And you’d all be wrong. James Dolan is jealous and insecure and envious and vengeful. That, more than free-throw shooting or the choice of locker room decor, explains the rest of the story.

Hope you took some joy out of part two. Part three will be here in a few days. Make sure you are too.