The Bad Old Days


Stop me if you’ve heard this before. The Knicks trade for a past-his-best star in order to ‘win now’. In this case they have sent starting centre Robin Lopez and rookie Jerian Grant in exchange of Derrick Rose and parts. It all feels so familiar.

Rose joins the Knicks for next year
It’s a story that could be told so many times throughout Knicks history. The championship teams of the 1970s were built by bringing together talent from other teams. The Ewing era teams of the 1980s and 1990s built success by dragging in stars also.  As General Manager Isiah Thomas perfected this, bringing a factory-line of ill-fitting stars through the Garden, his appetite for destruction unabated by his successful dismantling of a team that had a sustained period of success before his arrival.

Sometimes this approach was successful. The Knicks won two championships in 70s and made the finals twice in the 1990s following this path.  

But more and more it became clear this was an approach from a bygone era. For every Willis Reed there was a multitude of failed acquisitions – Antonio McDyess, Zach Randolph, Steve Francis, Steph Marbury, Anfernee Hardaway, Chauncey Billups, Jerome James, Eddy Curry and Jamal Crawford but to name a few. The shine of the ‘New York Market’ had begun to wear off as shoe deals marketed nationally and internationally became the most important income source for players, as opposed to localised opportunities. The new bargaining deals meant that teams tended to hold their own stars through their first extension, meaning players rarely left their team until the back end of their prime. New York was increasingly ‘just’ another team, able to attract stars with their clock very much ticking.

And so after years of failure and mediocrity, the Knicks seemed to have faced up to this reality with the arrival of Phil Jackson at the helm of the side. Talking about building through the  draft, Jackson was implicitly acknowledging that the much riskier and expensive approach of acquiring established veterans was, while not dead, at least compromised. The ongoing presence of Carmelo Anthony remained a reminder of the old order, but draft success of Kristaps Porzingis represented a new way – an opportunity to build around a young star blessed with the proto-typical modern skills: rim protection combined with long-range shooting.

The balance between Melo and Porzingis had always been uneasy in terms of a pathway forward.  As the clock ticked on Melo’s prime, the Knicks faced a fork – they could choose to follow the old path, sign ageing veterans in an attempt to service the hope to ‘win-now’, or to remain patient, build a core for Porzingis to grow around, even if that meant short term pain.  

In trading for Derrick Rose the Knicks have acquired a poster-boy for the old way forward. A past-his-prime point guard he provides an immediate, short-term upgrade. He makes the Knicks potentially a playoff team in the weak eastern conference next season and because of sending out a substantial amount of salary in return, they remain an active participant in free agency this summer. Rose provides the Knicks with penetration from their ball-handlers, something they’ve desperately missed in recent years. They will undoubtedly be better.

But this return to the old days comes at the expense of building around Porzingis. Even if Rose is a success, his short-term contract makes him a very expensive, injury-plagued risk to re-sign. The Knicks effectively sacrifice the opportunity to pick higher in the draft for the pleasure of losing in the first round next April. They have given up the excellent contract (when the new cap kicks in) and solid play and Robin Lopez, the possibility and low cap hit of Jerian Grant in order to rebuild around the demands of Melo. The word that the Knicks are interested in Dwight Howard and Joakim Noah is particularly galling – they are now playing in the inflated and sparse market that is 2016 Free Agency. 

There is a possibility this is all part of a plan. It could’ve that Jackson has identified 2017 as the free agency class he wants to be involved in. Jackson may have brought Rose onboard to sate Melo in the short term in order to happily abandon him at the deadline or the end of next season, giving the Knicks a huge amount of cap space to properly rebuild with next offseason. He may have identified Lopez as an obstacle for more minutes for Porzingis at what will eventually become his home at centre. Forgive me if I’m sceptical of the Knicks ability to think this strategically. Regardless it remains the ‘old’ way of thinking – relying on free agents with short periods of prime remaining instead of the more efficient approach of the draft.

And so here we are again. The Knicks have traded for a past-his-prime star, and will try to win now.

A return to the good old days is unlikely to follow.

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