By Brian Spencer
Wholesale rebuilding via the draft often proves a fool’s errand in today’s NBA. Few teams who focus their intentions on the whims of bouncing ping-pong balls and lottery picks experience the dramatic turnaround they seek, and if they do, it’s often because of freak luck. (See Cleveland and LeBron James.)
Well-rounded franchises incorporate a balanced mix of free-agent signees, trade acquisitions, and draft picks. Work your way down the list of NBA champs, and you’ll see the vast majority of these elite teams followed this formula rather closely.
The Oklahoma City Thunder, a team clearly on their way up and likely heading to their first playoffs (as the Thunder) this season, is a rare exception of teams who’ve heavily, successfully, leaned on the draft to fortify their roster: their core of Kevin Durant, Jeff Green, Russell Westbrook, and (eventually) James Harden were all lottery picks. In fact, the only players not drafted by this franchise that play a significant role in the rotation are Nenad Krstic and Thabo Sefolosha. They’re set to add to their core via the 2010 NBA Draft, too, with two first-round picks, though my guess is they parlay at least one of them into a player via trade. And even with all of this reliance on the draft, the Thunder will have ample salary-cap space this summer to pursue a veteran big man to solidify the starting lineup.
The New York Knicks, however, are doing just the opposite: they apparently don’t have much use for first-round picks, and are instead throwing their hopes and dreams into the free-agent market. It feels like they’ve been planning for this since the days of Larry Johnson, and GM Donnie Walsh better hope he delivers the two megastars he’s angling for because there’s no young help on the way.
Consider that dating back to 2005, the Knicks currently have David Lee, Wilson Chandler, and Danilo Gallinari to show for their draft picks; also consider how bad they’ve been since ’05, a fact which often translates to lottery-pick riches. Uh uh. Not for the Knicks then, and not for the Knicks for a few more years.
A quick recap of why they have and will have so few assets from the draft:
– Traded their 2004 and 2010 first-round picks to the Phoenix Suns 6 years ago in the trade that netted them Stephon Marbury, Penny Hardaway, and, of course, Cezary Trybanski. The Suns almost immediately flipped that 2010 pick to the Utah Jazz in a complicated deal involving yesteryear players Tom Gugliotta and Keon Clark; the Jazz are no doubt eager to finally cash in that investment, which should be a top-seven pick.
– Traded Jordan Hill, the eighth-overall pick of the 2009 NBA Draft, to the Houston Rockets.
– Houston will swap first-round picks with NY in 2011, unless the Knicks win the lottery.
– Houston also acquired the Knicks’ 2012 first-round pick (top-five protected).
We’re fans of Chandler and think he’ll be a nice complimentary player to the Knicks’ big free-agent signees, and Gallinari is flaunting one of the sweetest spot-up shooting strokes in the league. Both are fine pieces that came to New York via the draft; as for Lee, after his restricted free-agent fiasco last summer that ended in a one-year deal, I have a feeling the Knicks will be low on his priority list and that he’ll end up walking.
So can the Knicks do this with little help from the draft? Can they actually build a winner almost exclusively through free agency? If they coax LeBron out of Cleveland, and pair him with a Chris Bosh or an Amare Stoudemire, sure, why not. But if they strike out on James and/or Wade, and are forced to “settle” for the next-best options, it’s tough to see how this will work. We’ll see.
(For the record, our best guess as to who ultimately signs with New York this summer? Chris Bosh and Joe Johnson. Johnson makes too much sense, on many levels, and not necessarily in a good way.)