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September mailbag, part one: Chris Paul, the Knicks’ draft philosophy & movies for the end of a world

Two months until the draft, assuming life somehow survives.

Oklahoma City Thunder v Houston Rockets - Game Seven Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

Welcome to the September mailbag. Now with fortified vitamins and minerals.

1) How mad would you be if we traded first-round picks for CP3?

— The only Knick with the Knack

In 1996 a pitcher named Mark Clark led the Mets with 14 wins. The past two seasons, Jacob deGrom has won consecutive Cy Young awards, yet never led the team in wins, and in fact last year finished third. Did Clark lead in wins because he was that great? Did deGrom fail to because others were better? Nope. Skill and even accomplishment, to some extent, cannot stand on their own without the sinews of context to give them strength.

I appear to be in the curmudgeonly minority of Knicks fans not thrilled about the recent rumors regarding reeling in Chris Paul or Fred VanVleet. FVV gives me major Tim Hardaway Jr./Julius Randle flashbacks, where the problem isn’t the player themselves being devoid of ability but the team asking them to do too much. But at least VanVleet would cost nothing more than James Dolan’s hopefully soon-to-be-taxed-to-high-heaven monies.

Depending which runes you’re reading, acquiring Paul could require New York jettisoning Frank Ntilikina, Kevin Knox, Julius Randle, Chasson Randle, Randall’s Island and a grab bag of draft picks. My degree of anger would depend on which first-rounders the Knicks gave up. This year’s first? I’d be here, emotionally:

The Knicks haven’t made the playoffs seven straight seasons and haven’t nailed a lottery pick in five years. This season we sat through a 4-18 start under David Fizdale, a relatively successful follow-up by Mike Miller that was still 10 games under .500 in a little over half a season, and losing streaks of three games three times, four games, five, six, and 10. I didn’t sit through all that to spend the next two years of my life watching the ornery Paul grow slower and less good.

If they trade next year’s pick that belongs to them?

I think the Knicks will improve under Tom Thibodeau. I do not think they’ll make the playoffs. The thought of them trading a likely lottery pick so we can watch Paul trying to rush a rebuild toward Orlando-like mediocrity? And knowing you mortgaged your future to do so? Just put me out of my misery, man.

This year’s Clipper pick?

This is the last scene in Jackie Brown. Max is crazy about Jackie, but even at the movie’s end, when the horizon seems open and endless for both of them, ever after she asks him to come along, he won’t. Max can’t change like that; he is who he is. It’s a bittersweet ending. The Knicks, in a rare one-sided decision in their favor, won the Marcus Morris trade with the Clippers, obtaining a first-rounder so Los Angeles could get 19 regular-season games out of him, then watch him repeatedly try to maim Luka Dončić in the playoffs.

If the Knicks fumble this rare instance of good fortune into a trade for Paul — after, remember, acquiring Morris in the first place required the improbability of a quality player breaking a verbal agreement with San Antonio to come to New York — it’d show that even when they do catch a break, even with a new front office in place, they just can’t change who they are. To go from the boundless possibilities of the post-KP landscape to spending nearly half the salary cap on Chris Paul? That’s not even bittersweet; that’s straight bitter.

Next year’s Dallas pick (unprotected)?

This pick in and of itself, like Lebowski’s rug, is not a huge deal. But trading this pick in a deal for CP3 has the same vibe Mr. Lebowski gives The Dude when he asks if he goes out looking for a job dressed like that — on a weekday. Not a good look to turn one of the tangible returns from the Kristaps Porziņģis trade into a 35-year-old, no matter how good they were at 25.

The second Dallas first-rounder (protected 1-10 in 2023, 2024 and 2025; if it hasn’t conveyed by ‘25 it becomes a second-rounder)?

Jack Nicholson isn’t asking for a lot in this scene. The man wants toast. That’s all. When even the simplest of requests is refused, that can really set a person off. There’s a decent chance the second Dallas pick won’t convey until Paul has retired. I don’t ask for much from the basketball gods. I do ask that we’re not subjected in a few year’s time to hearing draft-night analysis centered on lumping the Knicks in with the Rockets and the Clippers as teams the Thunder robbed in amassing 684 first-round picks the next 10 years.

2) How much value do the Knicks assign to Frank Ntilikina? If we look to trade up in the draft and feel Mitchell Robinson and RJ Barrett are not available for such a transaction, is Frank? I’d be heartbroken to see it, but realistically Dennis Smith Jr. has no value to other teams so who’s left as bait to trade up? It’s Frank or additional picks.

— theshipberising

You’re asking me to evaluate Ntilikina’s value? Are you new here? You wanna start another civil war? I’m not sure what the new front office makes of Frank. I imagine if they see a way to land someone or something they think will help more than him, they won’t hesitate to move him. I cannot imagine any team ahead of the Knicks in the lottery who would trade down even for Robinson or Barrett; if we’re excluding those two from talks, I believe that’s what’s called a “non-starter.” I also can’t see anyone ahead of New York valuing Ntilikina enough for him to move the needle on a deal.

Your question raises one I’m interested in hearing people’s thoughts on: let’s say the Knicks had a trade on the table — any trade you like — and they either had to choose to trade Ntilikina or any of their seven 1st-round picks over the next four drafts...which would you give up?

3) I have two questions. Am I allowed two?

If you had the ability to have James Dolan change one thing, and only one thing, about himself, what would you choose to have him change?

Do you favor utilizing the draft to select a lottery ticket type of player (e.g. Aleksej Pokuševski), a safe choice (perhaps a Devin Vassell) or someone in-between (perhaps a Kira Lewis)? I’m not asking which of those three players you would choose, but rather your personal draft philosophy when it comes to risk/reward.

— Navona

Asking if you can ask two questions is a third question, Navona.

In reverse order: my draft philosophy changes depending on what year it is and where the team stands. In 2015 I was all in favor of selecting Porziņģis; I thought beyond the player, that kind of pick under Phil Jackson showed the Knicks were willing to take a risk on a likely long-term payoff, a welcome contrast to the shortsighted stabs at instant gratification we’d grown used to.

This year I’m pro’ly more excited about Isaac Okoro than anyone else likely to be available when New York selects, because I view him as a worst-case safe choice and a best-case superstar. As far as which category I’d prioritize this November for the Knicks, I’d say I value a safe choice more than most years. Because I think this team really has practically nothing going for it, in terms of projectable young talent. Gimme something I can use.

I’m kinda thrilled the Knicks didn’t win the lottery because I think they would have felt pressured to take LaMelo Ball, even with all his question marks, and I just don’t have the heart for another swing and a miss. Then again, half a year ago I was writing about why the team owed it to the fans to not trade Morris. Like, you know...whatever.

As far as what I’d have Dolan change about himself, I’d like to see him start wearing JNCO pants. I’m not sure how much changing any one thing about his personality would impact the greater whole. So if you’re always inspiring dread and negativity when you make a public appearance, at least try to look cool while doing so. Giant flare pant bottoms with tons of cool pockets were, for me, the high point of civilization. If we’re on the highway to hell, let’s at least look dope on the journey.

4) Which three movies best help escape the reality of 2020?

— Russ

Since 2020 feels more and more like a trudging death march toward an inescapable nightmare, the first great escape is found in a film that takes me back to childhood, to my family before divorce divided it, to my first love — baseball — and to a reminder of the mantra that’s seen me this far in life and hopefully a ways further: that literally, truly, anything is possible: The Natural.

The second film I’d run away with and never look back is a film about running away, Alfred Hitchcock’s North By Northwest. I know the world was a mess in 1959, too, but there’s always something about the old messes that are no longer evident clutter that make them quaint and charming, by comparison. Cary Grant’s character, mistaken for a spy and framed for murder, spends most of the movie attempting to escape a nationwide manhunt and the bad guys who framed him and will do worse than that if they catch him.

Even one of Hitchcock’s great masterpieces has become arguably less suspenseful than a trip to the store to buy oat milk thanks to all the dicknoses and maskless hatetriots out there. But greatness is greatness. The flirting in this first meeting between Grant and Eva Marie Saint...GOD, what I’d give for people to talk like that in real life. What I’d give to be her or him in this scene, or what we assume comes after. The writing and acting are impeccable. Bonus: note the dubbing when she says “I never discuss love on an empty stomach.” The censors changed the original line, “I never make love on an empty stomach.”

Lastly, Network, released in 1976, is all about relationships collapsing in a way that’s very 2020: the assumed trust between the media and the public, the individual and free will, reality and illusion.

But it’s the human relationships and their collapses that give the film light as well as heat. Beatrice Straight, who played Louise, won the Best Supporting Actress that year for just three days of work and a single scene from the final cut, where her husband Max, played by William Holden, confesses he’s having an affair with the much younger Diane Christensen, played by Faye Dunaway.

This scene is both unimaginable and disturbingly realistic. When Max busts out the word “transient” while explaining the infidelity — like, what?! How?! Failed monogamy is one of the great cliches of the human condition, one that transcends every category of identity we’ve ever created for ourselves and for others. Yet this scene makes it seem sophisticated; if ever one could aspire to tragedy, this would be it. George Costanza touched on it specifically years later in the Seinfeld episode “The Good Samaritan”:

But the trick to watch out for, whether in 1976 or 2020, is mistaking what is for what we’d rather it be. Max may allude to Bugs Bunny and Anna Karenina, but what’s happening isn’t about pop culture or high culture. It’s a husband breaking his wife’s heart, plain and simple. And yet, after Louise gives her Oscar-winning speech, the two have one of those rubberneckingly transparent conversations that only occur between people who share “all the senseless pain we have inflicted on each other.” The scene ends with this exchange:

“You’re in for some dreadful grief, Max.”

“I know.”

At this point, that’s the best advice I can give anyone looking to escape the here and now. Escape via truth. Face forward. We’re running out of places to hide. These films will buy you some time, and that’s fine. Eventually we’ll all be left with one final option — running toward what we’d hoped to avoid. Confronting what today feels like after there’s no more tomorrows. It won’t be all bad. A lot of us will be together. The Knicks still won’t have a point guard. We’re in for some dreadful grief, you know? And we very well may lose.