A MILD DEFENSE OF RANK MEDIOCRITY. OR, WHAT THE KNICKS SHOULD DO NOW, FREE AGENCY EDITION

It is time to let go of the dream. You know the one, where Kevin Durant and another star fly in through the window and the Knicks become an immediate title contender. A month ago that dream seemed so real that even bona fide Knicks haters and axe-to-grinders were wearing orange and blue Freddy Krueger sweaters. They had to choke down their bile, concede that a rumor that doesn’t die is not a rumor, and shift their hot takes to “well, the Knicks will screw it up somehow.”

If you’re a Knicks fan, and you are fully present, you are now endeavoring to sit with a four-week run of the following footballs to the groin: 1. The team STILL has not out-drafted its record or received the first pick since the first NBA draft lottery in 1985; 2. BOTH the Pelicans and the Lakers went full-on front office clown show in 2018-19, yet were absolutely gifted franchise-altering talent; and 3. Kevin Durant ruptured his Achilles tendon, putting him out for this coming season and raising questions about his basketball future. Fuck the basketball gods. For real. Fuck them. They are as capricious and mean as the Greek ones.

To be fair, many Knicks fans are genuinely excited about RJ Barrett. He was easily the right draft pick, once trading the pick was off the table. His excitement about playing for the Knicks and connections to the city have a fun David Wright-like vibe to them, and I say that as a stone cold Barrett skeptic. So, this off-season hasn’t been all bad news. But make no mistake, the Knicks are currently constructed for an Orlando Magicesque brand of rank mediocrity. And even that is probably 2-3 seasons off.

So, this whole post is basically a mild defense of rank mediocrity. Not only would it be a colossal improvement over the recent past, it is also the proper short-term goal. Perry and Mills played their “we can offer you a blank slate” card. This was the last chance to play it, whether Durant signs in New York or elsewhere. It’s played. From here on out, New York will need to play an “upward mobility” card to even get a meeting with (near-) Hall of Fame talent. If there is any hope of playing such a card successfully, the current core, likely supplemented by a few vets, must demonstrate actual upward mobility. It’s gotta play its way out of the hell of 20-or-fewer wins at least into the purgatory of 30-35 wins this season and into playoff contention the next.

So, without further ado, here are three guiding principles for upward mobility in the NBA.

Principle #1 Take Meetings with As Many Stars As Possible

Getting a meeting doesn’t matter much, in the sense that it’s not predictive. But, NOT getting a meeting matters a great deal in that it is almost perfectly predictive. If Perry and Mills are going to go star-chasing in 2-3 seasons they have to start selling their vision to players and powerful agents now.

Principle #2 Only Pay the Right People

Well, duh.

The question is, who are the “right” people? Assuming Kevin Durant and Kawhi Leonard move on, the Knicks really should sit out any other max- or near-max deals. Tobias Harris meshes nicely on paper with a super young and not super-talented squad, but signing him to a max/near max deal to put up numbers on a bad team would be unwise. Ditto Kemba. Fortunately, the Knicks have not been rumored to really be in on either.

Instead, the Knicks should be looking at decent players who could use a market re-set on short-term deals. Team options after one season are best, but I wouldn’t balk at a player option in some cases. Portland’s Al-Farouq Aminu is a prime example of the type of player I’d overpay on a short-term deal and I might concede to a player option in year two. He’s a low-volume stretch four that defends well and could literally play in any scheme. Assuming the luxury tax scares Portland away from a strong bid to keep him, he could be looking to chase a ring or chase checks. Seats on title contenders may fill up quickly leaving players like Aminu looking for short-term deals that allow a bit of leverage, especially if they have value in a potential trade deadline deal.

Similarly, the Knicks should look to trade for players made available as teams look to shed salary. For instance, Steven Adams was heavily rumored to be dealt on draft night, and Oklahoma City may have several players available. A veteran like Adams would, for instance, help the development of the talented, but foul prone, and inexperienced Robinson.

Principle #3 Just Say NO to Toxic Assets

Some have argued the Knicks should rent their cap space to help contending teams unload bad contracts in exchange for future assets. I’m not opposed to renting cap space in principle, but the Knicks should stay away from “toxic” assets. Generally, “no contracts with three+ years remaining” seems like the right rule of thumb. And let me repeat: rule of thumb. A bona fide star looking to force his way out of a bad situation (e.g., Karl Anthony Towns) is worth exploring case by case. What’s more likely is Darryl Morey trying to dump his junk (i.e., three years of Ryan Anderson’s and CP3’s terrible contracts) on the Knicks. A different way New York could rent cap space is to facilitate 3-way trades between capped out teams, if again, Perry and Mills target young players and/or picks and leave toxic assets alone.

A final note regarding acquiring picks. New York should learn a lesson from Boston. It’s fair to criticize Danny Ainge for never “pulling the trigger” on a truly big deal given all his alleged draft capital, but that take doesn’t properly appreciate the catch-22 he faced. The use value of those picks is higher than their exchange value. In other words, the league is daring him to keep all those picks and develop them if he thinks they’re so valuable.

Draft picks are obviously valuable. They are by far the most reliable source of cheap rotational talent–a must in a salary capped sport. But just like in your real life, really good fruit is super cheap when there’s a bumper crop. Or more formally, utility is constrained by storage capacity. When you have more draft picks than you can reasonably accommodate with roster spots and development they become less valuable in trade. Now I’m not saying the Knicks should walk away from unprotected lottery picks. I’m saying that we’d all do well to remember the Knicks own a good number picks into the foreseeable future: all their own, the two Dallas first round picks, and the two Charlotte second round picks. Hoarding picks for their own sake may not be the wisest move. Rather, the team should pursue a balance between picks and players on reasonable deals.

Yeah, I’m Still on Team #TradeThePick

By most accounts, the Knicks are set to select Duke wing RJ Barrett with the third pick in the 2019 NBA draft (ESPN+). Though I remain cooler on Barrett than many, there is no clearly better option to draft at #3 overall.

Instead, I will continue to argue that the Knicks should look to deal the selection (probably for a vet and a pick). To be clear, I’m not interested in compensatory star chasing now after missing out on Kevin Durant and Anthony Davis. My rationale is that New York has to adjust to the new way of thinking in the NBA. Now that there is no lottery payoff* for losing, it is especially important to stay out of the NBA’s 15-20 win cellar. All else equal, the best way to do that is to NOT field one of the youngest teams in the league.

*I think NBA conventional wisdom is shifting (or has shifted). It used to be franchise death to end up in the NBA’s “murky middle” with the 8th, 9th, or 10th best record. You’d rather just be awful and max out the odds of getting a franchise-altering draft pick. Now that those odds are flattened–even acknowledging that a top 3 guarantee isn’t nothing–teams know that the next Zion or Tim Duncan is only 14% likely to walk through that door. A better bet may be what Doc is doing in LA: trying to convince a star that an 8-10 seed with cap space and a solid foundation is a near-term contender. A terrible team with nothing but a low-odds lottery ticket will find it increasingly hard to draft its way out of the cellar OR chase stars.

Many people are in love with Barrett’s “star” potential and I’m not going to fight with anyone over that. My only response is that you better be a true believer that he’ll peak as a perennial top 5-8 player at his position to justify adding yet another 19 year old to this roster. I’m not doubting Barrett can be good, but I’m absolutely not willing to say he’s a good bet to be a top 5-8 wing. Add to that, David Fizdale’s record as a talent developer is mixed. Of course, whose isn’t? And in fairness, at least some of that is about having so many mouths to feed. There’s a limited supply of developmental instruction to go around and New York was pretty maxed out on it in 2018-19. But some of y’all want to add another kid to the mix? Yikes.

Meanwhile, the trade market could be white hot this off-season and the Knicks could benefit without star chasing. With the Warriors hobbled, teams are opening up the proverbial game board. Some of them are–surprisingly–star chasing. Others are shedding salary to go star chasing (also, the Bucks looking to dump salary). Still others are just looking to stay out of the luxury tax. Some good players will change uniforms this off-season, and there’s no good reason for some of them not to end up in NY (even if only until the trade deadline). The Knicks are not a playoff team in 2019-20 (duh), but they can make some smart, short-term plays that keep them out of the cellar while helping the kids by not asking them to do too much.