These are tempting times for the Knicks and their newly assembled front-office team. Kyrie Irving, a bona fide All-Star, is lobbying to play for them, signaling that the stench of the Phil Jackson era has been quickly cleansed.
Longtime followers of the Knicks, without a championship to crow about since 1973, may also recognize this as good news and bad news. They’ve been here before. These breathless pursuits of stars tend not to end well.
Still, intrigue has settled over the metropolitan area like a summer haze. Fans are filling sports talk radio lines, clamoring to know if the Knicks can land Irving, the disgruntled Cleveland Cavalier, in a trade that the flashy point guard has requested in an apparent effort to separate himself from LeBron James.
In a recent report by ESPN, Irving was said to want “very badly” to play for the Knicks, who, since Walt Frazier styled and beguiled at Madison Square Garden into the late 1970s, have had exactly two All-Star point guards: Micheal Ray Richardson, over three successive seasons beginning in 1979-80, and Mark Jackson in 1988-89.
Beyond that, the position has been manned by a generous cast of journeymen, veterans past their primes and the occasional earnest overachiever, like Charlie Ward. Irving has two things none of them had: an electric offensive game and a championship ring.
In an era when point-guard productivity appears to be more essential than ever, it’s easy to envision James L. Dolan, the Garden strongman, pacing outside the office of the team president, Steve Mills, and poking his head inside to inquire about an Irving deal, like an impatient child from the back seat of the car.
Are we there yet?
And this is where it would all get eerily familiar, especially as the Knicks cling to the hope that Carmelo Anthony — if and when convinced that a trade to Houston is not workable — would eventually waive his no-trade clause to go to Cleveland and join his buddy James for a high-percentage run to the N.B.A. finals next spring.
As training camp approaches and Anthony weighs his options, that could happen. But he is 33. Irving is 25. The Cavaliers are not trading away eight years even-up. They do not have to deal Irving, who is two years away from contractual freedom. They want to, though. Which sounds a Knicks history alert, as we well know how Dolan responded the last time such a carrot was put in front of him, a little more than six years ago.
Let’s consider the ways in which the Irving situation is reminiscent of what occurred in early 2011, when Dolan big-footed Donnie Walsh, then his lead basketball executive, and surrendered a package of players and draft picks to Denver to acquire Anthony. Which left the Knicks bereft of assets upon which to become more than a showcase for the man called Melo.
Like Anthony, Irving apparently wants a grander stage for his highlight reel and has a reported desire to be his new stage’s unquestioned leading man (though the latter part may be overstated and more a mission to be out from James’s shadow).
Like Anthony, Irving has a reputation for isolation play, and for being no more than an adequate passer, not ideal when you’re a point guard known for monopolizing the ball (in Cleveland, especially when James was off the floor).
Like Anthony, Irving has been tagged as a one-way superstar, not wildly enthusiastic about moving his feet on defense (a particular concern when you’re a guard at the point of attack).
Like Anthony, who spent his early years in the Red Hook section of Brooklyn, Irving — who grew up in West Orange, N.J. — would come advertised as a homecoming kid, nice for him but virtually meaningless in a league that’s a long way from the early days of a territorial draft. (The most compelling players currently on the Knicks’ roster are from Latvia, France and Spain.)
Most significantly, like Anthony, Irving appears to be oblivious to the strategy applied by the likes of James in 2010 and 2014 and Kevin Durant in 2016 — stars who sought change without forcing their destination franchises to concede core assets in the process.
Unlike Anthony, who pushed hard for the Knicks trade to facilitate signing a long-term contract, Irving is not yet interested in committing long-term, according to a recent Cleveland Plain Dealer report. To whatever the Knicks would have to give up, add the risk of Irving then spending two seasons being miserable on a bad-to-marginal team, after three straight trips to the finals in Cleveland, and realizing in the summer of 2019 that home is not where his heart is.
What might be a deal worth doing for the Knicks? Obviously, Kristaps Porzingis cannot be on the table under any circumstances. But assuming they could get Irving, and convinced themselves he would ultimately re-sign, what specific need would there be to develop Frank Ntilikina, a 19-year-old point guard drafted in June out of France with the ninth pick?
Would a package of Anthony, Ntilikina and Courtney Lee, with the Knicks taking back one of Cleveland’s less desirable contracts, be enough? Though it’s always worth asking, not likely. And this is where Mills and Scott Perry, his newly hired general manager, would be wise to lock Dolan out of the office and resist any temptation to throw the promising Spanish center Willy Hernangomez and future first-round picks into the mix.
Last month, in introducing Perry, Mills said the Knicks would “emphasize youth, athleticism, teamwork and defense.” Not coincidently, that was how the Golden State Warriors’ 2015 title team was built, through the draft, a process requiring patience and the understanding that if you build it, and build it well, someone great will come, cost-free in terms of core assets.
Durant made the rich Warriors ridiculously richer. If Irving wants the Knicks that badly, he might do everyone a favor and wait to see what they look like in two years.