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NBA Insider: Lack of Surefire Star May Make Trading Top Draft Pick a Smart Play

Howard Beck@@HowardBeckNBA Senior WriterMarch 11, 2015

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NEW YORK — Imagine for a minute that you are the president of the New York Knicks. (Note: You may also want to imagine you have a large bottle of sedatives nearby, and a poster of the Cayman Islands to gaze at.)

You have torn down your muddled roster. You have opened salary-cap room for free agents. You have positioned the franchise for its highest draft pick in decades.

But you also have a star player, earning an average of $25 million over the next four seasons, nearing his 31st birthday. His window as an elite player—his window to contend for titlesis shrinking.

A rebuilding plan requires patience. A contending team requires urgency.

This is the quandary the Knicks face, the puzzle that team president Phil Jackson has created for himself. And it raises a prickly question:

Should the Knicks trade that glittery draft pick for immediate help?

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The Knicks are at least testing the market, according to a recent ESPN reporta revelation that sent jittery, long-suffering Knicks fans into a group meltdown. Trading draft picks for quick fixes is, after all, a primary reason for the Knicks' misery these last 15 years.

But under the circumstances, the Knicks would be wise to at least gauge the value of their picklikely to be in the top threeand ascertain what they might get in return.

In part, because they need to maximize Anthony's remaining years. In part, because the draft is a crapshoot, and the top prospects are all college freshmen who will not become NBA stars for at least two to three years, if they become stars at all.

"I think you have to explore every option if you're an NBA team coming off a horrendous season," said Jonathan Givony, the president of DraftExpress, which scouts NBA prospects. "I think that it's borderline malpractice to just shut off your phone and not listen to offers."

Duke's Jahlil Okafor is expected by many to be the No. 1 overall draft pick this June.
Duke's Jahlil Okafor is expected by many to be the No. 1 overall draft pick this June.USA TODAY Sports

As Givony notes, accurately, "Crazy things happen. You have to listen to everything."

If a team offered an established All-Star and at least one other high-caliber starter, wouldn't the Knicks be obligated to consider it? Absolutely, said a rival general manager, who noted that a top-five pick offers no guarantee of stardom, or even competence. Indeed, many high picks go bust or turn out to be merely average.

In the NBA, sometimes the sure thing is better than the prospect behind Door No. 2.

"You could certainly make a case for trading (the pick)," said a veteran Eastern Conference scout.

The Knicks have the NBA's worst record (12-51), but their draft position will be determined by the lottery, on May 19. If they remain in last, the Knicks would have a 25 percent chance of winning the No. 1 pick and a guarantee of drafting no lower than fourth.

What will the Knicks find in the top four? A batch of 19-year-olds, headlined by Duke's Jahlil Okafor and Kentucky's Karl-Anthony Townswith much development still ahead.   

"There's a huge learning curve going from college basketball to the NBA," Givony said. "I think it's going to take these guys a couple years to reach their potential."

The scout concurred: "The history of the league [suggests] those guys are going to struggle a little bit. Very few guys have an enormous immediate impact."

Can the Knicks afford to wait for Okafor to become a solid defender, or for Towns to polish his offensive game? Those are the two names likely to be called first on draft night. Both have All-Star potential, said Givony, "even though a lot can go wrong on the way."

The Eastern Conference scout was more conservative.

"I'm not sure either guy is a franchise player," he said. "Is it LeBron, Kobe, Westbrook, Durant, Duncan? I'm not sure about that. But they should be very good players...The downside would be above-average starters, just based on [their] talent. And they're only 19. You'd think they're going to get better."

Of course, the Knicks could easily drop to third or fourth in the draft lottery, where the consensus choices are point guards Emmanuel Mudiay (playing in China) and D'Angelo Russell of Ohio State.

Neither one is considered anywhere close to a sure thing.

"There are a lot of question marks with both of those guys," Givony said, "but they're also really, really talented. After that, honestly, it's a crapshoot."

Question marks. Crapshoots. Every draft brings as much false hope and heartache as it does enduring NBA talent. Trading a lottery pick, then, is a calculated gamble—a bet that the actual NBA player (or players) you acquire are better than the untested kid from State U.

The Knicks could also use their estimated $30 million in cap room to land a few veterans, thus giving any lottery pick time to develop. Yet their needs are so numerous, and their roster so devoid of talent, that free agency alone might not solve the problem. And free agency is its own crapshoot. So should the Knicks trade their pick? That will depend on (a) their actual draft position, and (b) what a team is willing to offer, neither of which can be known at this stage.

NBA trade history does provide some cautionary tales.

In 2006, the Bulls traded the No. 2 pick, LaMarcus Aldridge, to Portland in exchange for the No. 4 pick, Tyrus Thomas. Aldridge has become a perennial All-Star. Thomas is out of the league.

In 2001, the Atlanta Hawks traded the No. 3 pick, Pau Gasol, to the Memphis Grizzlies for a package of Shareef Abdur-Rahim and Jamaal Tinsley. Gasol is a future Hall of Famer. Abdur-Rahim made one All-Star Game.

And of course, the Cavaliers last year traded No. 1 pick Andrew Wiggins (along with 2013 No. 1 Anthony Bennett) to Minnesota, in a deal for three-time All-Star Kevin Love. Judgment on that deal might take a few years—though a Cavs championship could render the debate moot.

Sometimes, trading a lottery pick works out just fine. Witness the Boston Celtics, dealing the fifth pick in 2007, Jeff Green, to Seattle in a package for Ray Allen.

Again, we don't know where the Knicks' pick will land. If they climb to 29th in the standings (second worst), they could fall as far as fifth in the draft lottery. If they finish 28th (third worst), they could fall as far as sixth. The value of their pick—and what it could net in returnwill not be known for another two months.

(Also worth noting: By rule, the Knicks cannot actually trade their 2015 pick until after they have used it, because they've already traded their 2016 pick.)

In other words, it's probably too soon to judge the wisdom of trading the pickor to freak out over the possibility.

Around The League

Paul Sancya/Associated Press

• The current list of sidelined NBA stars is soberingDerrick Rose, Chris Bosh, Carmelo Anthony, Kobe Bryant, Paul George, Dwight Howard, Blake Griffin, Steve Nashbut it is not the worst season on record. Not even close, according to Jeff Stotts, who tracks injury trends on his website, InStreetClothes.com.

Stotts' data indicates that this season will, in fact, end up falling below the average for the last 10 seasons.

Through the 60-game mark, NBA teams had lost 3,165 player-games to injury, putting the league on pace for 4,326 games lost this season. That's below the 10-year average of 4,577 and well short of last season's mark of 4,989 games lost.

This likely will not be the worst season for games missed by stars, either. That distinction belongs to 2012-13, when the following players all missed 29 games or more: Rose, Nash, Dirk Nowitzki, Pau Gasol, Grant Hill, Rajon Rondo, Amar'e Stoudemire, Chauncey Billups, Kevin Love, Brandon Roy and Andrew Bynum.

All told, star players (defined by making at least two All-Star teams) missed 940 games in 2012-13, an average of 13.2 games per star, according to Stotts. This season, the total stands at 556 games, an average of 12.36 games per star. Those figures include the remaining games that will be missed by Bryant, Bosh and Anthony, who are out for the season. Some of the other top names are expected back within the next few weeks: Griffin and Howard for sure, with Rose and George likely to follow. For purposes of this study, Stotts did not include estimates for those four players over the final two months.

Despite his gruesome leg injury last summer, George may yet help the Indiana Pacers make the playoffs. And even after his latest knee surgery, Rose could still be playing deep into the spring in Chicago.

So, sure, the season has been painful for some of the game's greatest players, and their fans. But as the data shows, it could be worse.

• The NCAA tournament starts next week, which means draft preparation is in full swing. How does our Eastern Conference scout assess the top prospects? Let's take a look:

Jahlil Okafor: "He will be a starting player [as a rookie]. He'll be able to score. He's going to struggle defensively. How much of an impact will he make? If he's on a bad team he's going to be like Michael Carter-Williams—he's going to get a lot of touches, he's going to score a lot of points. Is he a good guy for the triangle (offense)? I don't know about that. He's not a face-up guy at all. He's a pretty good passer. Not really good defensively, not real athletic. He's more of a traditional five-man. ... His game is basically score on the block and rebound. He's not an up-and-down guy. He's a poor foul shooter."

LEXINGTON, KY - MARCH 07:  Karl-Anthony Towns #12 of the Kentucky Wildcats defends the shot of Jon Horford #21 of the Florida Gators during the game at Rupp Arena on March 7, 2015 in Lexington, Kentucky.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Karl-Anthony Towns: "He is much more well-rounded [than Okafor]. He can make an outside shot. Okafor is really going to be able to score. Towns has got more of a face-up, inside-outside attack, plus is much better defensively."

D'Angelo Russell: "He's terrific. He's quick, he's got great vision. Is he a lead guard in the triangle? No, not really. You want the ball in his hands. You want him [to play like] Chris Paul, you want him dominating the action, because he makes so many good things happen. And he can score. His body's a concern. He's kind of skinny. Is he really a consistent shooter? That's not clear, but he can make plays."

Emmanuel Mudiay: "He's a mystery man, like [Dante] Exum last year. But I think he's better than Exum. He's got more talent. Exum was a little bit of a myth. This guy, from what I've heard, is a little less of a myth."

One-Question Interview

DENVER, CO - JANUARY 31:  Danilo Gallinari #8 of the Denver Nuggets handles the ball against the Charlotte Hornets during the game on January 31, 2015 at the Pepsi Center in Denver, Colorado. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by d
Garrett Ellwood/Getty Images

Danilo Gallinari looked like a rising star when the Denver Nuggets acquired him in 2011 as the centerpiece of the Carmelo Anthony trade. The Italian sharpshooter averaged a career-best 16.2 points in 2012-13, helping fuel a 57-win season. But Gallinari tore the ACL in his left knee that spring, sending him into a two-year purgatory. He needed two surgeries to repair the ACL, and a third surgery—for a torn meniscus in his right knee—earlier this season.

Healthy at last, Gallinari is starting to show his old flash again, averaging 16.8 points and making 40 percent of his three-pointers over the last 10 games. At age 26, Gallinari believes his best days are still ahead. Here he discusses the long road back. Quotes are condensed for clarity and brevity.

"Talking about me and talking about the injuries has been very tough. I didn't know that when you don't play basketball for two years that it would have been this tough to come back and be the same player that I was before. It takes a lot of time and a lot of work. If somebody that has never had an injury stays in the gym five hours, in order for you to stay to that level and stay in the same rhythm, you've got to stay maybe seven hours, eight hours.

"I don't think I'm all the way [back], like I was feeling before I got injured. But my confidence is there, the rhythm is there. My legs, I don't think are there yet. But they are improving. I'm more sore now, after a game, in the morning, at night. Before I got injured I was able to recover a lot faster.

"I'm 26, so I consider myself still young. I'm a gym dog, so I always stay in the gym and work. The work ethic is something that I have that I don't want to lose, and I will never lose. So I think that the more you work, the sky's the limit. So that's how I view my career, how I view myself. Every player should learn something every day, every season and get better.

"I've learned a lot more about my body. I've learned a lot more about knees. I think that once I retire, I might be able to open my [own] physical therapist clinic. I've learned a lot of stuff, especially mentally. It's not easy to not play, to not do what you love to do every day, for two years. That's the toughest part, because every day you've got to go in the gym, and you know that you're not going to touch the ball, you're not going to play with your teammates, for two years. So it's been tough. But that only makes you stronger."

Insider's Take

Mar 8, 2015; Oakland, CA, USA; Golden State Warriors forward Draymond Green (23) boxes out Los Angeles Clippers center DeAndre Jordan (6) in the second quarter at Oracle Arena. Mandatory Credit: Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports
USA TODAY Sports

A scout assesses the market value of forward Draymond Green, who will be a coveted free agent in July after a breakout season with the Golden State Warriors. An elite defender, Green is also averaging 11.6 points, 8.3 rebounds and 3.6 assists, while shooting .345 from three-point range. Some pundits have suggested he could command a max contract.

"He's one of those guys who's a product of the system. I'd be very uncomfortable paying him zillions of dollars. He is situationally [valuable]. He's got two great point guards, he gets a lot of surplus stuff from them. He's a good rebounder. He's a complementary guy. But he's going to get paid like a second or third option, probably. I would be cautious, if I'm any team other than Golden State. I'm not sure his talents are totally transferable. He's just not that talented. He does the little things, he can guard, he's a winning player. What they like about him is his leadership; he's become the leader of that team. I'm not sure that's transferable."

Howard Beck covers the NBA for Bleacher Report and is a co-host of NBA Sunday Tip, 9-11 a.m. ET on SiriusXM Bleacher Report Radio. Follow him on Twitter, @HowardBeck.

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