Two days into the NBA summer, the New York Knicks made what may end up being the biggest move of their offseason by trading center Robin Lopez and guards Jerian Grant and Jose Calderon to the Chicago Bulls for 2011 MVP and frequent surgery recipient guard Derrick Rose. To call this trade controversial would be something of an understatement. It’s left some fans and commentators despondent, and it’s not hard to understand why.
There’s an undeniable level of comedy to this trade, and if it turns out that Phil Jackson only came to New York to troll Knicks fans for a couple years before motorcycling back over to the Staples Center, this looks like exhibit A in the trial against him. On the surface, it seems to have most of the ingredients of a classically awful Knicks trade. Think about it: the Knicks are receiving a big name player whose career has been derailed by injuries and are giving up productive assets and a young prospect to do so. We’ve seen this movie before, right? Time and time again, through front office regime after front office regime, the names may change, but the story is always the same. This is the exact kind of trade that has kept this team stuck in a Groundhog’s Day of perpetual mediocrity for the past 16 years. It’s Knicks-y in the worst way possible.
Except that it isn’t.
At first glance, it might look like the Knicks are getting a washed-up and perpetually injured lead guard on a bad contract, but that’s not really the case. Derrick Rose is only 27 and is coming off a season in which he played the most games he’s played since the 2010-11 season. He wasn’t great last year, but he improved over the course of the season and post-All Star Break averaged 17.4 points, 4.6 assists, and 3.1 rebounds while shooting 46.8% from the field and 37.5% from three. His $21.3 million contract is big, yes, but it comes off the books next season, and even with Rose’s contract, the Knicks still have more than enough salary space left to sign another max contract (or several smaller contracts, which would likely be preferable).
The deal for Rose also netted the Knicks (former NBA champion) Justin Holiday, a serviceable backup two-guard who can shoot the three, and a 2017 second round draft pick. (Yes, you read that right—the Knicks actually received a draft pick in a trade. Crazy times we live in, indeed.) Getting a potential rotation player and a future draft pick in a trade is a good thing, and, of course, very un-Knicks-y. This is important, even if it’s not the focal point of the deal.
The best-case-scenario with this trade is that Rose gets healthy, approaches some facsimile of his 2011 MVP form, meshes well with Carmelo Anthony and Kristaps Porzingis, helps to elevate this Knicks team back into the middle of the playoffs, then re-signs to a reasonable deal next offseason and remains healthy into the future. This is a long-shot, but the potential is rich and clearly appealing.
Of course, we’re talking about the New York Knicks, and so the worst thing that could happen has a statistically higher chance of happening than it would anywhere else. The worst case scenario outcome here is that Rose re-injures himself or otherwise plays horribly this year. In that case, the Knicks wash their hands of his contract next offseason and jump right into the deep 2017 free agent class with plenty of cap space. That’s it. (Okay, okay—the REAL worst case scenario is that Rose plays out of his mind all season, the Knicks sign him to a max contract and then his knees finally fall off in the 2017-18 preseason. This is very unlikely, for a number of reasons.) For a move with such great potential upside that required such little relative sacrifice, that’s a disaster-scenario you can live with.
The most likely outcome, though, is that Rose works his way back to being a slightly above-average point guard with good penetrating ability and the feel for the game that comes with veteran experience. That would be a major improvement over anything the Knicks had in the backcourt last season, even if he does miss fifteen or so games for rest. In that situation, Rose may stay or he may leave, but either way, he increases the Knick’s chances of getting back into the playoffs, proves to outside free agents that Jeff Hornacek’s hybrid-triangle system is functional, and bolsters Porzingis’s development by giving him the experience of playing with a competent lead guard.
And though there’s an argument to be made that the Knicks gave up too much in a deal for a player the Bulls were desperate to dump anyways, the truth is that they really didn’t give up that much. Robin Lopez, for example, is a good player on a good deal. He’s also never the answer to your problems. (Unless your problem is: How do I get rid of this mascot?) His rim protection, boxing-out, erratic hook shots, and screen-setting will be missed, but the reality is that there wasn’t much he provided that can’t be replaced by a center available on the current free agent market. With Porzingis rapidly moving towards playing center full-time, Lopez was bound to eventually be relegated to the bench, anyways.
Jerian Grant is going to be 24 years old at the start of the next season and, though he will probably round into a solid, average or slightly above-average point guard, he struggled mightily with his jump shot and often looked lost playing off the ball. Jose Calderon is barely a functional basketball player at this point in his career.
The deal isn’t perfect. It leaves a hole at the starting center spot and several in the bench; it raises some serious questions about roster continuity and player development. Rose may not end up being a great fit for the Knicks, and the question of whether Porzingis will ever get the ball with noted ball-stoppers Rose and Anthony on the floor is real. On balance, however, this is a good, smart roll of the dice by Phil Jackson and Steve Mills. The potential payoff is great, the worst-case consequences are marginal, and at the very least it addresses some of the Knicks’ glaring backcourt needs.