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May mailbag, part two: Leon Rose, would you rather trade Mitch or RJ, and Steph Curry vs. Allen Iverson

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BLACK LIVES MATTER!

Milwaukee Bucks v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

In last week’s mailbag part one, we talked about designing a new postseason, John Stockton via LaMelo Ball and the Kristaps Porziņģis trade. Today we talk about none of those things.

1) Is there any one thing Leon Rose could do this off-season that would give you confidence about his tenure? Coaching hire? Draft moves? Free agency? Trades? What’s...one move that would make you feel good about him?

— LatvianPrankster

When it comes to the Knicks’ new consigliere, I’m trying to keep things simple, while at the same time not settling for less than I deserve. I feel very much like I did when I started dating in my mid-30s after being in a relationship for years: I’m not expecting perfection, but if you wanna get a rise outta me you gotta earn it.

The bar for Steve Mills and Scott Perry was mad low. Back then, all I was looking for was no blatant screw-ups. That’s it. Essentially just don’t repeat the obvious errors of prior regimes. The comment section from the last mailbag suggests a LOT of you view the KP trade as ill-advised, but I supported it at the time and am still cool with it. Now, I need something more than not-glaring-incompetence.

As far as the draft, since we don’t know where the Knicks will pick yet, all I ask for is that they land someone who gives them an established piece for the future. I don’t want a project. I don’t want someone who looks lost after 2-3 years and who leads us all into the same Frank Ntilikina/Kevin Knox back-and-forths we’ve lugged around the past couple seasons, i.e. “He sucks/But he’s so young/But he shouldn’t suck that much. Other youngsters don’t/Here are examples of other youngsters who did before turning out OK/That doesn’t stop him from sucking now, or the rest of his career/Well maybe one day he won’t/Maybe he will/Screw you/Screw you.”

Here’s what’s on the Knicks’ roster from the past five drafts:

2015 Cap space, theoretically
2016 Nothing
2017 Ntilkina & Damyean Dotson
2018 Knox & Mitchell Robinson
2019 RJ Barrett & the rights to bury Ignas Brazdeikis in Westchester

Barrett and Robinson are the only sure-fire foundational pieces on this list. I don’t work for the front office. I’m not a draft expert. I don’t pretend to know whom the Knicks should select whenever there is a draft. But to feel good about Leon Rose, it needs to be someone that hits more like Mitch or RJ than Frank or Knox.

And as far as the next head coach — and I know this is gonna sound wild, but stick with me here — it’d be super keen if Rose chose somebody who’s actually had prior success with the job! Don’t sell us someone who won fortysomething games once (David Fizdale; Jeff Hornacek). Don’t sell us your second choice (Derek Fisher). Don’t sell us a “defensive coach” whose only philosophy was “switch everything” and whose defensive CV was padded by his teams playing a slow-paced, iso-heavy offense.

It’s been 12 years since the Knicks hired a head coach who’d had great success as one. That doesn’t mean I’m anti-Mike Miller. I’m cool if they keep him; I liked what I saw from him on the job. It just means if they hire Tom Thibodeau don’t come crying to me.

2) To complete a trade for a generational franchise player, who do you sacrifice first: RJ Barrett or Mitchell Robinson?

— Vin Digestion

Relatedly:

If Golden State won the lottery and was somehow willing to trade the pick for either Mitch or RJ, who would you be more willing to surrender? Does your answer change if the payoff is a franchise player instead?

I’d more likely trade Mitch for the top draft pick. That way I might come out of this draft with, say, LaMelo Ball and James Wiseman. Those two plus Barrett makes me feel like I’m onto something good: two young, unselfish, multipurpose, long/strong wings plus a potential franchise center. A 3-and-D guard would fit nicely in that lineup. A sweet-shooting 4 who can help on the glass would fit. Ntilikina would fit. Lotta options going this route.

I’m less excited about trading RJ for the draft pick because I don’t see a clear upgrade after that move. Say the Knicks are picking fifth and for whatever reason someone would trade the top pick for Barrett. Then the Knicks pick Ball. Who are they taking at #5? Does Tyrese Halliburton offer more than Barrett? If Anthony Edwards fell that far, does he? Or Deni Avdija? Would Obi Toppin fit alongside Mitch? Wiseman wouldn’t. Okongwu doesn’t, either.

When I hear “generational franchise player,” I’m thinking Giannis Antetokounmpo or Joel Embiid, someone like that. I’d trade any Knick, any two Knicks, even, for a guy like that.

3) At this stage of the rebuild, what’s more important: getting more draft picks (and tanking) or a couple of stars?

— David_SelfHatingKnicksFan

When I was 27 I joined a wood bat baseball league. They wanted to add a team, so we were thrown together late. None of us knew each other or the other teams or players. We were, not surprisingly, a bad team. I came to realize how bad we were in our first game.

We had a runner on first base, Jon, with two outs, and the hitter worked a 3-2 count. The first baseman dropped back, no longer holding Jon. Anyone who’s played knows in that situation you take off as soon as the pitcher goes into his delivery. The pitcher did, but Jon never moved. Luckily the batter fouled the ball off, and I assumed Jon just didn’t know how many outs there were.

“Jon!” I yelled from the bench. “Three and two. Two outs.” He nodded. The next pitch came and Jon never moved. When he came to the bench I asked him why. He didn’t have an answer. It just hadn’t crossed his mind. We lost that game. We lost all our games after.

One Sunday we were playing the best team in the league and getting crushed, 15-0. I had always played on winning teams and I was sick of my teammates being kosher with getting our asses handed to us game after game. I hadn’t signed up to make other teams feel good. If we weren’t gonna win, we could at least not be cool with losing.

I came up to bat late determined to create a run. I hit a double down the line, then advanced to third on a blooper the second basemen should have caught. With one out, our cleanup hitter lofted a pop-up to right field. The third base coach told me to hold. It was a short fly ball. No way. Nothing was gonna keep me from tagging up and scoring.

As I ran toward home and saw the ball already in the catcher’s mitt with me still 10-15 feet away, I realized I was nowhere near as fast as I had been as a teenager. The league had a no-collision rule and the catcher was standing in the baseline. I was dead to rights and should have just let him tag me out and accepted my fate. Instead I tried to juke him when he reached out to tag me, lunging to his left. He caught me with the glove, I lost my balance, and as I fell all my weight came down on my left ankle. I broke it.

My pride led me to overrate the value of a single run. If we lost 15-1 instead of 15-0 we’d still be a lousy team. We’d still be overmatched most games. What we needed was sustained success.

The Knicks are no different: what they need most is a string of successes, on every level of the organization: the players, the coaching staff, the front office, etc. When you’ve been shutout from success for decades, swinging for the fences is how you keep getting shut out. Instead, string a couple singles together. Take a base on balls when it presents itself. Build some positive mojo. Then, when it’s finally time to cut loose, do so with confidence.

If I had to pick one of David-SelfHatingKnicksFan’s two choices, I’d say adding draft picks is the better play at this moment in time. Young, inexpensive collections of talent appeal to fans, create a sustainable base for success and potentially attract big-name free agents or trade candidates. Nabbing a couple of stars means big money and depth-depleting trades, and the Knicks are nowhere near deep enough to thirst after big names without ending up trading six problems for a half-dozen new ones.

4) I’d be curious to hear you make the case for Allen Iverson being better than Steph Curry, Matt. Seems pretty obvious to me it’s the reverse, but I’ve got an open mind!

— James Marceda

James is alluding to something I wrote in the last mailbag:

To be clear as I dive into this: if you rank Curry ahead of A.I., that’s fine. I get it. I might even agree with you! I don’t think there’s a clear-cut answer, though, and I HATE it when opinions calcify into presumed consensus. My heart rips a little every time some killjoy sucks the life out a comment section by policing that consensus and strangling the diversity of dissent.

Here are two players. Both are in the Hall of Fame. Both spent their primes playing alongside other HOFers. These are their career averages:

PLAYER A — 19 ppg, 5.9 rpg, 6.0 apg, 49% FG%, 7 All-Defense teams
PLAYER B — 27 ppg, 5.8 rpg, 6.7 apg, 47% FG% 5 All-Defense teams

Who ya got?

This game maybe used to be more interesting before every Tom, Dick and Harry started using it to point readers towards the same ironic conclusions. Well, today I’m that dick. Player A is Walt Frazier. Player B is Jerry West. Both great players. Both lucky enough to play with all-time greats. I don’t know anybody who would choose Clyde over The Logo. How do you compare a scoring machine with a point guard/defensive specialist?

Here are Iverson and Curry’s career numbers:

IVERSON 26.7 ppg, 3.7 rpg, 6.2 apg, 43% FG%
CURRY 23.5 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 6.6 apg, 48% FG%

I don’t know how you make a fair comparison. They faced off only twice, in Curry’s rookie season, once when Iverson was in Memphis and later during his 25-game swan song with Philadelphia. So we’re mostly left with memories, biases and numbers. The numbers are hard to reconcile, because while statistics appear to be stable, they’re always contingent on broader contexts. And none of the contexts around Steph and A.I. match up.

Iverson scored more, but Curry shot better. But Iverson was tasked with being a one-man offense. Steph joined a Warriors team with Monta Ellis and Stephen Jackson; his third year in he got fewer shots than David Lee. It wasn’t until his fourth season that he led the Warriors in shot attempts.

Meanwhile, Iverson joined a Philly squad that already featured Jerry Stackhouse and Derrick Coleman, who were not exactly the deferential types. Yet Iverson led his teams in shot attempts his first 10 seasons, a streak that held until he was traded to Denver and (barely) took a backseat to Carmelo Kyam Anthony. How do you compare Curry and Iverson as scorers when they took such different paths as scorers?

The eras they played in were so different the numbers may as well be from two different languages. From 2015-19, Golden State’s competitive heyday, their pace ranked 1st, 2nd, 4th, 5th and 10th, always between 98.3 and 100.9 possession per 48 minutes. Iverson’s peak 76er teams, from 1999-2003, were 20th, 18th, 19th, 25th and 13th. They averaged between 88.6 and 92.7 possessions. Iverson’s points were a bigger percentage of his team’s total offense than Curry’s. How do you quantify that?

The two played with wildly different supporting casts, as far as talent. How many of Curry’s teammates are arguably Hall of Famers? Mind you, I’m not asking who you or I would put in Springfield. I’m saying how many of them are players people might argue belong there? Kevin Durant, clearly. I think Klay Thompson is on course for serious consideration, assuming he returns to health and his prior level of play. Draymond Green will definitely get votes, if not inducted. Do I think Andre Iguodala is a Hall of Famer? I do not. Do others? Yep.

The only Hall of Famer Iverson played with was about 100 games alongside Dikembe Mutombo when he was 34-35 years old. How do we factor someone’s work environment into the legacy? If Jerry West had supporting casts closer to, say, Patrick Ewing’s, and Walt Frazier won three rings and The Logo none, does history rank Clyde above him?

Curry is 31 and has averaged 26+ a game three times. By that age Iverson had put up between 26 and 33 nine years in a row. And yet, Steph is unquestionably the superior shooter. And yet, he never neared Iverson’s burden of being asked to score with the entire defense focused on him. Last year was an absurdly small sample size of Curry being out there with no KD and no Klay. He shot 40%.

Do I think he’s better than that, and that he’d have adjusted? I do. Do I think his numbers would have come down to Earth somewhat? I do. Do I think Iverson’s efficiency would make a better case for him if he hadn’t spent his prime with Eric Snow, George Lynch and Aaron McKie? I do.

Steph talks about always being the smallest player on his teams. He’s still got three inches and 25 pounds on A.I. when he played. Again, this isn’t to demean Curry’s greatness, nor to claim Iverson is superior. I just honestly don’t see how you equate them. From his age-26 season, Curry never played more than 34 minutes a game. That’s not his fault. Load management is humane, it keeps players healthier and it’s a reason Curry was active and energized to shine during the playoffs. But Iverson averaged 41 minutes a game OVER HIS ENTIRE CAREER!! The only year he averaged fewer than 36 was his final season.

In one sense, Curry, oddly enough, reminds me of Shaquille O’Neal. In my lifetime, they’re the only two players I’ve ever seen who bent the gravity of the game. Shaq defied the conventions of basketball spacetime. He was like a black hole down on the block, irresistible, drawing defenses in and destroying them. The moment Curry passes midcourt, defenders have to lock in. There’s never been a player as deadly from as deep as he is. He’s also like a black hole, only he’s stretching everything out 40+ feet. The geometry of the halfcourt thins and pulls.

Iverson didn’t have superpowers like incredible strength or unerring accuracy — and I’m not suggesting Shaq or Steph didn’t work hard for years and years to develop theirs. But Iverson was Batman. His gift was his relentlessness, his drive, his insistence on himself. He couldn’t bend the world around him. So he focused on steeling himself against it. And for a while, he was as good as it gets. I don’t know if he’s better than Curry. I just don’t think the book should be closed on that question. Not for a good long while.

That’s all for part two. The mailbag finale will be here later this week. Hope you will, too.