Emergency exit strategies for the Knicks and Nets

Everyone agrees: The Knicks and Nets both suck, and are probably going to for some time. The internet was littered with columns, roundtable discussions and fortune-teller readings yesterday in advance of TNT's Thursday Night intra-Apple showdown saying as much, and if you happened to miss all of them, there was still the game itself, a brutally slow-paced, defense-optional affair that inspired the kind of social media-wide snark usually reserved for a Texans-Jaguars game. Both teams are absolute messes of humanity at this point, and though both will (hopefully, hopefully, HOPEFULLY) look a little better by year's end, it doesn't seem like either is going to be playing for a championship anytime soon.

Common sense (as well as historic precedent) says there are two paths for these teams to then take. The first would be to reload, to exchange future assets for current ones in an attempt to better the team's short-term outlook and worry about the long-term later. However, if you've followed either team with any degree of closeness, you know that any such measures the two franchises could have taken to such an end have, in fact, already been taken--neither team has a tradeable first-round pick until at least 2018, and in trade-chip terms of high-upside young players on cheap contracts, the Knicks have only defensive-minded wing Iman Shumpert, and the Nets have just...Mason Plumlee, I guess? Not a lot, and not much that anyone in the league would give a lot in return for. 

The second, and perhaps more practical path, then, would be to rebuild entirely. Trade away their more valuable players for future considerations, bottom out over the next season, and rebuild through youth, the draft, and perhaps one or two remaining core players. However, this path is only slightly less problematic than the reloading one--as previously alluded to, neither the Knicks nor the Nets have their first-round pick in next year's loaded draft, thus nullifying any point to bottoming out. What's more, both teams are run by big-market ownership with a Just Win, Baby-type mentality (and front-office mandate), neither of whom have much of a stomach for rebuilding. Considering the expectations that both teams came into the season with--perhaps unrealistically, but whatever--rebuilding will be a very tough sell. 

Nonetheless, it's hard to believe these two teams could continue at their current levels of play for the whole season without someone at least suggesting that it might be time to consider a teardown. Even at that point, it's unlikely Prokhorov or Dolan will listen to reason, but it's worth mulling over what such an escape plan might look like for the two teams. What could either squad do to set themselves up for the future, however distant and however difficult to picture through the muck and mire of 2013-'14? It'll probably never happen with these two owners, but it's worth looking at what it would look like if it did. 

Let's break it down by team, designating one player to continue to build around, and putting everyone else on the roster up for grabs.  


Designated Player: Carmelo Anthony

Even in the most dire of 2013-'14 scenarios, the Knicks aren't trading Carmelo Anthony unless he asks out. That's not to say he won't--he denies he's done so thusfar, and we have no reason not to take him at his word, but history says that Melo isn't above packing a Go Bag ahead of time to be able to flee the scene when necessary. Still, the Knicks need their star, Melo still has enough shine on him despite the recent losing, and in this league, it's foolish not to bet on the spot with the most money to offer when it comes to predicting a landing spot for a free agent. (And if you believe for a second that Jim Dolan would entertain the notion of signing-and-trading Melo, just ask Jeremy Lin about his former employer's ability to make cool-headed, objective business decisions when it comes to his players testing the free agency market.) 

Trade #1: Tyson Chandler and Raymond Felton to the Oklahoma City Thunder for Kendrick Perkins, Thabo Sefolosha, Reggie Jackson, Hasheem Thabeet and the Dallas Mavericks' protected 2014 first-round pick

Tyson Chandler's absence with a knee injury is a big reason that the Knicks have started as poorly as they have, and they probably won't make any big moves until they get a better sense of what their team looks like with their All-Star center back in the mix. Even with Tyson, however, the team hardly looked like a contender at season's beginning, going 1-3 in their first four games (the last of which Chandler left halfway through), and it's likely his return in another few weeks will raise them to mediocre at best--which, given the hole they're starting the season in, might not be enough to drag them to the playoffs, even in the woeful East. 

Meanwhile, the Oklahoma City Thunder lurk as a team with that rare combination of legitimate championship aspirations, clear room for improvement in a spot in their regular rotation, and valuable future assets to offer teams. In this case, the big prize for the Knicks would be Reggie Jackson, the emerging backup point guard who, like Eric Bledsoe in Los Angeles, probably overlaps a little too closely in skill set with the incumbent starter to ever have his talent maximized on his current roster. Jackson would give the Knicks an element of speed and athleticism at the point that they haven't had since...ever? Not to mention that the Dallas pick would potentially allow them back into the '14 draft, albeit at a low slot--the pick is top-20 protected, but with how weak the East is this year, the Mavs might only have to make the playoffs in the West to end up picking in the 20s. 

The question is whether the upgrade at center would be worth it for the Thunder. Despite their respective declines in production, the team still values Perkins and Sefolosha, while Jackson is maybe their best (though hardly their only) young asset, and no smart team ever likes giving up draft picks. However, I think the answer would still be yes. At his best, Chandler is still an elite center in this league, not just a defensive upgrade over the stiff Perkins, but an enormous weapon on offense, rolling ferociously off picks for Durant and Westbrook, and even keeping defenses honest some with his improving 16-foot jumper. Meanwhile, Felton might not be as dynamic a backup as Jackson, but he's competent at the least, was awesome for the Knicks in last year's playoffs, and keeps them from having to play Derek Fisher 20 minutes a game. 

Ultimately, it might come down to health. If you recall, the Thunder made a move to acquire Chandler once before, poaching him from the then-Hornets in a deal that fell through when Tyson failed to pass his physical, a no-deal that represents one of the great what-ifs of recent NBA history. But if he can get the OK from the team doctors, Thunder GM Sam Presti proved with the Jeff Green trade that originally brought Kendrick Perkins to OKC that he's not above dealing a highly-valued but somewhat redundant young talent for a veteran presence if he can be a real difference-maker. A healthy Tyson is that, and I think the trade makes sense for both teams. (And if OKC quibbles over the fine print, they can downgrade the pick to their own 2013 selection, or insist on the Knicks including Metta World Peace to give them a veteran backup SF and help replace some of the toughness lost with Perkins, in return for further cap filler.)

Trade #2: Andrea Bargnani and Iman Shumpert to the Rockets for Omir Asik, Donatas Motiejunas and 2014 first and second-round picks.

After trading their starting center and defensive anchor Chandler, the Knicks replace him with Asik, who's not nearly as skilled offensively, but is roughly comparable defensively, and is also four years younger and nearly six million cheaper. (His "poison pill" contract will make him much more expensive next year in terms of real-life dollars, but not in terms of cap space.) Meanwhile, Motiejunas is an intriguing young talent worth at least kicking the tires on, and the picks are extremely valuable to a team as draft-bereft as the 'Bockers.

On the other end, at the price of a discontented player with a totally uncomplementary skill set to the guy they just gave a max deal to, a guy currently only getting garbage time minutes and a pick not likely to end up in the top 20, the Rockets get to add their stretch four--he's not Ryan Anderson, but Bargnani's proven this season he can thrive offensively as a big man in a spread-out offense. More importantly, though, they get Shumpert, a 23-year-old wing who's never really found a consistent role in New York but seems to have sky-high potential, especially as a shut-down defender. He gives the Rockets all sorts of options for potential floor-stretching, three-guard lineups, and he also represents a hell of a trade chip to then flip in another deal for an even bigger piece should the Rockets deem him dealable.

Losing Shumpert hurts for the Knicks, certainly, but he's probably a necessary inclusion to get the Rockets to take on Bargnani's contract while parting with Asik, and ultimately, there might just be too much friction behind-the-scenes with him, Woodson and Melo for Shump to ever really reach his potential in New York. Meanwhile, in parting with Bargnani, the Knicks at least recoup a good deal of the bounty--namely, the two draft picks--that they should never have given up for him in the first place. Messy stuff, but you gotta start somewhere with this bunch.

Long-term outlook:

So once the dust settles on these deals, the Knicks move forward with a lineup of Jackson, Melo, Asik, Motiejunas and Tim Hardaway Jr., with Kenyon Martin, Pablo Prigioni and the likely unmovable contracts of J.R. Smith and Amar'e Stoudemire coming off the bench. That's not great, but with Jackson, Melo, and Asik, you have something that vaguely resembles a core to build around, and you have a couple draft picks in June--where the draft projects to be so loaded that you can get still get legit rotation guys and high-upside gambles in the late first round--to help restock the farm system, as it were.

Meanwhile, if you can convince Melo to be patient through one tough season at the end of his contract--big if, admittedly--the outlook gets considerably brighter for the Knicks in the summer of 2015, when they actually own their (likely lottery-bound) first-round pick, and Amar'e's garguantuan contract comes off the books, as well as Asik's if the Knicks decide not to extend him. That cap space would give the Knicks the extremely rare flexibility to be players to at least some degree in free agency, at a time when such players as Rajon Rondo, Kevin Love and LaMarcus Aldridge could, in theory, become available.

A whole lot of ifs there, and a whole lot of moving parts to work through, but if you ask Knick fans whether they'd prefer something resembling the scenario I just laid out or the Knicks' current situation of bedlam for the next two-plus seasons...I can't imagine a whole lot would opt for the latter.


Designated Player: Brook Lopez

Brook over Deron Williams? Would've seemed crazy a couple years ago, but now, it's hard to argue. Williams makes about four million more a season, is about four years older, and has the shakier, arguably more worrisome injury history. Plus, Deron's play the last few seasons has been rather erratic for a supposed star, while Lopez just keeps getting better--his insane current PER of 27.1 is good for fourth in the entire league, and he's gotten much stronger on the other end as a rim protector, though his utter inability to rebound remains perplexing. Finally, there's positional scarcity to consider--the league is currently teeming with good young point guards, but Brook is one of a rather rare remaining class of elite offensive centers. If you're gonna build around one guy in the East, he's not a bad place to start.

Trade #1: Deron Williams to the Charlotte Bobcats for Ben Gordon, Kemba Walker, Bismack Biyombo and the Detroit Pistons' 2014 first-round draft pick

If the Nets decide to reset, dealing Deron Williams is obviously the first and biggest step in the process. He may or may not be the player he was three years ago, though he certainly looked like it again at the end of last year, but regardless, there are any number of lower-rung Eastern Conference teams who'd probably jump at the opportunity to level-up by acquiring the three-time All-Star. The Bucks and the Pistons would probably be interested, the Hawks might even make a call or two, but I think ultimately, the team to deal with is the Charlotte Bobcats, who haven't had a real franchise player in team history, and who just spent $40 mil on Al Jefferson in an attempt to move towards respectability. Michael Jordan would undoubtedly jump at the chance to get a marquee name to lead the team's next, long-overdue playoff push.

In exchange for dealing their star point guard, the Nets shed a good deal of long-term salary by acquiring Ben Gordon's expiring contract, pick up a cheaper, younger replacement with some upside left in Walker, shore up their frontcourt defense a bit with Biyombo, and most importantly, get back in the draft with the Pistons' top-eight protected pick. It's not an overwhelming return for D-Will, once considered a top-ten player in the league, but it's probably about as good as they could get given Deron's current injury woes and slightly inconsistent production, and it gets them a big part of the way towards starting over. (They might ask for another draft pick, or for Cody Zeller instead of Bismack Biyombo, and I have to imagine Charlotte would probably bend on that if they had to.)

Trade #2: Paul Pierce and Shaun Livingtson to the Memphis Grizzlies for Tayshaun Prince, Ed Davis and Jerryd Bayless

This deal would obviously be contingent on a number of factors, and wouldn't take place for another month or so at the minimum. Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph would definitely need to be totally healthy again for the Grizzlies to even consider trading Ed Davis, and if Davis keeps playing as well as he has the last few games, it might be a moot point anyway, since it'd be hard to see them dealing him after that. Boss would have to cool off a little bit, and Paul Pierce would have to come back from his hand injury and start looking look Paul Pierce again.

But if all that stuff happened, I think this is a deal that would mostly make sense for both teams. A healthy, effective Pierce gives the Grizzlies exactly what they need to make a potentially final run at the west--a playoff-tested wing who can shoot (and hit big shots) and be a secondary playmaker, who doesn't need the ball all-the-time, and who certainly fits into the team's identity in terms of defense and toughness. Meanwhile, his contract expires at the end of the season, meaning that by getting out of the final year of Tayshaun Prince's contract, the team can actually find a long-term replacement at the three in free agency next summer, when players like Trevor Ariza, Danny Granger, Brandon Rush and Luol Deng may become available. 

For the Nets, they upgrade from Livingston to Bayless in the backup point guard department--the two might be about equally productive at the moment, but Bayless is younger and undoubtedly has the higher remaining upside--and Davis is obviously the real prize, a 24-year-old power forward who's looked like a stud pretty much whenever he's gotten the opportunity to play big minutes in this league. Taking on two years of Tayshaun Prince is a minorly tough pill to swallow, but the Nets probably won't be able to do much over that timespan anyway, and Prince is a good player to throw out there for 35 minutes a game if you want to look professional without actually winning that much.

Trade #3: Andrei Kirilenko and Reggie Evans to the San Antonio Spurs for Cory Joseph, Jeff Ayres, the rights to Livio Jean-Charles and their 2014 first-round draft pick

The Spurs wanted Kirilenko in the off-season, and it makes so much sense for their ball club that AK-47 eventually play there that it's hard not to root for a deal to get him to San Antonio. Well, here's the team's chance--they can get Kirilenko for a pittance off the rebuilding Nets, at basically zero expense to their current rotation. (Ayres is the only player getting minutes leaving San Antonio here, and Reggie Evans fills into his role pretty solidly, while giving the Spurs their best dirty-work player since Bruce Bowen.) Kirilenko's addition, assuming he can come back healthy, basically completes the Spurs' roster for maybe their last, best chance at a title run, and though the Spurs are usually loath to make such mid-season roster shakeups, you'd have to think they'd at least consider it here.

Meanwhile, the Nets get a nice young talent in point guard Cory Joseph, who can't get consistent minutes in San Antonio but who looked like a real player in international play this summer--a little like a young, less prolific Deron Williams, coincidentally enough. They also get another (likely very low) pick in next year's draft, and a solid time-killing minutes-filler rotation guy in Ayres. The real player of interest here, though, is Livio Jean-Charles, taken at the end of last year's first round and stashed overseas, as the Spurs are wont to do. Jean-Charles' awesome showing in last year's Nike Hoop Summit (alongside players like Andrew Wiggins and Jabari Parker) might have me a little too high on his potential, but it's possible the Spurs see him as part of their long-term plans and would refuse to part with him, in which case the Nets would probably have to make do with a second-round pick instead. I think they would (or at least should) still do the deal even without Jean-Charles, though--see what you can get out of Joseph and try to hit on that 2014 #1.

(I tried to get Kevin Garnett going to San Antonio here as well, since it'd be incredible to finally have him and Timmy on the same team. Unfortunately, KG just makes too much money, and the Spurs don't have the kind of expendable expirings to put any kind of deal together for him. Shame.)

Long-Term Outlook:

For the next few years, the Nets probably trot out a starting lineup of Kemba Walker, Joe Johnson (whose historically absurd deal might not be tradeable a second time), Tayshaun Prince, Ed Davis (assuming he re-signs) and Brook Lopez, with a bench of Jerryd Bayless, Corey Joseph, Jason Terry, Jeff Ayres, Mirza Teletovic, Bismack Biyombo, Mason Plumlee and Kevin Garnett. (That's more than 12 players, so maybe Terry gets bought out or Ayres gets waived or something.) Not exactly a championship contender, but you can hope that either Walker or Davis can take the next step from starter to quasi-star, while also seeing if the likes of Joseph, Biyombo and Plumlee can develop into real rotation pieces, and nabbing a couple more high-upside young players in the June draft.

Then, as with the Knicks, things get a little better in the summer of 2015. Garnett, Prince and Terry all come off the books--though you still have Johnson's $25 million deal (!!!) clogging things up, unfortunately--and the Nets get to pick in the first round, though unfortunately it might not be with their own pick, since Atlanta reserves the rights to swap. (Joe Johnson again--the gift that just keeps on giving.) It's not a ton to hang your hat on, but given how dark the end of the tunnel currently looks for Brooklyn, at least it's a start, and at least Mikhail Prokhorov won't have to shell out eight or even nine digits in luxury tax payments to field a team fighting with the Bucks and Sixers at the bottom of the East standings.

As a wise man once said, it's a long hard road out of hell. Soon enough, it might be time for the Knicks and Nets to start setting on that journey.

Emergency exit strategies for the Knicks and Nets
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