More often than not, when defenders of the Bargnani trade try to talk themselves into believing the move was just, they tend to gloss over the Knicks’ cavalier dispatch of yet another first round draft pick. (Two second rounders, too, if we are keeping track.) If I had a dollar for every time I have heard such folks reflexively declare that “it’s only going to be a late first rounder! Who cares?,” I’d probably have enough money to offer Glen Grunwald a decent severance package.
But I digress.
Do not misunderstand my intent, though, as my opposition to the unexpected, if shortsighted, acquisition isn’t without good reason. And yes, I do realize that there is a chance that Bargnani plays well for the Knicks. I understand that at his very best, Bargs, in theory, might help the Knicks space the floor and punish defenders for aggressive close-outs in a way that Steve Novak never could. And yes, I get that it’s more likely than not that New York’s now-jettisoned 2016 first round draft pick will fizzle into the ether, too.
Conventional wisdom, to the degree such applies to the Knicks, suggests is that it’s impossible to predict how these scenarios will play out. That’s why they play the games, after all. But that doesn’t mean that Grunwald was unaware of the relative risks of the deal when he decided to proceed (or when he decided to convince Jim Dolan to proceed). I’ve heard the arguments in favor, of course. How could the Knicks possibly have turned down a player with the potential to help the team win more games over the next two years?! Don’t I know that those two years just happen to coincide perfectly with the team’s “championship window?!” Well, the natural analytical progression leads one to wonder what will happen if Bargnani fails to elevate his mediocre play while simultaneously costing New York the opportunity to draft a player at least as good as he is at a far lesser cost? And given that 2016 will be smack dab in the middle of a critical, yet resource-constrained period for the franchise, perhaps the draft pick becomes even more valuable to them than it would be to anyone else? Can we quantify these risks? Not with any certainty. But we can try very roughly approximate them.
In a vacuum, passing on a potentially helpful Bargnani might be unjustifiable in all but the most extreme circumstances. After all, the Italian was a number one overall draft selection, possessing that highly sought after and rare combination of size and offensive skill. But these are the Knicks, otherwise known as the New York Extreme Circumstances. So let’s try to understand what New York gave up in the deal without actually knowing who they gave up. Sounds simple, right?
While not an exact science, we can examine the bottom third of recent drafts to demonstrate how often teams drafted players who have been at least as useful as Bargnani – in my subjectively objective opinion, anyway. These include:
2001: Gerald Wallace, Samuel Dalembert, Jamaal Tinsley, Tony Parker
2002: Tayshaun Prince
2003: Boris Diaw, Carlos Delfino, Kendrick Perkins, Leandrinho Barbosa, Josh Howard
2004: Delonte West, Tony Allen, Kevin Martin, Beno Udrih
2005: Nate Robinson, Jarrett Jack, Francisco Garcia, David Lee
2006: Rajon Rondo, Kyle Lowry, Shannon Brown, Jordan Farmar
2007: Jared Dudley, Wilson Chandler, Rudy Fernandez, Arron Afflalo, Tiago Splitter
2008: Ryan Anderson, Courtney Lee, Serge Ibaka, Nicolas Batum, George Hill
2009: Darren Collison, Rodrigue Beaubois, Taj Gibson
2010: Greivis Vasquez
2011: Kenneth Faried, Reggie Jackson, Marshon Brooks, Norris Cole, Jimmy Butler
By my count, there have been, on average, 3.42 players taken in the last ten picks of the first round that have been arguably at least as productive as Bargnani, if not more so. By my math, and assuming the Knicks are a playoff team with a pick in bottom third of the draft, New York would figure to have a 34.2% probability of drafting a player as least as useful as Bargnani.
Sure, a chip leader – to use a poker analogy – might not want to wager his stack on those odds, but the short-stacked might find them acceptable if it means the difference between staying alive in the tournament and a slow, but certain death. Assuming the Knicks spend like fiends in free agency in 2015, then the following season should see them as holding the short stack, boxed in and constrained by a lack of cap room and roster flexibility. In today’s NBA, opportunities to completely overhaul a roster are rare. Once a team engorges itself on its major salary commitments, then relatively inconsequential cap exceptions and veteran minimum deals are all that are left. Think of that barren Thanksgiving turkey carcass you love to pick at, only more barren. For my money (and by my money, I mean my season ticket money), I’d rather bet on an uncertain but potentially valuable draft commodity than some notion that Bargs will help the Knicks win a handful more games during his Gotham tenure. Because even if that is exactly what happens, so what?
We already know that Bargnani is not long for the Knicks. Grunwald conceded as much by stating that the trade was at least partially motivated by New York’s desire to get as far under the cap as possible for the summer of 2015. So, basically, the Knicks traded for Bargnani to renounce his salary (and bird rights) in order to clear his cap hold off the books when he becomes a free agent after the 2014-15 season.
On the flip side, that 2016 draft pick (or the bounty the Knicks could have received had they waited until after 2015 to trade it) would have been long for the Knicks. If we assume that the Knicks will be capped out after 2015 free agency, then like the current Miami Heat, New York will have nothing beyond those small cap exceptions and veteran minimum deals to dole out. Future versions of Mario Chalmers, Norris Cole, George Hill, Tiago Splitter, Jimmy Butler or Charlie Ward, among others, would solidify a roster with limited flexibility. (A Charlie Freakin Ward reference?! Yeah, I went there.) And what if, god forbid, that pick turns into another Rondo, Fareid or Tony Parker? Oy.
The reality is is that when an organization makes decisions on personnel, it has to consider the benefits and risks, both now and in the future. When you decide to acquire an asset for the present at the expense of the future, that acquisition must have a major immediate impact. If Bargnani improves dramatically with the change of scenery and if he becomes an integral piece of a championship-caliber puzzle, then Grunwald will be proven right and I will be proven wrong.
But if he is who we thought he was – an inefficient scorer who doesn’t do the little things – then Bargs could be the gift that keeps on giving. And for Knicks fans keeping tabs on who the Raptors snag with that 2016 pick, that won’t necessarily be a good thing.