The New York Knicks are rebuilding. Their plan is to trade Carmelo Anthony and assemble a young roster around centerpiece Kristaps Porzingis. New York should take a cue from the crosstown Brooklyn Nets, who have quietly made some nice moves over the past year in a slow climb towards respectability.
Bring up the Nets to a basketball fan and the first thing that comes to mind is what some consider to be the worst trade in NBA history. In the summer of 2013, the Nets acquired an aging Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett from the Boston Celtics in exchange for first-round picks in 2014, 2016 and 2018 and the right to swap picks in 2017. Due to injuries and lack of production the Nets quickly descended from supposed championship contenders to a lottery team, and those picks became extremely valuable, culminating in the Celtics receiving the No. 1 pick (which they traded to Philadelphia) this past June.
However, Billy King, the general manager who made that deal for the Nets is long gone. Brooklyn hired Sean Marks, a long-time assistant coach and member of the front office for the San Antonio Spurs, one of the best-run organizations in the league, in February of 2016. In the summer of 2016, Marks brought in Kenny Atkinson, a one-time Knicks assistant coach, who was well-respected around the game for his ability to develop young talent, to be the head coach.
Marks lacked draft picks due to the Garnett and Pierce trade so he used creative means over the past several months to acquire assets. In February, the Nets sent Croatian sharpshooter Bojan Bogdanovic and Chris McCullough to the Washington Wizards for a lottery-protected first-round pick in 2017, shooting guard Marcus Thornton and forward Andrew Nicholson. Bogdanovic, the centerpiece of the deal, signed with the Indiana Pacers as a free agent this summer, and the Nets ended up with the 22nd pick in the draft, which they used to select Jarrett Allen, a big man out of the University of Texas.
Next, Marks used the Nets’ salary-cap space to take on other teams’ bloated salaries, for a cost. Marks was able to swipe D’Angelo Russell, the second overall pick in the 2015 draft from the Los Angeles Lakers. L.A. was desperate to shed salary in order to free up cap space to pursue Paul George and other free agents in the summer of 2018, so they parted with Russell in order to unload Timofey Mozgov and the $48 million remaining on his contract. The Nets also sent the Lakers the 27th pick in the 2017 draft.
This past weekend, the Nets were a willing trade partner for another team looking to dump salary, the Toronto Raptors. Toronto was anxious to unload the remaining $30 million on forward DeMarre Carroll’s contract in order to gain greater cap flexibility. The price they paid the Nets was a lottery-protected first-round pick and a second round pick in 2018. The Nets also sent center Justin Hamilton to the Raptors, who Toronto promptly waived.
The Knicks have been searching for a new head of basketball operations since parting ways with Phil Jackson a few weeks ago. New York had talks with David Griffin, the former general manager of the Cleveland Cavaliers, and one of the most respected talent evaluators in the game. But Griffin walked away because the team was not willing to grant him full authority over basketball decisions or allow him to choose his own personnel. Apparently, team owner James Dolan believes that several of the current people in the front office have been so successful over the past several years as to render them indispensable.
Meanwhile, general manager Steve Mills, whose expertise is in business and relationships, not the basketball side of operations, is calling the shots. Mills inked one-time Knick and Atlanta Hawks restricted free agent Tim Hardaway Jr. to an offer sheet for $71 million over four years. Hardaway demonstrated significant improvement in 20016-17 and has molded himself into a rotation player, but is not worth any where near that type of money. Executives around the league were shocked by the offer, and not surprisingly, the Hawks refused to match it.
Hardaway does not fill a need. The Knicks already have Courtney Lee at shooting guard, signed to a cap-friendly four-year, $40 million deal. After signing Hardaway, the Knicks do not have the cap space to add a much-needed veteran point guard to tutor first-round pick Frank Ntilikina (other than perhaps Rajon Rondo) or to take on contracts in exchange for draft picks, as the Nets have done. And good luck finding any takers for Hardaway’s contract if the Knicks later decide to trade him again. (New York traded Hardaway two years ago for the draft rights to Jerian Grant, who was later shipped to Chicago in the Derrick Rose deal.)
That is not to say that the Nets have not offered exorbitant amounts of money to young, restricted free agents. Over the past two summers, the Nets have offered Tyler Johnson $50 million, Allen Crabbe $50 million and $106 million to Otto Porter. However, those offers were within the range of the players’ perceived value, and the teams they came from elected to match them.
The Nets will be a bad team again this season and will not have their own draft pick to show for it. But they are moving in the right direction, something that cannot be said for a lot of NBA franchises, including their neighbors in Manhattan.