When last night’s blockbuster Carmelo trade broke, I posted some quick thoughts on twitter about why I think the Knicks made an outstanding deal, and to my surprise I appear to be in the minority expressing that sentiment. Digging deeper, here are my full thoughts on the deal from the Knicks’ perspective.
Looking at the Knicks’ incoming and outgoing players and assets, they sent out Raymond Felton, Danilo Gallinari, Wilson Chandler, Timofey Mozgov, Anthony Randolph, Eddy Curry, a 2014 first round pick, a 2012 second round pick, a 2013 second round pick, and $6 million in cash. In return, they received Chauncey Billups, Carmelo Anthony, Corey Brewer, Shelden Williams, Renaldo Balkman, and Anthony Carter.
The first subjects of note in this deal from the Knicks’ perspective are the non-immediate assets, namely the picks and cash. At first glance, the Knicks appear to have given up quite a lot of assets, but it’s important to remember that the Knicks’ massive financial resources make some assets relatively less important to them, compared to what they’re worth to other teams. The $6 million in cash is pretty much irrelevant from an assets perspective to the Knicks, and the same can be said for all three of the picks as well, as NBA draft picks in the 20-60 range every year have shown over time to have cash equivalents of $3 million or less (which is the maximum allowable cash that can be sent from one team to another in a transaction).
Looking at this past year’s draft, the #25 and #31 picks were both sold for straight cash, while the 2009 draft saw #29, #32, #34, #54, and #57 traded for cash considerations, to say nothing of the multiple other deals where teams moved up in the draft or acquired new picks by taking on unwanted salary (see Kurt Thomas, Daequan Cook, Kirk Hinrich, Morris Peterson, Sasha Vujacic deals in the past few seasons as examples, among the many, many others).
The point of the matter is for the Knicks, draft picks that fall after a certain point in the draft have a cash equivalent on the trade market, and cash is not really an issue for the Knicks. While it’s easy to discount the relative importance of $3 million, some may still not be convinced, but let’s not forget that the Knicks $60-70 million in team salary this season is just half of what it was just five years ago when their annual salary hovered in the $120-$130 million range. And now they have a product worth seeing and are going to be in the playoffs, meaning even more revenues to offset costs (which would be still down from five years ago even if they bought 10 draft picks).
Some assets in the NBA are easily replaceable while others are not. Late first round picks and all second round picks have cash equivalents on the market, and that makes them virtually unlimited for the Knicks (at least to the extent they’d ever need them – they only have 15 roster spots after all). This situation isn’t comparable to when the Knicks wound up trading away two high lottery picks for Eddy Curry, as those assets have massive value and are extremely hard to replace. Late picks can be acquired easily, where as high lottery picks are extremely difficult to acquire, though even that difficulty pales in comparison to what it takes to acquire already established NBA stars in their prime.
So when you accept the notion that the Knicks’ picks and cash are largely irrelevant in this deal, it makes it easier to analyze the rest. For the purposes of simplicity, we can throw out Eddy Curry, Anthony Randolph, Renaldo Balkman, and Anthony Carter from discussions, as none of them have meaningful impact in the league this season and none of them had value greater than a $3 million cash equivalent from a future perspective. What that leaves us with is a straight 4-for-4 player swap, and that’s what needs to be looked at to analyze how the Knicks made out.
Much has been said about the Knicks gutting their assets to acquire Carmelo, about how they have a paper thin rotation, about how they don’t have any depth in the frontcourt, and about how they have no margin of error going forward because of all the assets they gave up. When you actually break down the key components to this deal, however, things don’t look so grim for the Knicks, especially compared to what they had before.
Comparing the 10-11 season numbers of Anthony, Billups, Brewer, and S.Williams to Gallinari, Felton, Chandler, and Mozgov, there’s a remarkable similarity in the incoming and outgoing. Essentially, the Knicks are replacing four rotation players with four rotation players, consisting of a point guard, two wings, and one center.
Comparing the combined per-game numbers of the quartets, the new group has averaged 109.0 MPG this season, compared to 121.2 for the outgoing. The discrepancy largely comes from Brewer averaging just 24.3 minutes compared to Chandler’s 34.4, and presumably some combination of Brewer along with Shawne Williams and Bill Walker will fill in the gap for the Knicks. Regardless, this isn’t a dramatic change for the Knicks, who basically are getting close to equal minutes coming back (and they’re coming from the Nuggets, who have quite clearly been a better team than the Knicks thus far this season when you consider their better record in a tougher conference).
Looking at the rest of the numbers, you have 42.6 FGA per game outgoing compared to 42.0 incoming, 53.4 points outgoing to 55.0 incoming, and 13.0 FTA outgoing to 18.1 incoming. There’s a little give and take here or there, but the notion that the Knicks gutted their roster to acquire one guy is simplistic and largely inaccurate, as the two quartets are close to identical from a minutes, usage, and production standpoint.
Breaking things down further, there is actually some disparity in regards to shot locations for the quartets, unsurprising given the Knicks’ three-point shooting and Carmelo’s love of the long two-point jump shot. The chart below shows a breakdown of how many FGA per game from each range are incoming and outgoing for the Knicks for the eight main players involved in the deal.
The biggest disparity comes in the ratio of long two pointers to three pointers attempted, with them being essentially inverted for the two groups. Theoretically, this could be problematic for D’Antoni’s offense, but slight adjustments could be made from multiple players to offset the difference.
While the new guys have a higher propensity for taking long two pointers, surprisingly the groups have nearly identical True Shooting Percentages, both hovering at about 55% in total. Billups' elite scoring efficiency (63.4% TS%) balances out Carmelo’s league average 54.7%, while the group as a whole makes up for their propensity for long jumpers by attacking the rim much better than the outgoing players, averaging 2.3 more attempts per game at the rim and 5.1 more free-throw attempts despite taking the same number of field goal attempts overall.
Shot locations and free-throw attempts only tell part of the story, however, as Sebastian Pruiti of NBAPlaybook.com illustrates many microelements of how Anthony and Billups may struggle to fit in with the Knicks’ offense here, but looking at things purely from a location perspective, the adjustments for incoming players won’t be THAT dramatic. It’s also worth noting the Knicks to this point have attempted the second most threes and third fewest long twos per game according to our Shot Locations database, so drifting to a more average distribution will make them slightly less dramatic.
Looking at the specific players themselves, the first concern is how Anthony and Stoudemire will mesh. Concerns about two players who take on so much offensive burden fitting together are ill-founded, which can be quickly seen comparing the pairs current numbers to others around the league. Anthony and Stoudemire have the third and sixth highest usage rates in the league, respectively, which is the highest combination of any two players, but Lebron and Wade aren’t far behind at fourth and seventh, while Durant and Westbrook are surprisingly right there as well at 8th and 9th. There should be a slight adjustment for Anthony and Amare, but it’s a marginal one, and there is precedent for this type of pairing working for sure.
The bigger concern is how the two fit from a stylistic perspective, as both are players who like to face-up and isolate from the mid-to-long range, getting most of their shots either on long two point jumpers or attacking the basket. Lebron and Wade have similar compatibility problems, and it’s been a work in progress for them, but ultimately the talent overcomes if the two players are willing to work at it. The bigger problem for Amare and Anthony is whether they can even be placed in the same universe with those two on the defensive end of the floor, where neither has had much history for being go-getters. Still, using Lebron James and Dwyane Wade as your basis for comparison may not be the easiest standard to measure up to.
As for the rest of the deal, you’d be hard pressed to argue that Chauncey Billups isn’t a clear upgrade over Raymond Felton for the next 16 months, and that’s all that really matters for the Knicks given Felton’s deal expires after the 11-12 season. Even at 34 years old, Billups is still going strong, as his unbelievable ability to hit pull-up threes is a somewhat ageless quality and makes him a much better fit for D'Antoni's system.
As much potential as Mozgov has (probably not much), you’d also have a tough time arguing he’s better for the present than Shelden Williams, who was playing more minutes than Mozgov this season on a clearly better team, while he also was a solid rotational player for the East-best Celtics last season. At 27 with limited athleticism and a bruising style of play, Williams should be able to contribute as an end-of-the-rotation big for another two or three seasons at his current level, so that’s not an issue either.
That leaves Anthony and Brewer against Gallinari and Chandler, and that’s essentially what this deal will come down to when it’s all said and done. Gallinari and Chandler are very good players and worthwhile assets in their own right, but Chandler is a free agent this summer and the Knicks couldn’t sign him to an extension without using virtually all of their cap space, as he’s likely to command around $8 million annually in the current market. Whether those two can develop into key starters for NBA playoff teams is yet to be seen, but even with them at their full potential, it’s hard to compare them against Anthony, a clear-cut star who’s succeeded as the offensive focal point for a team that’s been among the 5-6 best in the league the past few seasons and is still just 26 years old.
While assets like late draft picks and cash can be replaced by the Knicks at any time, teams could try for years and years and not have the opportunity to get a player of Anthony’s caliber, a truly scarce commodity in the NBA. In this league, your best three or four players are usually significantly more important than the rest of your roster (especially on a cash cow team like the Knicks, who can find creative ways to replace those guys quite easily), and there just aren’t many opportunities to fill those top spots often. Everything the Knicks gave up other than Gallinari/Chandler is easily replaceable using their endless supply of cash, and it’s not like the Knicks had a surplus of cap space waiting for them as an opportunity cost this summer – even with a favorable outcome of CBA negotiations they were nowhere close to being in position to sign a max player (and that’s AFTER you consider they’d have to renounce the rights to Chandler anyhow).
Whether Anthony and Amare can work in harmony will be an ongoing struggle, and there are some concerns about how all the key pieces will fit at the top of the Knicks’ roster in D’Antoni’s system, but from a value and opportunity perspective, it’s hard to find fault with the Knicks making this deal. As much as people opine about the Knicks having little margin for error moving forward and that they will have limited opportunities to improve themselves, I honestly can’t see many more opportunities if they stood pat, and competing with the NBA’s elite teams is no easy task, while there’s always a small window to get everything together. This is their best shot, and they’ll have plenty of chances to make it work if the front office can stay creative and aggressive in using their cash to accumulate complementary assets over time.