Early Monday morning, the New York Knicks completed a trade -- one that won't be announced until July 10 -- with the Toronto Raptors, sending Marcus Camby, Steve Novak, a first-round pick and two second-round picks for Andrea Bargnani. As a Knicks fan and one who will bend over backwards to talk himself into every bizarre move the Knicks make -- I once was convinced Anthony Randolph was going to be an All-Star Knicks power forward -- this trade is just insane.
The Knicks, essentially, not only took a contract albatross off Toronto's hands -- new GM Masai Ujiri was desperate to rid himself of the failed first overall pick -- they paid the Raptors for the privilege. If the trade were just Camby and Novak for Bargnani, it would be a wash, two teams handing over each other's soiled linens. But the Knicks threw in three draft picks because … well, because in New York, the future isn't just something that doesn't matter, it's something to be actively avoided.
This has always been a thing in New York. For whatever reason, there is this sense among sports owners in New York City that rebuilding -- or, rather to say, the process of compiling and amassing talent and resources that can be used to sustain perpetual success -- is something that the fanbase will just not stand for. If your team is not competing for a championship that very year, obviously your franchise is a failure and unworthy to wear the words "New York" on the front of your jersey/uniform/sweater/hot pants.
This mindset leads to lunacy like just about every free agent acquisition the Mets have ever made -- with the ironic exception of Carlos Beltran, the one many fans were the most angry about -- or the Yankees giving Alex Rodriguez a 10-year contract or the Knicks trading for someone like Andrea freaking Bargnani. The logic behind the Bargnani trade, behind so many New York sports teams' moves, is that if the move makes the team even slightly better today, it's worth mortgaging whatever possible future there might be. Is having Bargnani on the team for the 2013-14 season better than having Camby and Novak? I find that an arguable point, but if the Knicks think so, and they do, then why not throw in three draft picks do make sure the deal goes down? We weren't using them anyway! They're draft picks!
Ujiri, who had a similar negotiation go down with the Knicks when he was GM of the Nuggets and pulled off the Carmelo Anthony trade (the Knicks just kept throwing in young players and draft picks, presumably without Ujiri even asking) , must have been ecstatic when he saw the 212 number come up on his phone. He knows how these guys work: The Knicks pretend the future does not exist. They are less a shark who must keep moving forward or it'll die and more a jittery kid who needs constant sugar injections lest he sit still for one damned second.
This leads to a cycle of junk like the Knicks have been going through, postponing the future until it's too late, until you blink and realize, crap, we haven't made the playoffs in a decade. And it's not just Jim Dolan and the Knicks. The Brooklyn Nets have been in town for less than a year, and they're already out-Knicking the Knicks with that bonkers Kevin Garnett-Paul Pierce trade. I know the Celtics are going to be terrible for a couple of seasons, but the Nets gave them three unprotected draft picks over the next five seasons. Draft picks might seem like nothing now, but this is how teams win. (Unless they have three Hall of Famers, including one of the best five players of all-time in his prime, ahem.) Tom Haberstroh of ESPN had the only right take on the Celtics-Nets trade:
This can't be stressed enough: The Celtics would make out like bandits in this deal because of those picks. Without the protection, the Celtics would have done fine in the trade because it likely would have yielded a strong position in the 2014 draft. But the 2016 and 2018 picks aren't the icing on the cake; they are the cake, considering how old the Brooklyn roster is now. …. To recap, the Celtics would have their own pick in 2014 -- which promises to be, at worst, in the top five -- and they would also have another likely nonlottery first-rounder, whichever is the worse pick between the Nets and the Hawks as a result of the Joe Johnson deal in 2012. Furthermore, the Celtics would have a pair of first-rounders in 2015 (their own and the Rivers pick from the Clippers) and a pair of first-rounders in 2016 and '18 (their own and Brooklyn's). If the deal gets done, the Celtics will have a pair of first-rounders in four of the next five drafts. I repeat: four of the next five drafts.
For lack of a better word, draft picks are life. You don't even have to be all that smart to recognize this: You just have to be aware that the future exists. The Nets have a better team this year than last year -- maybe, assuming that Garnett and Pierce can walk by the end of the season -- but they're still not even close to a title contender. But they can say, "We're trying to WIN NOW," and plan on no one remembering when they're wretched in four years and can do absolutely nothing about it. The Nets' move was lunacy. So of course the Knicks responded with, "Well, we must show that we are equally reckless about our future with an over-the-top short-term WE'RE GOING FOR IT! move." In five years, you're going to read a bunch of stories with people complaining about "what happened to New York City basketball?" because the Nets and Knicks are both missing the playoffs every year. The answer will be this year. This year happened.
The saddest thing about this is that NYC owners have their fanbase all wrong. NYC fans are willing to tolerate rebuilding, and a few losing seasons, as long as there is a plan. The best example of this was those first two years of Mike D'Antoni's and Donnie Walsh's reign in New York. Those seasons were tough to watch and featured many, many losses. But there was no doubt that D'Antoni and Walsh were busy, trying to fix the many mistakes of the Isiah Era, to unload so many of his horrific contracts to overpaid, elderly faded stars. (This was made harder too because there were no Knicks to trade them too. If only Mikhail Prokhorov had been around then!) While still selling out the Garden every night, they cleaned up the Isiah mess and put the Knicks back in position to contend. Fans didn't mind. They just wanted to know the Knicks were going in the right direction.
Of course, all that work led us to today, with the Knicks making idiotic moves again, now egged on by the even more self-immolating crew across the Manhattan Bridge. The Knicks and Nets and Yankees and (before Bernie Madoff) Mets make moves because they feel like they need to do something, because they think they have to dangle shiny objects in front of their fans. But they don't. They're treating their fans like they're a lot dumber than they are. And the fans are the ones who have to pay the price. In 2016, the Nets are going to be the worst team in the NBA and have no draft picks to help bail them out. In 2016, Knicks fans will still be twitching every time they so much as think of Andrea Bargnani. And neither team will have a ring to show for it.
It doesn't have to be like this. New York City is a city of struggle, of grime, of clawing your way to the top, of putting in the time and effort to earn and sustain success. It is not a place of instant, empty gratification. (That's Florida.) The way New York City sports teams treat their rosters is a way that's the opposite of what the city values. And it's why they lose.