Kobe Bryant and agent Arn Tellem slyly juggled teams’ interests on draft day 22 years ago. Euro-prodigy Luka Doncic could make a similar play in June—and the Knicks could vie for his attention.
In retrospect, it’s a little preposterous that the story of Kobe Bryant falling to 13th in the 1996 Draft hasn’t already become the stuff of NBA lore.
It’s not that what happened is any kind of secret, but many younger fans who worship Bryant don’t even know how his ending up in purple and gold came to be. It’s odd, especially considering that what Arn Tellem pulled leading up to the draft—basically daring the Nets to pick his client by telling them he’d sooner play in Europe than in the swamps of New Jersey—had as profound an impact on the hierarchy of the league as any power play in NBA history.
It’s merely the most famous reminder that come draft night, the players (and their agents) have more control over the process than we realize. There have been other instances where players forced their way off of one team and onto another (nothing beats the look on Steve Francis’ face while donning a Vancouver Grizzlies hat. He was like a girl crowned prom queen alongside the smelly kid who sweats a lot). Still, none have had nearly the same implications as what Kobe Bryant pulled nearly 22 years ago.
That could all change in less than a month. The opening salvo was fired shortly after the lottery, when the best player in the world not currently wearing an NBA uniform took a page out of Kobe’s book and dropped a hint that he’s not going to be a passive participant in the draft process. When asked about his plans for next season, Luka Doncic—who, at 19, just become the youngest EuroLeague MVP and Final Four MVP in history—said that he was still undecided. Translation: “In case you were wondering, I hold some of the cards here.” (Yes, his agent Bill Duffy backtracked a bit, because that’s what agents do, but the point had been made.)
Shortly after these comments, ESPN’s Jonathan Givony reported that both the Kings and Hawks, perhaps not wanting to look like the suckers at the poker table, preferred drafting American front court players over Doncic. Could they be telling the truth as opposed to just saving face? Sure; they could also still change course. But that the news leaked right after Luka’s statements about possibly playing another year with Real Madrid is anything but a coincidence.
If nothing else, all of this should activate the radar of the two men running the front office of a particular team in the greater metropolitan area.
— Dave W.D. (@davewdNBA) May 21, 2018
Think about it: you’re the most famous teenage athlete in the world. You’re a decent looking kid. You just spent the last three years in the third-largest city in the European Union. You’ve already experienced the best in food, amenities, and as many of the trappings of life that are available to a 19-year-old playing for the Yankees of Spain. If you had the chance to come play in arguably the greatest city in the world alongside the NBA’s European rising star (who just happens to be a Real Madrid fan), wouldn’t you jump at the chance? Or would you rather spend the prime of your life in a city whose greatest attraction is either a) the home of a rock star who died 40 years ago or b) a homeless man’s Times Square.
If nothing else, Steve Mills and Scott Perry should be working every back channel imaginable to find out just how real the interest is.
There’s only one problem: even if Luka pulled a Kobe and threatened not to show up for anyone other than the Knicks, there’s no way one of the eight teams ahead of them in the lottery aren’t calling his bluff. Sure, the Suns will probably take Ayton because they’re the Suns and the Kings and Hawks have already made their intentions known, but Memphis has had their heart set on Doncic for some time now. Without a better option, they’d call his bluff in a heartbeat.
Enter the Knicks. If this were a normal situation, and Doncic didn’t have the ability to stay in Spain, any trade discussion would be a short one. The Grizzlies have made it abundantly clear that they want to get back to their roots of finishing as the seventh seed and giving some contender hell for six games before bowing out. It’s why news surfaced last week (before the Kings and Hawks news broke, granted) that they’d be open to trading their pick, likely for veteran help.
Even if the Knicks were willing to offer the ninth pick, Frank Ntilikina and other future draft goodies (not that this would necessarily be a good idea), Memphis would certainly be able to find an offer elsewhere that paid more immediate dividends.
Enter Bill Duffy, Doncic’s agent. Duffy also happens to represent Luka’s only real competition for the first overall pick, DeAndre Ayton, so it’s not like he’s going to screw over one client to help another. If Doncic fell to four, could Duffy put enough pressure on the Grizzlies to get them to consider a deal from the Knicks? It depends on how you look at it.
Around the league, most still see Tim Hardaway Jr.’s contract as a liability. You can put whatever spin you want on $17 million a year for a player who just shot 31 percent from deep, but season one in New York wasn’t exactly a rousing success. It also wasn’t a disaster. Timmy served as a first option (albeit an inefficient one) on many nights, and when he played second banana to KP, the Knicks were usually formidable.
(Would Steve Mills ok the trading of a player he famously brought in when the Knicks were under his watch for a few weeks last summer? If he did, it would represent yet another sign that this organization is stepping out of the dark ages and into a present where basketball decisions are made solely for basketball reasons.)
For Memphis, Hardaway Jr. would represent an immediate upgrade at shooting guard, which isn’t saying much. More importantly, as a third option after Marc Gasol and Mike Conley, Timmy would be playing far more in what should be his comfort zone. Still, Tim and the ninth pick for Luka only means you simply get hung up on as opposed to getting laughed off the phone. The key lies in who New York would take back in return.
Enter Chandler Parsons. To say the Parsons signing hasn’t gone as expected for Memphis is like saying that Carmelo Anthony was a slight disappointment in OKC (one day I’ll stop with the petty ‘Melo quips, and that day is not today). Mark Cuban’s old pool boy has 183 made field goals in 70 games over two injury-plagued seasons for the Grizzlies, which works out to just under a quarter of a million bucks per basket. To use an industry term, they got hosed.
Replacing Parsons with an above-average NBA player who makes less money while at the same time avoiding the Doncic headache is something the Grizzlies would have to think about. The Knicks would have to send some additional salary to make it work, but Tim, the ninth pick and, say, Emmanuel Mudiay’s expiring contract for Parsons and the fourth pick is a good starting point. The Grizzlies would be wise to ask for another future pick, and the deal would likely come down to haggling over protections, but it bears repeating: Memphis wouldn’t be operating from a position of strength. Neither were the Hornets 22 years ago.
When Charlotte sent the just-drafted Kobe Bryant to the Lakers in exchange for Vlade Divac, was it a fair deal? On it’s face, it made as much sense as THJ to Memphis, the Hornets wanted to stay relevant, had a need at center following Alonzo Mourning’s departure to Miami, and Divac was the textbook definition of serviceable in an era where you needed to big man to survive. In 2018, the same could be said of a scoring wing who can create offense on his own. The parallels are there.
(For those wondering, yes, there would still be a path to max space for New York in the summer of 2019 in the event of such a trade. It’s not easy—they’d have to move Courtney Lee for expiring salary before February, not sign any free agents this offseason, renounce the rights to basically all of their own free agents next July, waive Lance Thomas, waive and stretch Joakim Noah or Parsons, and possibly both, and hold off on KP’s extension—but it’s doable.)
Would Bill Duffy really be the man to broker such a transaction? As luck would have it, he’s also the agent for both Mike Conley and the aforementioned Noah. They’re the two highest-salaried players on both the Knicks and Grizzlies, showing that Duffy has had good experiences with each in the past. Perhaps a buyout for Noah could be worked out on the side to grease the skids, as could the Knicks throwing a guaranteed deal at another Duffy client, Isaiah Hicks, who spend last season on a two-way contract between New York and Westchester.
As Kobe Bryant showed the basketball world over two decades ago, anything is possible. Doncic has far more leverage than Bryant ever did, and he doesn’t need to fall as far in the draft to make this work.
These chances don’t come along often in the NBA. If it presents itself to the Knicks front office come draft night, they’d be wise to think long and hard. Talents like Doncic are rare. If he’s willing to give you an assist to make a deal happen, they’d be silly not to take it.