Saturday, June 30, 2007

The Randolph Trade

The Zack Randolph trade is weighing heavily on my mind. Very rarely has a trade come along involving my Knicks that conflicts me so much. Was this a good trade? I think if you look at it from a certain perspective it absolutely is. There are four ways to evaluate this deal: From the talent standpoint, from the financial standpoint, from the chemistry standpoint, and from the standpoint of the bit players involved (Dan Dickau and Fred Jones).

Talent: A stand alone deal

If a knowledgeable fan were to pick up the paper and see the terms of this trade, on their own, he would rightly conclude that this was a steal for the Knicks. At its foundation the trade looks like this: An aging pg who produces well below expectation and a decent 4 whose growth as a player seems to have completely stopped in exchange for a franchise big man in a league devoid of franchise big men. If this were a one time deal, a stand alone exchange, the Knicks would be the clear winners. From a fantasy basketball or a video game perspective, the Blazers would have to be completely inept to make such a trade. However, the NBA is not a rotisserie league, and this trade does not have to stand on its own.


Going into the off-season, I thought the Knicks biggest challenge, other than getting a good distributor, would be to get rid of Steve Francis’ contract. On a team laden with over paid players who under perform, Francis, because of the size of his deal, was perhaps the worst. Francis’ deal ensured us of being over the cap until 2009, getting rid of him would allow the team to have its first summer of financial flexibility next year… Zach Randolph makes what Francis made, but his contract runs until 2011. The Knicks are going to be over the cap until 2011! What happens when David Lee’s contract runs out? What happens when Balkman’s contract runs out? For a team that prides itself on its young nucleus, the Knicks have continuously found ways to hamstring themselves against rebuilding. For the past seven years, since the Patrick Ewing deal in the summer of 2000, the Knicks mantra has been to spend money freely in order to sign the best player available and then hope it all works out. For seven years the Knicks have lacked financial flexibility because of their history of terrible deals. Well, its 2007 and all the Knicks have to show for this strategy is one winning season (2001), two playoff appearances (2001 and 2004), and little else. At what point will this franchise realize that their plan is not working and that they need to try and rebuild with rookie contracts and mid-level-exceptions? If the Knicks had more financial flexibility the could make serious runs at the free agents that have come along, and will continue to come along. But by trading away draft picks (who end up with the cheapest contracts) for big names, by trading players with two years left on a deal for players with four years left, the Knicks continue to handicap themselves financially. The Blazers, meanwhile, have the funds to buy out Francis’ contract, help Channing Frye continue to grow in a franchise that is looking to the future, and overall have maintained the type of financial control that the Knicks lack.

This is where the deal gets really perplexing from the Knicks’ perspective, both from a basketball standpoint and from a psychological standpoint. The Knicks are a young team desperately in need of leadership, unfortunately, their defacto leaders are their best and most veteran player (Stephon Marbury) and their coach (Isiah Thomas). Time has shown Marbury to be petty and immature at times, and at this point in his career he makes for a terrible role model. Thomas, whose voice is supposed to carry the calming influence of the wise, is the most volatile, immature coach I have ever seen at this level (other than Larry Brown). Thomas picks fights with opposing players, sanctions his team’s temper, and does not show any ability to handle hot heads such as Nate Robinson, Francis, and Marbury. Nor has he been able to motivate Eddy Curry, who continues to coast on his size and talent. Into this locker-room comes Zach Randolph, a player whose history of convictions and suspensions precedes him. A player who, while talented, refuses to put in the work on the defensive end; and a player who, in the bright lights of New York City, might just implode and take the whole team with him.

But even if this doesn’t happen, even if Randolph makes it to the court to suit up along side Marbury, Crawford, Richardson, and Curry, this acquisition raises all sorts of chemistry questions. The fact is, Curry and Randolph share similar strengths: Curry is great at using his size and soft hands to make his way into the lane and then finish strong. Randolph too is at home near the basket, though he is more adept at using his footwork to get open. Furthermore, Randolph has a solid game from 18 feet out, which the Knicks might tap even more than his back to the basket game. On offense, I think these guys will do more than coexist, they will wreck havoc on opponent’s defenses. However, Curry’s problem has always been that he can’t do anything other than put the ball in the hoop. He is turnover prone, can’t pass out of double teams well, refuses to put in the effort to rebound, and defends like a revolving door. Randolph isn’t so one dimensional, at least he rebounds, but he is an equally bad defender and also has trouble finding the open man out of the double. So we are left questioning where the Knicks plan to find interior defense, and what will stop teams from packing in the lane around the two big men.

To answer the first question, I expect/hope the Knicks will try some zone, both 2-3 and 3-2. A zone will stop teams from capitalizing so much on Curry and Randolph’s immobility, and will allow the two to do what they are most comfortable doing, standing in the lane contesting shots. A 3-2 would be especially neat, as the Knicks could put Jeffries or Balkman in the middle, ala how the Pistons use Tayshaun Prince. Still, this combination of big men raises just too many questions on the defensive end to be sound.

Finally, how long will Thomas bench David Lee? I like a lineup of Marbury, Crawford, Balkman, Lee, and Randolph, a bit small, but it might work in the east.

The role players
In addition to Randolph, the Knicks also picked up Fred Jones and Dan Dickau from the Blazers. Neither has had much NBA success, but both are young, don’t cost much, and might serve in limited minutes. Jones is an undersized (6’4”) shooting guard with a decent stroke (a career 34% from behind the arc) that will allow the Knicks to limit Richardson’s minutes, hopefully staving off injury to his bad back.

Dickau is, in my mind, the more promising of the two. For years I’ve been telling anyone within earshot that the Knicks need a traditional point guard. That Marbury, Crawford, and Robinson, are all scoring point guards who don’t have the skills or the mentality to run a successful offense. Is Dickau going to come in and get major minutes as the Knicks distributor? No. Still, Dickau could conceivably play 10 minutes a game with a more traditional, half court line up. A bit undersized, I envision Dickau running the court alongside Crawford, Balkman, Richardson, and Lee taking advantage of their speed to score in a hurry (and getting burned for 120 points on defense).

The bottom line
Dealing Francis was a great move because it could've taken 30 million off the books, gotten rid of a position redundancy, and relieved this young, impressionable, franchise of a bad locker room presence. Adding Zach Randolph put an extra 30 million on the books, created a new position redundancy, and added an even worse influence to our still young, leaderless franchise.

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