First up: bemused elation.
An All-Star in his prime wants to play for the Knicks? The New York Knicks? Like, the same team that has spent the past year-plus dragging Carmelo Anthony‘s already-ebbing trade value through feet-deep sludge? And jeopardized its relationship with Kristaps Porzingis, the franchise’s most important player since Patrick Ewing? And thoroughly mistreated fan favorite Charles Oakley on national television?
The same Knicks who count Stephon Marbury as their best point guard of the past decade? Irving wants to play for them? Willingly and everything?
Get him. Get him now.
Immediately thereafter comes Stage 2: buzz-killing fear.
The Knicks are going to offer Frank Ntilikina and 47 future first-round picks for Irving, aren’t they?
This will sometimes be followed by a third impulse—the one that’s most concerning and potentially damning: disregard.
Go for Irving anyway. Whatever it takes.
It’s not yet totally clear whether the Knicks are in a position to make any of this particularly relevant. It is clear, however, where they should stand: on whatever side of the fence that doesn’t have them pillaging their war chest for the sake of making a splashy addition.
Irving named New York as a preferred landing spot when requesting a trade from the Cleveland Cavaliers, according to ESPN.com’s Chris Haynes. Pablo Torres, also of ESPN, then heard he “very badly” wants to rep the orange and blue (via Clevis Murray of Def Pen Hoops).
All of this is cool without context, but Irving doesn’t have the leverage to meaningfully force the issue. He cannot explore free agency until 2019 (player option) and doesn’t own a no-trade clause. The Cavaliers can, and should, hold out for the best offer, putting the onus on New York to outbid a laundry list of suitors that spans 20 teams deep, per ESPN.com’s Adrian Wojnarowski.
That’s a problem, and not a solvable one.
Anthony would be a good starting point, because he and LeBron James are banana boat bros. But the Cavaliers aren’t making the deal straight-up, nor does Anthony, at the moment, have real interest in playing for any team that isn’t the Houston Rockets, according to ESPN.com’s Ian Begley.
Constructing a workable deal is difficult from here if the Knicks aren’t dangling Porzingis—which they aren’t, per Begley, because even the most historically inept organizations get some things right. Their best chance lies with calling Anthony’s bluff, quashing the Rockets scenario, hoping he falls back in love with Cleveland and including enough sweeteners to land the Cavaliers Eric Bledsoe, Wilson Chandler, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist or a player of similar status via a third or fourth helping hand.
“The Knicks would have to come forward and offer some combination of Anthony, one or two (likely unprotected) first-round picks and a young player like Frank Ntilikina,” John Schmeelk wrote for CBS New York. “If you’re the Cavs, that’s a fair return for a player of Irving’s skill.”
And if you’re the Knicks, this is overkill.
They only just cleared their future draft-pick obligations. They have no business flipping 2018 and 2020 selections for a player, in Irving, who could leave by the time that second choice conveys.
Giving up on Ntilikina is an equally tough pill to swallow. He’s Phil Jackson’s baby, sure. But he’s also a top-eight prospect who, when factoring in restricted free agency, is under team control for at least the next eight or nine years.
Maybe he hits. Maybe he doesn’t. But Ntilikina is worth a commitment for his defensive ceiling alone. His 7’0″ wingspan will allow him to defend up to small forwards, and New York hasn’t employed a point guard capable of stomping out pick-and-rolls on the ball in approximately forever.
Plus, the optics.
Despite drafting fairly well when they actually have a pick, the Knicks essentially haven’t given a second contract to their own first-rounder since David Lee…who they selected in 2005. (Tim Hardaway Jr.’s four-year, $71 million deal isn’t included here. They traded him away, let the Atlanta Hawks develop him and then overpaid him. He remains evidence of the rule, not the exception.)
More importantly, if there’s a team in a spot to mortgage the estate for Irving, it’s not the Knicks. The fit isn’t right, even if you believe his timeline aligns with Porzingis’ development (eh).
Acquiring someone else who yanks the ball out of young Kristaps’ hands would be a gross detour. He spent most of 2016-17 ceding touches and status to Anthony and Derrick Rose. His usage rate declined from his rookie season, and he barely upped his per-minute shot attempts.
Head coach Jeff Hornacek used Porzingis-plus-bench lineups to get his most important player reps as a featured option. That shouldn’t be a necessity, but slotting him next to Hardaway and Irving guarantees it will be.
Neither guard is an especially talented passer. Hardaway has improved exponentially in that department, but he’s no floor general. The Hawks seldom gave him run as the primary playmaker, and the offense scored at an unspectacular clip when they did.
Irving didn’t inspire when left to his own devices in Cleveland too. The Cavaliers pumped in under 90 points per 100 possessions with him as the lead facilitator—by far a league-worst rate. Noise is peppered throughout every sub-100-minute sample, and his per-possession assist numbers climbed as the lone wolf. But his solo results don’t suggest, beyond a shadow of a doubt, he’s someone the Knicks can entrust with Porzingis’ most impressionable years.
This shouldn’t be interpreted as a declaration that you cannot build an elite offense around Irving. You absolutely can. His shot-making abilities are unfair. He averaged more points per isolation possession than Stephen Curry last season despite a drastic difference in volume, and his 1.15 points per spot-up play were in the 84th percentile. His shooting percentages took a nosedive without James on the floor, but this offensive malleability can be the skeleton of a top-tier scoring machine.
Still, the substance within that production matters. The Knicks scored like a top-12(ish) offense with Rose on the floor, and you wouldn’t—at least, you better not—say he made Porzingis better. His overall field-goal percentage was a wash off passes from Rose, while his per-minute free-throw rate fell.
Usage drops are inevitable when playing beside a point guard, and again, the path to a lethal offense with Irving at the helm isn’t hard to pave. But some things are more important than successfully re-designing a system around an All-Star who has given no indisputable sign he can be the driving force behind an above-average team.
Porzingis’ progression is that limit for the Knicks. It has to be. They didn’t exactly waste his sophomore season, but they also didn’t advance his case in the slightest. They toggled between two conflicting visions punctuated by rampantly inconsistent offensive approaches.
Forking over the world for Irving moors him to a similar situation—infinitely so when you bake in the defensive ramifications of trotting out Hardaway and Irving in the same backcourt, as Bleacher Report’s Adam Fromal showed:
Hardaway and Irving have not been significantly helpful in the same area through either of the past two seasons. And while the former has come a long (long) way on the less glamorous end, his impact won’t hold when facing off against starters.
Most of Hardaway’s time in Atlanta was spent coming off the bench, and the Hawks’ defense failed to impress during his 12-game stretch as a starter near the end of 2016-17. Also: Touch-type data only measures finishing plays. Hardaway isn’t a defender who forces opponents into getting rid of the ball.
Certain deals for Irving still toe the line of justifiable. Packaging Anthony with a mildly protected pick and Willy Hernangomez, who plays Porzingis’ best position, is collateral damage the Knicks can stomach. They can even relocate Courtney Lee to make room for unwanted salary Cleveland wants to offload (so, Iman Shumpert).
But that doesn’t move the needle for the Cavaliers, and it probably isn’t enough to reel in a third party flush with assets. Even if it gets the job done and Anthony proves willing to waive his no-trade clause, New York doesn’t necessarily come out on top—not with all roadblocks still sitting between them and an average defense.
“I don’t like him personally, but I hate playing against him,” an unnamed “elite” Eastern Conference point guard told one general manager of Irving, per Wojnarowski. “I’d trade a lot to get him.”
And some teams should.
Even if they’re a viable trade partner for the Cavaliers, the Knicks aren’t one of them.
Nor should they try to be.
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