Trade deadline season can be a revealing time in the NBA, a time when choices must be made and priorities are publicly prescribed. Look, for example, at the last week for the New York Knicks.
In the span of about 24 hours, general manager Scott Perry dealt Willy Hernangomez—who was named to the All-Rookie first team last season—to the Charlotte Hornets for just Johnny O'Bryant and two second-round picks and traded for Emmanuel Mudiay, a struggling 21-year-old who was a lottery pick in 2015. Perry in the seven months since he was hired by the franchise had revealed glimpses of his blueprint for orchestrating this latest Knicks rebuild attempt. But no move was as telling as these two trades.
Perry's said all along he wanted the Knicks to both compete for the playoffs and keep their eyes locked on the future. Not exactly revolutionary. The question was always the how.
"We got to compete internally as well as we can," Perry told reporters Friday on a conference call. "If you compete well internally, it gives you a better chance to compete well externally."
Looking for an explanation as to why Perry would sell low on an All-Rookie center and roll the dice on a floundering lottery pick who plays the same position as Frank Ntilikina, the Knicks' 2017 lottery selection? That statement, on the heels of these deals, reveals it all.
The basics of Perry's plan—which he's drawn up alongside team president Steve Mills—are simple: Enter the summer of 2019 with a clean cap so the Knicks can reel in a big fish from a group of free agents that could include, among others, Kawhi Leonard, Klay Thompson, Kyrie Irving and Jimmy Butler. Add one of those players to a core of Ntilikina, Kristaps Porzingis (more on him in a bit), Tim Hardaway Jr. and this summer's first-round pick, and get what looks to be a solid playoff team with the potential for it to maybe grow into more.
But in Perry's view, there's a strategy to luring stars. He touched on that Friday.
"I think that in terms of players and free agents looking to the Knicks ... they'll see how this team is coming together in terms of playing hard, trying to support one another," he said. "They sense it. They see where the culture is headed, where we're going. And I think there will be players that will want to be a part of that. Players want to be a part of teams. They want to be a part of families where they're being supported and cared for and developed and all of those things."
Perry loves the word "culture." Sometimes, it seems, he believes in that more so than X's and O's—at least during this infant stage of his rebuild. Consider it his version of The Process. And there's some logic to it, especially with Porzingis likely to miss at least the next 10 months with a torn ACL. The Knicks won't be doing much competing in game, so perhaps the best way for their players to be challenged is during practice against their own teammates.
That's one of the reasons Hernangomez is no longer a Knick. Perry and Mills believed that, in this market, two second-round picks was fair value for a reserve center. (As one scout put it to Bleacher Report, "Only fools don't value second-round picks.") But the organization was also disheartened by how Hernangomez responded to being benched following a poor training camp. There's room to argue there, as some scouts do. But even Hernangomez's most ardent supporters would agree that it's unlikely the trade will burn Perry.
The Mudiay deal, on the other hand, was more dangerous.
It's clear why Perry made the trade. Less than three years ago, Mudiay, a 6'5" point guard, was a strong enough prospect to get drafted by the Denver Nuggets seventh overall. It's not often you can nab a talent like that for the price of Doug McDermott, a solid bench wing on an expiring deal, and a second-round pick. In a vacuum, the move's a no-brainer.
But there are reasons Mudiay was available. One of them? The Nuggets were 8.6 points per 100 possessions worse with Mudiay on the floor, per NBA.com—never a good sign. Also not a good sign: Mudiay ranks last among all point guards in defensive real plus-minus.
"He's not a good shooter, his defense is erratic, he's not a great playmaker," an Eastern Conference scout said. "He's got good size and is athletic, but what does he do? His value is somewhat predicated on the fact that he was the seventh pick, and so people think there must be something there."
There are off-court risks, too. For example, how will Mudiay's presence affect Ntilikina's development? Perry was adamant with reporters that the Knicks remain high on Ntilikina's future (the Knicks, according to league sources, rebuffed numerous trade proposals for Ntilikina prior to Thursday's deadline). They think Mudiay and Ntilikina can share the floor, which they did for 28 minutes in Mudiay's Knicks debut Sunday against the Pacers (to the tune of an impressive plus-8.9 net rating, per NBA.com, in a 121-113 loss).
But both operate better on the ball, and neither is a sniper. Mudiay, a career 32.6 percent three-point shooter, has improved his stroke, drilling 36.2 percent of his triples this season, though the majority of that efficient shooting has come on spot-up attempts and from the corners, per NBA.com.
Also, if the Knicks are indeed so high on Ntilikina's future, then was it really worth betting on Mudiay's if doing so carries the possibility of derailing Ntilikina's progress?
"Part of the NBA is if you want to become a good team, eventually you've got to keep trying to add more talent," Perry said.
There are also NBA minds who believe a change of scenery could transform Mudiay into the player so many teams once thought he could be.
"I truly believe he will be fine, that he'll be an NBA player for a long time," said Jared Jeffries, a former NBA player and the Nuggets' pro personnel scout when the team drafted Mudiay. "He still has a chance to be a good starter in the league, and if not, a good backup point guard is one of the hardest things to find in the NBA."
Jeffries said a mix of factors—such as coaching changes and the emergence of Jamal Murray as the team's starting point guard—contributed to Mudiay's struggles. But he also said that if he were running a team, he would have looked to buy low on Mudiay, too.
"It's just his finishing," Jeffries said (Mudiay has always ranked among the worst finishers in the league, per NBA.com). "If he can get more comfortable around the rim, that would change everything."
With Porzingis out for much of next season as well, Mudiay will get his chance. He likely won't be the only reclamation project the Knicks—a team that now features four discarded lottery picks in Mudiay, Michael Beasley, Enes Kanter and Trey Burke—add to their roster.
"It wasn't going to be an overnight turnaround from the beginning," Perry said. "We're going to continue to make moves that are very prudent not only from a talent perspective but [also for] managing the salary cap. We have a plan in place to get there."
We know what that plan is. Will it succeed? Well, we'll have to wait about 16 months, until June 2019, to see.
Yaron Weitzman covers the Knicks and NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow Yaron on Twitter, @YaronWeitzman, listen to his Knicks-themed podcast here, and sign up for his newsletter here.
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