We begin our offseason of answering reader questions with a peek into an alternate universe that's so bad it might actually be good.
Good morning! Summer League is over and the NBA offseason is officially upon us. I hope everyone is enjoying some downtime while we count down the five weeks until camp opens. Something tells me it’ll be here before we know it.
Before I get to today’s newsletter, THANK YOU to everyone who submitted questions following Friday’s edition! I’ve already gone through most of them and am excited to get to answering them, starting today. Before we get there though, we do have some news to get to, and of course, a reminder to anyone who isn’t a full subscriber that it’s never too late to get on board:
🗣 News & Notes ✍️
🏀 The NBA released the full 2021-22 schedule for the Knicks on Friday, and 29 of the 82 games are on national television. #WeHere, indeed.
Some quick thoughts:
New York would be wise to start fast. They play 11 of their first 19 at home, 12 of their first 17 against non-playoff teams from a year ago, and they face likely bottom-five squads Orlando, Houston and Cleveland five times in their first 16 games.
From that point on, things are still somewhat manageable for a while. After a back to back at Atlanta and at Brooklyn in late November, the Knicks don’t play another road game against a top-six seed in either conference until another trip to face the Hawks on January 15, and they follow that game with four straight at home. After that, though…
There are two gauntlets on either side of the All-Star break. In early February, the Knicks will have to navigate a nasty west coast swing against what might be the top four teams in the West (Lakers, Jazz, Nuggets and Warriors) plus Portland. Then, after the break, it’s back on the road for seven straight, six of which come against playoff teams from last season. Oof.
If they make it through that in one piece, they’ll get a bit of a reprieve, with a home heavy slate to close the season, and with the only two road games in the last seven coming at Orlando and Washington.
It’s too early to make a prediction, but I’m thinking something in the 44-46 win range is going to wind up being my guess. In other words, I’ll be taking the over.
🏀 The Knicks officially signed M.J. Walker to an Exhibit 10 contract. He’ll be invited to camp following a nice showing in Vegas and should be in the running for the second two-way spot.
🏀 Finally, Boston Center Robert Williams signed a four-year, $54 million extension. That total amount is for slightly less than what Mitchell Robinson can extend for given the rules surrounding his contract, and Williams is thought to be a reasonable comp by some. We’ll see if Leon Rose has one more bit of offseason housekeeping left in him.
With the latest offering from the MCU currently streaming on Disney +, it’s only fitting that most of the emails I got in response to Friday’s call to action were “What If…?” scenarios asking me to take a peek into a variety of alternate universes.
The one that caught my eye to kick things off this week comes from Brian, who asks:
My question for you is: I think it's very safe to say that the success of last season was very unexpected and that the Knicks Front Office didn't see it coming. In a hypothetical scenario where the Knicks lived up to projections and were one of the worst teams in the NBA, what do you think this 2021 offseason would have looked like? Also, in 5 years do you think the Knicks would be in a better position on their current path or this hypothetical scenario's path?
Before I get to the answer, first let me address the premise, which is one area where this regime actually has a lot in common with the last one.
Everyone assumes that the 17-win, 2018-19 outfit that tied for the lowest win total in franchise history was always intended to be that bad. Nope. From what I’ve been told, Steve Mills and Scott Perry thought they had assembled a not-good but also not-awful contingent of players who could top 30 wins.
You know what they say: Live by the Fiz, die by the Fiz.
The crazy thing is that after about six weeks of action, the Knicks weren’t looking completely inept. New York used a 3-game November winning streak to get to 7-14 and put themselves on a 27-win pace. That would have ended up being pretty disastrous though, as it would have put them 4th in the lottery standings. That’s where Chicago ended up, and like New York, the Bulls dropped two spots to 6th, winding up with Coby White. See…tanking works!
Fast forward to the 2020-21 squad. I was never given a number or even a precise projection, but the word I’d heard associated with what they envisioned for this team was “experimentation.” Maybe that was as simple as the notion of running the entire offense through Julius Randle and letting the chips fall where they may. Maybe there was some more extreme stuff (point RJ, anyone?) that fell by the wayside once the team started winning. I really have no idea.
But if I had to guess, their approximation was probably around the same thing Mills & Perry had in mind: something in the low 30’s. If they spend most of the season on that pace, I think we all know that Tom Thibodeau would have been fighting like hell just to make the play-in. Charlotte finished the year with 33 wins while Indiana and Washington both ended up with 34. You better believe they’d have taken that thing down to the wire.
Brian’s question assumes a level even below that though. By net rating, which is a better indicator of overall quality than team record, there were four truly dreadful teams in the NBA last season: Houston, Cleveland, Orlando and Oklahoma City, with Minnesota and Detroit knocking on the door.
If the Knicks were among that group, the only certain thing would have been their draft pick. The unluckiest of these teams, the Wolves, ended up with the 7th spot in the lottery, which forced them to give their pick over to the Warriors. The Thunder got 6th, the Magic 5th, and the Cavs, Rockets and Pistons were the top three.
It’s worth noting here that there was some pretty significant tanking that went on down the stretch, in particular from Oklahoma City. The Thunder snatched victory from the jaws of defeat in a final weekend matchup with the Clippers, who were also tanking for playoff positioning. Point is, I have a hard time seeing Thibs ever engage in such a thing, and I’m betting the Knicks would have finished with something north of 23 wins. Maybe they’d have taken the Raptors’ lottery spot and ended up 4th. We have no way of knowing for sure, but with more than 23 W’s, the top three would have been out of reach.
That’s significant, because by the time the draft rolled around, it was pretty clear that the top three players - Cade, Green and Mobley - had separated themselves from the pack. We also know, thanks to a report from Ian Begley shortly after the draft, that the Knicks at least had internal conversations about trying to trade up, presumably to 5th, to select Jalen Suggs. According to Begley, the deal would have included RJ Barrett, and the Knicks ultimately decided against it (although we also can’t say for sure whether some team in the top five would have accepted).
To finally answer Brian’s question, I think the biggest change is that the Knicks would have been ultra aggressive in trying to trade up in the draft, unless of course they were already in position to draft Suggs, but even then I could have seen them trying to get even higher.
We heard reports that the Cavs were desperate to unload Kevin Love’s salary. The Knicks didn’t bite, because they obviously valued keeping last season’s momentum going…but what if that wasn’t as big a priority? Would they have considered a swap involving RJ, the 5th pick and a future first for the 3rd pick, Collin Sexton and Kevin Love? I bet they might have, but that the Cavs ultimately would have said no.
In this alternate universe, I don’t think the Knicks would have been nearly as protective of RJ, at least not if they felt he could net them a better young talent with two additional seasons on his rookie deal. Even if this deal wasn’t on the table though, I think it would have been salary dump city in New York. We know from previous reporting courtesy of Yaron Weitzman than there’s been something of an internal tug of war between Brock Aller and Tom Thibodeau about how best to build up the organization. They basically split the baby in 2020, and if that approach ended up yielding far less fruit than it wound up producing, it’s easy to see Aller winning out this time around.
Which gets me to the grand conclusion here: I bet Kemba Walker still ends up in New York, except on his full contract, not as a buyout.
Here’s my thinking: the two-fold reason the Knicks brought back free agents like Nerlens Noel, Alec Burks and Derrick Rose was partially to kick the can down the road but also to maintain continuity from a winning program. The latter priority would have been bunk in Brian’s scenario, so they’d all have been allowed to walk (or more likely, they’d have wanted to get the hell out of Dodge).
That extra cap space would have been enough to slide Kemba into New York’s cap space and still have room for a splashy signing like Fournier, who I’m betting would still have taken their money had they offered it.
Would they have targeted him though? This gets us back to Aller, who I’m certain would have pushed like hell for the Knicks to get in on the Memphis/Eric Bledsoe salary dump. That deal ended up seeing Jonas Valančiūnas go to New Orleans for Bledsoe, Steven Adams, a future Lakers pick, and the right to move up from 17 to 10 in the draft.
The Knicks could have sent Julius Randle to New Orlenas in place of Valančiūnas, taken back some additional salary to still give the Pelicans the room they needed to make a failed Kyle Lowry bid, and then moved up from 21 to 10 for their trouble. This would have come with the ancillary benefit of opening up a starting spot for Obi Toppin.
Even with Bledsoe on the roster, I still think the Walker trade happens, presuming the Knicks could have extracted as asset of some kind from the Thunder. Getting Sam Presti to give up a draft pick is like trying to get water from a rock, so it probably would have been something small, like a heavily protected future first that converts to two seconds. Whatever it was, I think it would have been enough for the Knicks to talk themselves into injecting Kemba’s leadership into a locker room that at that point would have been desperate for such guidance. If they wound up with Suggs, which I’m betting would have been the case, having Walker here as a mentor would have been all the more valuable.
So, alternate universe rotation:
Starters: Kemba Walker, Jalen Suggs, RJ Barrett, Obi Toppin, Steven Adams
Reserves: Deuce McBride, Immanuel Quickley, Jarrett Culver, Juancho Hernangomez, Zaire Williams, Kevin Knox, JT Thor, Mitchell Robinson , Taj Gibson
Now, for the $64,000 question: which scenario is better? I think we’ll get a very clear answer to that question within the next calendar year, by which point we’ll have a pretty good idea what Suggs is as a pro, and more importantly, what star the Knicks end up trading for.
(If you haven’t gathered as much by now, I think this is an issue of “when,” not “if.”)
I’m not gonna lie…the alternate universe seems like a pretty sweet place to be. That’s especially true because in Suggs, RJ, Obi, Quickley, and Williams, you have yourself a pretty dynamic young core with a significant ceiling. You also get the added benefit of probably not being great this season - maybe knocking on the door of the play in, although in this version of the East, I’m not so sure - and New York ending up with another high pick.
In that world, if Suggs showed star potential, maybe somewhere around the level of Morant in his rookie season, the positive vibes would probably outweigh the negativity of more losing. Add one more top-10 pick to that core, and you’re really talking.
But for as appealing as that sounds, it still places you among a bunch of other teams in the league that have really good, really interesting young cores, but nothing resembling a sure thing. As things stand now, the Knicks may be a star trade away from legitimate contention, depending of course on who it is and what they give up. They are in that conversation though, and that’s a pretty damn good place to be.
So flip a coin. I’d probably go with the fake universe if we’re looking five years out, but its close. I’m incredibly high on Suggs, and I think all that’s holding back Obi is opportunity. Still, we’ve dealt with so much losing, and signing on for more of the same, even with a promising young core, would be a tough pill to swallow.
Moral of the story: in Leon we trust. The positive vibes surrounding the Knicks are such a 180 from what existed before that it’s actually possible to imagine different pathways to success. If there were ever a testament to the job he’s done resurrecting this whole operation, it is that.
That’s it for today! If you enjoy this newsletter and like the Mets, don’t forget to subscribe to JB’s Metropolitan. See everyone soon! #BlackLivesMatter
There could be a thousand alternate universes out there, and Deuce winds up as a Knick in every single one of them.
In this alternate universe, the Bledsoe for Patrick Beverly trade still happens, as does the subsequent deal that sent Beverly to Minnesota for Culver and Juancho Hernangomez, who I’m sure would have been thrilled to be a Knick.
Drafted 10th using the New Orleans pick.
Taken instead of Rokas Jokubaitis, one, because the Knicks would have more need at power forward/center than at point guard in this scenario, but also because the “too many kids/roster crunch” issues would have been lessened.
Possibly signed to a new extension, assuming the Knicks would have made him restricted, although I’m not certain this would have been the case