Kristaps Porzingis is the 40th Best Player in Basketball

KP 50

Throughout the offseason, Pick and Popovich will rank the top 50 players in the NBA. To be clear, these are 50 best players for the 2016-17 season, regardless of team situation, past performance or future potential. If you’re trying to win a championship in 2016-17, these are the 50 players you’d want most. 

Why He’s Great: Last season, as a rookie, Kristaps Porzingis had a game in which he made two three-pointers, blocked seven shots, grabbed 14 rebounds and turned the ball over only three times. That has never happened in NBA history. I repeat, that has NEVER happened in NBA history. Here’s the proof. Keep in mind, this happened when he was a rookie.

And things like this are going to keep happening. Nothing can be taken off of the board. Might the Knicks try him as the ball-handler in a pick-and-roll? Is he mobile enough to play small forward in ultra big lineups? Imagine a super villain cloned Dirk Nowitzki, but some of Hakeem Olajuwon’s DNA was already in the vile and then they just stuck a bit of flubber on his shoes for fun. That’s pretty much what we’re looking at with KP.

There is absolutely no precedent for what Kristaps Porzingis might one day become. We’re talking about an all-time rim protecter who projects as a future knockdown shooter. He’s 7’3”, but he still played in 72 games as a rookie. As far as we can tell, he’s a one-of-a-kind player who’s going to be durable enough to stay on the court enough to prove it.

Why He’s Below No. 39 (Kemba Walker): We have no idea when Porzingis is going to hit his peak because his peak simply doesn’t exist in NBA history. There’s no timetable for his development. He might turn into a superstar as early as next season. He also might just be a slightly better version of his rookie self, someone good for 16 or 17 inefficient points and a mixed bag of rebounding, passing and shot-blocking. No. 40 is splitting the difference. Kemba Walker is a star right now. He already is who he’s going to be as a player, and that’s much easier to project.

And it’s not as though Porzingis is a flawless super player. He’s so skinny that bigger forwards and centers can still bully him. His basketball IQ still has a long way to go and there are still certain defensive rotations that make him look lost. And for all of the blustering about what his shot is going to be, over his last 20 games of last season he made fewer than 30% of his three’s.

We have to be honest about who Porzingis is right now, a gawky pseudo-rookie barely out of his teens without a stable organization to guide him. He’s going to be great. But right now, he’s just good.

What the Derrick Rose Trade Means for the Knicks

Derrick Rose Knicks 1

Let’s pretend for a moment that Derrick Rose never won an MVP.

Let’s pretend that he isn’t a former All Star, that he’s not one of the biggest names in basketball, that this trade was made strictly on basketball terms.

The New York Knicks had arguably the worst point guard play in basketball last season, so they added a point guard who averaged 18 points and five assists on totally respectable .444/.344/.789 shooting splits from February through April of last season. The only player of note they gave up was Robin Lopez, a questionable long-term fit anyway as Kristaps Porzingis is likely a center and Carmelo Anthony will probably need to transition to power forward as his athleticism starts to go. On those terms alone, this was an excellent short-term trade. The inflection point comes in July.

There are two ways that the Knicks can treat this deal. If Jeff Hornacek has his way, the Knicks will look for younger wings to flank Rose on the free agent market. That means names like Kent Bazemore, Harrison Barnes and Evan Fournier. Any additions will be based on the Kristaps Porzingis timeline, they’ll be younger and they’ll shoot three’s, and they absolutely will not need to fit the triangle. Rose will be a short-term gamble and nothing more.

Considering Hornacek’s offensive style, that’s a roster that makes a lot of sense. A team with Rose at the point and Anthony at power forward would play fast and shoot a ton of three’s. It would be highly pick-and-roll based, and the defense would rely on Porzingis growing into a high-end rim protector (possible, though likely a stretch in Year 2). It has the pure fire power to be one of the better offenses in basketball, it has the talent to make a decent playoff run right away, but it also has the roster flexibility to easily be re-tooled for Porzingis in a year or two (especially since a Knicks team making real playoff runs instantly becomes a highly desirable free agent destination).

This is the sensible path. It leans into the direction modern basketball is heading. And then there’s the crazy old man Phil Jackson route.

This involves chasing a big-name center, eschewing shooting and just hoping talent wins out. This treats name value as something of importance in a market that sells games out anyway. This means forcing square pegs into triangular holes.

That’s the biggie. Derrick Rose cannot play in the triangle. He is the absolute worst point guard for that system. Triangle point guards are quick decision makers who shoot three’s and move off of the ball. Rose does none of these.

None of the available centers (except for Pau Gasol, who was drafted before Porzingis’ great grandparents were born) fit the triangle either. Hassan Whiteside has 36 assists in his entire career. He’s not going to be able to make the quick read-and-react high post passes a triangle center has to make. Dwight Howard just wants to post people up so he can convince himself he’s still a relevant offensive player.

Signing someone like Whiteside or Howard, and even to a lesser extent Gasol or Joakim Noah, is exactly the sort of mistake the old Knicks used to make. Then again, the old Knicks never would have used the No. 4 pick on someone like Porzingis. So all bets are off. We’ll know by mid-July which path New York is taking, and for their own sakes, let’s hope it’s the first.

LeBron Can Leave Cleveland Now

LeBron Leaving

There are going to be a lot of stories today about LeBron James bringing Cleveland the championship he so often promised, about what a local hero he is to a city that hadn’t won much of anything for five decades, about how his legacy as a Cavalier is officially cemented and how no one will ever be able to question his commitment to winning or to Ohio for the rest of his career.

It’s easy to feel that way today because LeBron just won the championship. We saw him hug Kevin Love, we saw Dan Gilbert on the podium and Kyrie Irving make that game-winning three. Emotions run high in the heat of the moment. As overjoyed as he must be right now and as much as we all might think this is his happy ending, sooner or later that emotion is going to die down and he’s going to be faced with all of the same problems he had 24 hours ago. After all, he more or less said those exact words to his detractors four years ago.

Several months ago, I imagine sometime in the winter, after a loss in which Irving took too many shots and Love allowed too many to go in, James probably drove home in the snow and brooded in his living room (or lounge, or, dare I say, study) for a few hours. Maybe there was a deer’s head on the wall and a few logs roasting in the fireplace. For a split second he must’ve thought, “man, it’s not fun playing for Cleveland right now.” And then he probably thought, “I wish I could play with players who just get it.” And for just the briefest of moments, I have to imagine he realized something along the lines of “you know, I don’t have to stay in Cleveland once I win them a championship.”

So I’m going to present a very different type of story. What if this isn’t about LeBron coming home to win one for “the land.” What if this was about LeBron winning one so he could get out and never look back?

lebron-james-miami-heat-win-streak-2013

The social contract LeBron signed with Cleveland was very specific. He promised to revive the city and he did it. He regretted leaving the team in embarrassing fashion and with a bare cupboard and now he can do so with neither. It was never about winning “not five, not six, not seven,” it was, in his own words, about “bringing one trophy back to Northeast Ohio.

Note the use of the word one. 

It might be arbitrary, but by now we should’ve learned to take LeBron at his word. He spent his entire Miami tenure croning about how badly he wanted to come back to Cleveland at some point to win them a title. Nobody bought it until it happened. He didn’t mention Andrew Wiggins in his letter returning to Cleveland, and then Wiggins was traded.

So what has LeBron said? Well, in that same famous letter he stated that his goal was still “to win as many trophies as possible,” and it’s fair to wonder if Cleveland is the best place to do that. Remember, had Draymond Green played in Game 5, it’s possible that the Cavs lose the series then and there and we aren’t having this conversation. Cleveland still has to reconfigure their roster to fit better against Golden State next year, when a suspension is unlikely and the Warriors will likely be healthier.

It’s also fair to wonder if his best shot at grabbing a few more rings might come through something else he said. I’ll present this quote from Howard Beck’s Brotherhood story earlier this season without comment: “‘I really hope that, before our career is over, we can all play together,’ James said. ‘At least one, maybe one or two seasons—me, Melo, D-Wade, CP—we can get a year in. I would actually take a pay cut to do that.'”

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He and Wade are both slated to be free agents next month, and both spent last year—and will likely spend most future years—playing with the flexibility of one-year contracts. Carmelo Anthony is eminently acquirable considering his age and the likely direction of the Knicks’ franchise. And Chris Paul is going to be a free agent one year from now.

We looked it over in April and deemed Houston the likeliest team to unite the super friends. But realistically, LeBron could hop right on his banana boat back down to South Beach this summer along with Wade and get Pat Riley to trade Justise Winslow and Goran Dragic for Anthony. From there it would be a simple matter of waiting for Paul next summer and a few pay cuts to make it all possible. The same could be said of the Lakers, and the Knicks already have Anthony and could easily create the cap space to fit James and Wade in.

These are all cities that athletes would much rather live in than Cleveland. These are all cities that can accommodate James’ other interests—be they film, business or who knows what else—far more than Cleveland can. And most importantly, these scenarios all involve players that LeBron actually seems like he wants to play with. James never subtweeted Dwyane Wade in Miami. He never called out Anthony’s defense during the Olympics.

And frankly, there’s something much more interesting for LeBron to do with his buddies somewhere else anyway. Robert Horry and John Salley are the only players ever to win championships with three different teams. If James feels that he can’t catch Michael Jordan’s total of six, then the next best thing might creating an entirely unique resume of his own to change the conversation.

Who knows, he might even just retire. Maybe he wants to try football for a year, he hasn’t exactly been shy about his interest in doing so in the past. His beloved Dallas Cowboys could use another pass-catcher. There’s an argument to be made that he’s done everything he can do in basketball anyway. Why not try something new? He may be too far away from Jordan to become the greatest basketball player ever (though I don’t subscribe to that theory), but winning a Super Bowl could make him the greatest athlete ever. That’s not a bad distinction.

None of this is to say that LeBron is headed elsewhere right now. But rather, the terms of LeBron’s unspoken deal with the city of Cleveland have been met. He is free to do as he pleases from this point on, and there are more than a few signs that suggest playing for the Cleveland Cavaliers isn’t on top of that list.

Fake NBA Trade of the Day 6/17/16: Kevin Love to New York

Kevin Love Knicks 1

Every day, Pick and Popovich will post one fake trade and explain why it makes sense for every team involved to make it. There are no parameters beyond fitting within the salary cap. Sometimes the trades will involve stars, others role players. They are not grounded in actual rumors, they just make sense on paper. During the 2016 NBA Playoffs, each week will feature seven fake trades of one star player. This is Kevin Love Week. 

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Cleveland Cavaliers Receive:                                                  New York Knicks Receive:

Carmelo Anthony                                                                        Kevin Love

 

 

Why Cleveland would make this trade: Because Carmelo Anthony is LeBron’s friend, and that matters for some reason.

Why New York would make this trade: If you’re going to have an all-offense forward, better to have one who’s 27 than one who’s 32.

Fake NBA Trade of the Day 6/10/16: Blake to New Orleans

Blake Pellies

Every day, Pick and Popovich will post one fake trade and explain why it makes sense for every team involved to make it. There are no parameters beyond fitting within the salary cap. Sometimes the trades will involve stars, others role players. They are not grounded in actual rumors, they just make sense on paper. During the 2016 NBA Playoffs, each week will feature seven fake trades of one star player. This is Blake Griffin Week. 

9657_los_angeles_clippers-alternate-2016-1.0                    NYKNICKS_Logo-Final                    CelticsLogo_History-1           012513_landing_main_logo-1

 

Clippers Receive:                  Knicks Receive:                       Celtics Receive:                 Pelicans Receive:

Carmelo Anthony                 Jrue Holiday                              Robin Lopez                        Blake Griffin

Jonas Jerebko                       No. 6 Pick                                   Paul Pierce                         Cole Aldrich

James Young                        C.J Wilcox

 

Why Los Angeles would make this trade: The base trade is Anthony for Griffin, which makes sense if the Clippers want to get smaller and believe FIBA ‘Melo can show up in the NBA, but getting Jerebko, a two-way forward/center who can shoot three’s and Young, a prospect who hasn’t really gotten a chance yet, is just icing on the cake. Jerebko could play serious minutes for the Clippers right away.

Why New York would make this trade: Holiday has been around for awhile, but remember he’s only 25-years-old. He’s much closer to Kristaps Porzingis’ timeline than Anthony is, and the No. 6 pick gives the Knicks a chance to add another major building block going forward.

Why Boston would make this trade: They’re giving up a rotation player on a non-guaranteed contract and a prospect they never use to fill their biggest need with a rim-protector on a cost-controlled contract and allow one of their franchise legends to finish his career where it started. They’d be crazy not to make this trade.

Why New Orleans would make this trade: Blake Griffin and Anthony Davis on one team is basically just combining the infinity stones.

What If Karl Malone Was Traded to the Knicks?

Karl Malone Knicks

Every Wednesday, Pick and Popovich will dive down the rabbit hole and explore a different NBA “What if.” The only rule is that the scenario must come from a place that is somewhat realistic and grounded in at least somewhat believable rumor or hearsay. Otherwise, anything goes. 

Two superstars grow increasingly frustrated in the summer of 1994. One, in New York, came just seven points short of winning his first NBA championship in June. The other, in Utah, has just seen one of his biggest rivals, Hakeem Olajuwon, snatch up that very title he believes should be his. So the frustrated star in Utah tells his agent to force a trade. He thinks that a partnership with New York’s embattled All-Star will finally deliver the championship he craves. So just before the 1994-95 season, Karl Malone gets his wish and is traded to Patrick Ewing’s New York Knicks for a package led by Charles Oakley and rookie Charlie Ward.

The fit takes some time. Derek Harper and John Starks can’t quite match John Stockton as a pick-and-roll partner for Malone, but raw talent alone carries the Knicks to a conference best 59-23 record. That talent is molded into a cohesive team by the second round, when Ewing and Malone finally get their shot at Michael Jordan and the Bulls. They come into the series seen by some as underdogs, but leave after a decisive five-game victory as the clear championship favorite. Shaquille O’Neal’s Orlando Magic put up a good fight in the Eastern Conference Finals, but nothing can stop the inevitable Knicks-Rockets NBA Finals rematch.

HOUSTON - 1994: Hakeem Olajuwon #34 of the Houston Rockets grabs a rebound against the Boston Celtics during an NBA game at the Compaq Center circa 1994 in Houston, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 1994 NBAE (Photo by Bill Baptist/NBAE via Getty Images)

Both teams come into the series far stronger than their previous incarnations. The Knicks obviously bring Malone to the table, but aren’t to be outdone by Houston’s addition of Clyde Drexler. The new guys make their presence known early on, with Drexler hitting a game-winner in Game 1 and Malone scoring 36 points to even the series in Game 2. The Rockets take two at home to return to New York with a 3-2 series lead. Malone almost turns into the goat when Drexler steals the ball from him in the post and takes the ball coast-to-coast to give Houston a one-point lead late in Game 6, but in redemption for his failure in the ’94 Finals, John Starks hits a game-winner to force a seventh game. The Knicks take it with relative ease. New York wins its first championship in over 20 years, Starks is named Finals MVP, and five days later, head coach Pat Riley agrees to a five-year contract extension despite overtures from Miami to run the entire Heat organization.

The Knicks never quite reach championship heights again. Michael Jordan’s second Bulls dynasty sees to that, but both Ewing and Malone eventually see their numbers retired in New York, cementing their status as Knicks legends.

Things don’t go quite so smoothly for the team Malone leaves behind. John Stockton tries to play the good soldier and compete with teammates he’s given, but after several years of losing both sides grow agitated. Stockton wants to win, and during the 1998 NBA lockout he begins to seriously consider retirement. The Jazz, refusing to lose him for nothing, begin to shop their aging star to contenders as soon as the labor crisis is resolved. They find an eager suitor in the San Antonio Spurs.

PORTLAND - DECEMBER 27: John Stockton #12 of the Utah Jazz catches a pass during the game against the Portland Trail Blazers at The Rose Garden on December 27, 2002 in Portland, Oregon. The Blazers won 103-98. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory copyright notice: 2002 NBAE. (Photo by Sam Forencich/NBAE/Getty Images)

With the young Tim Duncan and veteran superstar David Robinson, the Spurs head into the 1998-99 season primed for a championship run. But Avery Johnson is hardly an appealing option at point guard, so when the opportunity to upgrade to Stockton arises, San Antonio leaps. They send Johnson, Mario Elie and draft picks to Utah for the aging point guard and never look back. The Spurs waltz to the 1999 NBA Championship giving Stockton his first title. Who do they beat there? Stockton’s old teammate, Karl Malone, and the New York Knicks.

Despite the loss, Malone embraces Stockton in the tunnel after the deciding Game 5, congratulating him on finally earning the ring he so obviously deserved. When the press asks about the encounter afterwards, Stockton is coy, telling them only how much he enjoyed playing with Malone and that he wished him the best going forward. Malone is a bit more forthcoming.

“We talked about teaming back up some day, maybe trying to win one together, like we should’ve all those years ago,” Malone is quoted as saying, “who knows, I hear the Lakers might be interested…”

Fake NBA Trade of the Day 5/18/16: Tony Parker to the Knicks

Tony Parker Knicks FI1

Every day, Pick and Popovich will post one fake trade and explain why it makes sense for every team involved to make it. There are no parameters beyond fitting within the salary cap. Sometimes the trades will involve stars, others role players. They are not grounded in actual rumors, they just make sense on paper. During the 2016 NBA Playoffs, each week will feature seven fake trades of one star player. This is Tony Parker Week. 

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San Antonio Spurs Receive:                                                  New York Knicks Receive:

Robin Lopez                                                                                 Tony Parker

 

Why San Antonio would make this trade: Assuming Tim Duncan retires, Robin Lopez could easily slide into his role on the 2016 team as the defensive anchor at center. He’s cost-controlled for four years, and the Spurs could still create cap space for a new point guard by dumping Boris Diaw.

 

Why New York would make this trade: Parker not only fills a major need at point guard, but he’s cheap enough to allow the Knicks to shop for some new wings in free agency, and by moving Lopez the Knicks can move Kristaps Porzingis to center and Carmelo Anthony to power forward, where they should be playing.