The story of the miserable New York Knicks of the first decade of this century is the story of a team focused on acquiring high-priced players no matter their issues and a willingness to trade away as many draft picks as required to get them. That's how the team ended up with, at various times, very expensive contracts for Stephon Marbury, Steve Francis, Jamal Crawford, Zach Randolph and Eddy Curry. So confident that the marquee players will get the Knicks into the win column more often, general managers Scott Layden and Isiah Thomas freely traded away first-round picks. When the roster kept floundering, the Knicks watched their picks become stars for other teams. (The Eddy Curry trade alone resulted in the Bulls picking up the rights to LaMarcus Aldridge and Joakim Noah.)
Those general managers are gone, and the able, smart Glen Grunwald runs the Knicks front office these days. But he trotted out a throwback move on Sunday, reportedly agreeing to a deal to send a 2016 first-round pick, Steve Novak and Marcus Camby to the Raptors for Andrea Bargnani. There's a hitch, as the trade apparently isn't legal, so reporters are suggesting the Knicks might toss in something like Quentin Richardson on a small sign-and-trade to make the numbers work.
Losing a single draft pick isn't the end of the world, but it's the latest in the return of a bad habit. The Knicks' 2014 first-round pick will go to the Nuggets or Magic, depending on where the teams land in the standings. New York sent it to Denver in the Carmelo Anthony deal. The Knicks also didn't get their pick in 2012, which went to the Rockets in ye ol' Tracy McGrady swap intended to open up cap space in 2010. (That cap space was used on Amar'e Stoudemire. Oh boy.)
The problem isn't entirely that New York is content to trade first-round picks, which represent both cheap production locked up for four years and lottery tickets for even better players. It's that the Knicks are losing picks for iffy players. Opening up space for Amar'e in 2010 was a good idea until it wasn't -- his injury woes have turned his contract into a real mess. This trade is way worse, in my opinion. Bargnani is not the type of player or contract you give up actual assets to acquire. For starters, new Raptors GM Masai Ujiri had basically announced he cared about nothing so much as he cared about losing Bargnani this summer. Toronto wasn't actually in a strong position to negotiate.
Then there's the contract: $23 million over two years after his five-percent trade kicker is added. He'll be New York's fourth player making more than $10 million per season, joining 'Melo, Amar'e and Tyson Chandler. Bargnani is known for one marketable skill: deep shooting. You'll be pleased to learn that over the past two seasons Bargnani, a 7-footer, has shot 72-238 (.302) on three-pointers. Novak, a far cheaper piece headed to Canada in the deal, is 282-633 (.445) in that same span. And stunningly, Novak -- who is an awful rebounder at power forward and even mediocre at small forward -- is an equivalent rebounder to Bargnani adjusted for position. Among all 7-footers in Basketball-Reference's database who played at least 1,000 career minutes, Bargnani has the third lowest rebound rate. Also, he's terrible on defense, has a career assist-to-turnover deficit and is often injured.
Here's the kicker: the Knicks finished No. 3 in total offense, No. 5 in three-point shooting, No. 8 in overall shooting and No. 18 in defense. What Bargnani can in theory do is not what the Knicks in actuality need. Even if Bargnani could do that which he's known for -- something he hasn't been able to do in two years -- it doesn't likely improve the Knicks much, if at all. So, New York has leveraged an actual asset (the pick) for a piece that won't help much even if he returns to top form, which again, is two years in the past.
It also almost assuredly moves Carmelo back to the small forward more frequently; Anthony had his best season ever spending copious amounts of time at power forward. Over the next two years, New York has $67 million locked up for two power forwards -- Amar'e and Bargnani -- most teams wouldn't touch with a 10-foot pole. It's quite possible, based on what we've seen in the past two seasons -- that the Knicks will be outproduced by opponents at that position despite all of that investment.
And that's the real problem with trading picks for iffy, expensive players: it's hard to paper over the player's deficiencies because he's sucking up resources, and iffy players lead to bad seasons, which lead to higher draft picks, which leads to more pain when those good high draft picks star for your trade partners down the road. It's like shooting yourself in the foot, then wading into a lake of lemon juice.