How the Knicks went back to the Isiah Thomas era to acquire Andrea Bargnani


If the contracts for Rashard Lewis and Gilbert Arenas taught us anything, it’s that there isn’t a player in this league who cannot be traded once they have entered the final two years of their contract. Bulls fans yelping with excitement at this thought can find plenty of evidence to support that notion, and this week, we just got a little bit more.

There is no reason why Andrea Bargnani should have been tradable. His promise burned out long ago — his talents, such as they are, no longer constitute potential. This should have been an albatross contract, residual scorched earth from the previous regime, an unwanted anchor of a contract attached to a player who can neither help, nor stay on, his current team. Toronto should be preparing to use the amnesty clause on him rather than choosing which future assets they can get for him.

Into the breach, however, stepped New York. Channeling the Isiah Thomas era, New York were determined to outbid seemingly nobody, and ended up giving what few assets they actually have for a player who only helps if this is fantasy basketball. In reality, Bargnani takes so much off the table that it is hard to justify acquiring him at any price.

Bargnani’s skill set may be rarer and thus more enticing than, say, Amir Johnson’s, but a comparison of their relative impacts reveals a result that frankly isn’t even that close. The reality is that Johnson has been outplaying the man ahead of him for years, and only politicization and asset management has prevented their roles from being reversed. While this is partly an endorsement of the highly underrated Johnson, it is also more than a mildly pejorative thing to say of Bargnani. Blessed with talent and size, and given every opportunity to succeed, he simply hasn’t for anything more than fleeting stretches.

For a player they could have easily justified amnestying, Toronto landed a first round pick, a second round pick, a useful role player on a reasonable contract, and significant savings. If Camby sticks around with the team, his 2014/15 contract — which calls for $4,177,208 but of which only $1,025,890 is guaranteed — will be a useful trade chip either at the next deadline or next summer. However, if he is bought out on terms favourable to Toronto before then — which seems likely — then he may only count on the cap this season for a nominal amount. This, combined with a concurrent amnesty of Linas Kleiza, will see Toronto expunge several million from their cap in each of the next two seasons, while gaining draft picks and losing bad memories. All this for a famously dispassionate player coming off of a terrible season. The justifications for the deal from Toronto’s perspective are indisputably apparent.

Justifications for the Knicks, of course, will do the rounds. They might contradict each other a bit — “he once scored 20ppg”, “he won’t be coming here to be the man,” etc. — but they’ll be there, and there’s a small degree of validity to them. Bargnani can score the ball, in multiple ways, with a skill set so rare to find in one so large. And the Knicks don’t need someone to go there and be the man offensively, as three others are already vying for that role. Potentially four, if the ambitious and non-sensical Monta Ellis pursuit goes anywhere.

No, instead what the Knicks need is athleticism, hustle, perimeter defense, some post-up offense and an extra rebounder. But Bargnani isn’t any of those things. Bargnani is another player to clutter the mid-range-and-in sector that New York is already overstocked in, who shoots too much, provides little help defense, and is an infamously poor rebounder. He is a more talented player than Steve Novak or Chris Copeland (although, absurd as it may sound to say about a man who averaged 21ppg only two years ago, the gap isn’t all that big), but Bargnani has long since proven that talent doesn’t mean all that much. If the Knicks are mostly going to use Bargnani as a spot-up shooter, they should have just kept Novak, the less talented but more efficient player who at least attempts to cover his noticeable flaws (and who is also a markedly better shooter). And if they are going to use Bargnani as a dribble-drive scorer, they are going to be disappointed.

In fairness, New York gave up backups to get this backup. Novak has his one skill, but he does everything else noticeably poorly, and Camby’s career is on fumes as his athleticism and skills are finally leaving him. The pick shouldn’t be in the lottery, and the Knicks’ infinitely big spending power will render any salary cap and luxury tax ramifications irrelevant. New York didn’t give up players integral to either their future or their present.

What they did do, however, was fire their few remaining bullets. You need these mid-sized contracts and cheap first round picks to be able to facilitate and maximize trade opportunities — proof of that concept lies in the very fact that those were the things that made this deal happen. Yet in paying so much for an upgrade to Steve Novak, New York threw in all their chips on a player who doesn’t fill their holes, using up most of their hole-filling assets to do so. If this deal costs them Copeland as well, the price gets even higher. The Knicks will have assets again in a year’s time, when their eight figure contracts all head towards expiry, but until that time, they have scant little to work with. In this interim period, they have cemented their place as a decent but uncompetitive team with little prognosis for internal growth and almost no means for bringing in others. Financial clout means nothing if you haven’t the mechanisms with which to spend it.

Instead, they’re left hoping that Amar’e’s two remaining years will fall under the two year principle.

How the Knicks went back to the Isiah Thomas era to acquire Andrea Bargnani
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