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Are the Knicks Trying to Tank or Contend?

After the Derrick Rose deal, it’s hard to tell

Getty Images
Getty Images

Late June in New York City is a time of reprieve before the oppressive heat. Down on Canal Street, the warren of fugazi booths have thrown open their plastic and plywood stockades to let their shady products glitter in the sun. The besuited finance bros scurry along the medium-warm streets, still sweatless in banker’s collars. The subway stations don’t yet resemble the armpits of Lucifer, and the humidity hasn’t yet rendered the pizza inedible outdoors. As the sun sets behind the New Jersey scrublands, even the hardbitten lifers who remember carrying mugging money in their socks can see the postcard, “I Love New York” version of the city twinkling off the plate glass and steel mullion faces of the buildings.

For Knicks fans, it’s a time of renewal. A time to cast off the stink of the previous season’s failures and turn hopeful minds to the draft. Except New York doesn’t have its first- or second-round pick in this year’s draft — part of the lingering fallout from the Carmelo Anthony, Andrea Bargnani, and Raymond Felton deals. That leaves free agency and trades as the only real avenues for team building. This is good news, bad news: Historically speaking, when the Knicks fuck up, they fuck up by making bad trades and signing washed free agents. I’m not sure what the good news is.

By the way, Derrick Rose is a Knick. The shape of the deal is Rose (the 2011 NBA MVP, numerous knee surgeries, 16.4 points, 4.7 assists, 13.5 PER last season), Justin Holiday, and a second-round pick to New York for Robin Lopez, Jerian Grant, and the sweet-shooting but lifeless body of ham rancher Jose Calderon. On the surface, it’s the kind of trade that the Knicks have done many times before: acquiring an oft-injured marquee name in the hopes there are still a few good resin hits lurking somewhere within. It feels like the kind of move that happens when Carmelo Anthony picks up the phone after watching J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert get fitted for championship rings. (No disrespect to Timofey Mozgov.)

Post-panoply-of-injuries Rose is basically a replacement-level player. An occasional slasher, midrange pull-up guy, who shot sub-30 percent from deep last season, and missed 47 regular-season games over the past two seasons. He plays a position that is well stocked across the league. He spent last season embroiled in a power struggle for the soul of the Bulls with Jimmy Butler. Chicago was more than five points better per 100 possessions when Rose was off the floor compared to when he was on.

To get Rose, the Knicks gave up some nice (not great) assets — Lopez is a starting-caliber center on a very tidy contract, Jerian Grant is on his rookie deal. Grant struggled under the demands of running the triangle and may not be anything more than a career backup point guard. (P.S., considering the team’s new starter has legs made of stale pretzels, the Knicks could use one of those right now.) New York didn’t try particularly hard to develop Grant’s skills and interim coach Kurt Rambis shackled him to the bench. As this dude pointed out to me on Twitter, Phil Jackson’s three best moves as Knicks president are drafting my large son and saviour Kristaps Porzingis, signing Robin Lopez for a modest $54 million over four years, and bamboozling the Hawks into swapping the 19th pick (Jerian Grant) for Tim Hardaway Jr. In a stroke, the Rose deal erases two of the three.

That said [makes sign of the cross, kisses fingertips, points to the sky], this is not Stevie Franchise II. Rose is entering the final year of the deal he started in 2012. If he can’t return to the light-bending athleticism (a Steph Curry–from-the-tunnel long shot, but if you or I were shooting it) of his pre-injury days, Phil can wave goodbye. And Lopez (except for his mascot-pummeling production) is readily replaceable. This summer’s free-agent market for bigs is an Ikea catalog of names ranging from Dwight Howard (shudder) to Joakim Noah (meh) to Boban Marjanovic (INTRIGUING RFA OGRE).

The market for free-agent point guards, meanwhile, drops off like the Mariana Trench after Mike Conley. New York will have about $11 million and change to throw around this offseason, and, much, much more the following summer, assuming Rose is allowed to limp off into the sunset and Phil doesn’t throw a max deal at Dwight Howard because the great spirit bear Awanamaki told him to. A disaster this most definitely is not.

But what the hell is it, exactly? The Knicks now have Carmelo Anthony, Kristaps, and Kyle (I like you but please figure your game out) O’Quinn locked up through 2017–18. The team also has its first-round draft pick in 2017. This, in other words, is the year to steer into the landfill and really wallow in the stink.

There’s a saying: If you chase two rabbits, you catch neither. New York appears to be trying to develop Kristaps (whose future lies as a stretch-shooting, rim-protecting unicorn 5), while contending on the fly. If the Rose move is a stealth tank — a fuzzy cat-toy-on-a-string of a deal meant to look like a competitive move while really being about Trusting the Process — then there were better ways to go about it that didn’t involve spinning off assets for a faded star with an ongoing civil sexual assault case. And if by chance Rose should find a way to reach back and grab that old thunder, guess what, now he’s a free agent; he can up and leave.

Today, off Ocean Avenue in Brooklyn, barbecue grills dotted the sidewalk, painting the air with the jerk chicken–and-hamburger smell of summer. Meanwhile, somewhere out there, the other shoe is getting ready to drop.

An earlier version of this story omitted the Raymond Felton deal from the section detailing New York’s lack of its first- and second-round picks in this year’s draft.