By Matt Straub
I used to make the same joke at the end of every winter, when the NHL trade deadline arrived. “Everyone has been traded for everyone else,” is how I used to sum up hockey’s busiest day.
This year, the NBA has decided to do its best NHL imitation in the week before its annual draft. By now I usually have my mock draft done, something anyone who knows me understands I take great pride in. This year, however, it just can’t be done too far ahead of time, as there are too many moving pieces still to be sorted out. We’ll tackle it Wednesday because I enjoy torturing myself.
The NBA draft is the hardest to make a mock for because of the scarcity of talent and choices as compared to, say, the NFL draft. One wrong pick can totally alter the next five, as teams move up and down the board to make sure they get their guy, who they’ll have one shot at. To make matters worse, teams draft for need in the NBA more than any other sport. In the other sports, you take can the best guy and fill a need with one of your other handful of picks. In the NBA, if you go into the night needing a point guard, you’re more likely to trade up or down than take a power forward. This changes the order drastically and makes my mock tough to execute.
What I do have a good feel for is the stunning positions of the local teams. Boston should be in a great spot, but seems unsure of its own place in the NBA picture. The New York Knicks are dangling their one good, young player in trade talks while trying to kick their veteran leader (and future Hall of Famer) out the door.
Right now, there’s one team in the metropolitan area which seems to be doing things the right way despite impossible circumstances. Yes, the team with its act together right now is the Brooklyn Nets.
The Nets made the best move of the week so far among the locals Tuesday, acquiring D’Angelo Russell, a young point guard who still has a lot of potential. Yes, they had to take on an awful contract in Timofey Mozgov, but they don’t have too much money tied up long-term these days, so eating up cap space doesn’t matter to Brooklyn right now. Sure, they gave up the 27th pick in the draft, but that spot is marginal at best. Brook Lopez? He won’t be around the next time Brooklyn is good, so there’s no reason to keep him.
What the Nets got is the chance to infuse the team with young talent. Russell has his doubters, but he’s a gifted player who was the second pick in the draft two years ago and doesn’t turn 22 until February. For a franchise which sold its future to the Celtics in 2013 and doesn’t control its own top draft pick until 2019, adding a recent lottery pick who could still develop into something special is as close to a draft pick as the Nets can get. Adding Russell gives the Nets a building block, something it hasn’t had in years. Brooklyn has a long, long way to go before it produces a winner, but it now has its first piece of the puzzle and deserves credit for finding a way to start the rebuilding process a couple years early.
While all three area teams are in rebuilding phases right now, the Knicks and Celtics don’t seem to have nearly the stability the Nets do. While Brooklyn found a way to add something this week, the Knicks have spent the offseason getting rid of any progress they’ve made in their building process. During the season, Knicks GM and crazy person Phil Jackson started bashing Carmelo Anthony to anyone who would listen, and when no one would listen, he’d take to Twitter to start things up again. Jackson is right to want to get rid of Anthony, as he, like Lopez in Brooklyn, isn’t part of New York’s next good team. Giving him away isn’t a bad idea, but belittling him constantly and seemingly intentionally lessening his trade value was an awful thing to do. Sometimes Jackson cares more about being right and making sure you know how smart he is than he does helping the team he’s running. He has always been an egomaniac, but I never thought he’d hurt his own chances of winning.
Jackson’s treatment of Anthony wasn’t even his worst move of the year. The way he has treated young forward Kristaps Porzingis, who could very well be on the next good team at Madison Square Garden, has been mind-blowing. When Porzingis grew frustrated with the team late in the year, Jackson’s idea of smoothing things over was to avoid speaking to him for the first two months of the offseason. Then, in a move defying all logic, he let teams know Tuesday Porzingis could be had in a trade. From all accounts the Knicks asked for too much in return to make it happen, which at least shows they appreciate his value. It makes things worse, however, because they let the rumor get out despite knowing they were likely keeping him, which only made the situation more awkward.
Jackson has two major assets right now. He made one seem worthless and made the other one wonder publicly about leaving New York. Suffice it to say this has not been a good start to the offseason for the Knicks. There is good news, as I think a perfect player for them will be available Thursday night with the eighth pick, but Jackson has as much work to do in rebuilding his team’s culture as he does its roster.
The Celtics have a solid roster, the No. 3 pick in Thursday’s draft (after they traded No. 1 for a future pick) and plenty of optimism these days. They have a great culture, with players who have bought into a system which sees them give up some of their own numbers for the good of the team. Despite all those positives, Boston is grouped with New York on the list of teams who are lacking a clear vision right now because it doesn’t know what it wants to do. General manager Danny Ainge is behaving like a child who has several different kinds of candy in front of him and can’t decide which one to eat first.
The Celtics have the cap room to get a free agent, likely Gordon Hayward, this summer and the assets to land another superstar via trade. If Ainge wants to build his version of a superteam and try to beat LeBron James before taking a shot at Golden State, he has the resources to do so. Ainge also has seven first-round draft picks at his disposal over the next three years, and could easily just let his currently-solid team win enough games to keep his job while he puts together a new young core which could go for a title after James has given up control of the Eastern Conference. What Ainge doesn’t have is the conviction to pick a direction. He constantly changes course, letting stories about his desires for a big trade get out only to shoot them right back down by talking about the future. Ainge pulled off a heist when he made the trade with the Nets in 2013, and now won’t make a deal unless he feels he’s won it by just as wide a margin. At the same time, he can’t bring himself to ask his fans to be patient by selling them on the possibility of an amazing future. Until someone in the organization decides what the Celtics are going to be in 2018, the talk about 2021 doesn’t matter.
Right now, the future is potentially bright for all three area teams, but only the Nets seem clear on how to build toward brighter days. Thursday night provides each team with the chance to solidify its future, but can any of them decide on the right strategy in time to make the most of the chance?