The New York Knicks reportedly had some interest in signing free agent Gordon Hayward during 2020 NBA free agency, but he opted to join the Charlotte Hornets instead. Part of the reason this happened is that the Knicks were not willing to pay as much as Charlotte. Another reason is that unrestricted free agency allows players a great degree of choice. Hayward chose not to play for the Knicks. NBA players often choose not to play for the Knicks, but Hayward’s particular case interests me because 16(!) years ago, the Knicks squandered an opportunity to make Gordon’s choice for him.
Even though NBA players comprise a pretty solid union, bad and disreputable NBA teams still have a few avenues through which they can force players to come work for them. One is trades. Unless a player has the contractual leverage to ward off certain teams, he could be traded and made to play anywhere. Like, even to the Knicks! The second and most team-friendly avenue for player conscription is the draft. The draft is actually structured to reward teams who suck ass. If you are the New York Knicks and have sucked ass pretty consistently for two decades and counting, the NBA draft is a godsend.
The thing about forcing players to join your doodoo team is that it helps if you’re a good judge of talent. Isiah Thomas took over as Knicks general manager midway through the 2003-2004 season, which is to say a couple years into the ass-sucking. Thomas proved to be a pretty good judge of draft talent, but pretty bad at building his team via trades for existing NBA players. This is a shame, because Thomas spent his career as a Knicks executive trading future draft picks for players.
To trade a future pick is to gamble on your current roster. It’s saying: “We think our record will be good enough when this draft happens that this pick will be low and we won’t regret missing it.” Thomas made that gamble repeatedly, and he always lost.
It’s bad enough on its own to trade a future pick then realize you could have used it on a great player. It’s worse when your old trade partner (or whomever ends up receiving the draft rights) actually chooses such a player. The Knicks’ most famous awful trade falls into the latter category. In 2005, to acquire Eddy Curry, Antonio Davis, and a future first-rounder (that became Wilson Chandler! Isiah was good at drafting when he gave himself the opportunity!), the Knicks surrendered future first-round picks that became …
… gonna do a paragraph break for this one to really rub it in …
… LaMarcus Aldridge in 2006 and Joakim Noah in 2007. That’s two of the best big men of their era. The 2007 and 2008 Knicks really could have used both, but the 2005 Knicks had dumped the right to draft them because Isiah Thomas determined Eddy Curry’s skills would help the Knicks enough that they needn’t care about future draft lotteries. Isiah was mistaken!
That’s the most notorious instance of the Knicks punting their future, but there was another sneaky one baked into Isiah’s first huge move as Knicks GM. In January 2004, the Knicks acquired Stephon Marbury, a very good player who is … [checks watch] … still the only star point guard they’ve had this century. To get Marbury (and others) from the Phoenix Suns, the Knicks surrendered a couple players, their first-round pick that summer, and their first-round pick in 2010.
Losing the ‘04 pick didn’t hurt that badly. With Marbury, that season’s Knicks managed to slime their way into the playoffs, so the pick landed outside the lottery— number 16 in the first round. It also didn’t hurt that badly long-term, because the eventual owners of the pick (Utah) used it on Kirk Snyder, who didn’t have much of an NBA career. Look a little closer and you’ll notice the pick could have been used on any of several quality NBA players, some of whom are still in the league: Josh Smith, JR Smith, Jameer Nelson, Tony Allen … it was a decent back half of the first round, but such is life.
The 2010 pick was another story. At the time of the trade in 2004, that draft felt like such a distant event that it hardly mattered, at least for me. I was 14 years old and smelled weird. By the time a 2010 draft pick rolled around, I’d be in college, cars would fly, and we’d acquire all our groceries via special plumbing systems that fed sausages and juice and tuna salad directly into our homes. I’d never heard of Gordon Hayward because he was 13 years old. He probably looked exactly like he does now.
Six years later … shit! I was indeed in college and smelled fine, but cars didn’t fly, tuna fish pipes didn’t exist, and the Knicks still sucked ass. The lottery delivered them the ninth pick in the 2010 draft, but thanks to Isiah Thomas, a guy who no longer worked for the team (at least in an official capacity, lmao), the Knicks didn’t own that pick. Utah did. And this time they took Gordon Hayward, who had since become one of the best players in college basketball while I’d merely become one of the second-best players in college basketball. He got me there, and now he’s played in several more All-Star games than I have.
2010, though, was an offseason in which the doodoo Knicks hoped to become non-doodoo by convincing free agent LeBron James to choose them in unrestricted free agency. LeBron instead chose the considerably-less-doodoo Miami Heat, who went on to win some championships while the Knicks remained mostly doodoo and/or suck-ass. The 2010 Knicks didn’t get chosen, and the 2004 Knicks had sacrificed their best chance to choose.
None of this is to express any opinion about what went down here in 2020. All I mean to say is bad NBA teams should think very hard before sacrificing draft picks, even in the distant future. Because when the players themselves get to choose, they might not choose you on account of your suck-ass-ness, and you might be left without good players. Good luck to Gordon Hayward in Charlotte. Didn’t really want him anyway.