Photo by Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports
In case you missed it: LeBron James, Kevin Durant, and Carmelo Anthony officially completed their career Venn diagram with last night's convoluted and buzzed-about three-team swap, the rotating parts of Dion Waiters, Iman Shumpert, JR Smith, and well, umm, Lance Thomas, shifting locales like ensemble character actors.When the virtual dust settled and JR Smith was done breaking the internet, three teams were made immeasurably more watchable—the Knicks' American Sports Horror Story dialed up to a delightful 11—but did the fortunes of two title-hopefuls tangibly change? Did anyone actually win?
In reality, we are all winners, America. Such is the novel beauty of witnessing two Jeff McInnis HOFers (double-digit scorers like Smith, Waiters, and say, Nick Young, perpetually hovering around 0.5 APG and RPG) swap rosters. Ditto overseeing the Zen Master's Knickerbocker Hindenburg experiment complete its second (questionable) prominent salary dump in six months.In the end, though, it's hard to believe the needle moved significantly in either Cleveland or Oklahoma City's direction, for this season, anyways—even if the Cavs ostensibly 'won' the deal.Such is the verdict when Cleveland was the only team to unquestionably address their biggest weakness—depth, specifically on the wing—with a retread first-round sweetener thrown in, to boot. (Think the Cavs would remedy the wing-depth-issue with a time-machine and taking back Andrew Wiggins and Anthony Bennett in K-Love's stead, per Bill Simmons' July advocacy? One wonders.)Instead, the dog days of Joe Harris and Matthew Dellavedova (he of severely busted ankles, courtesy of Michael Carter-Williams last night) are mercifully over, the unseemly team-scoring metrics of Waiters and his inability to shoulder a consistent defensive burden, a memory.
Smith is essentially the know-your-role bench-scorer Cleveland wished Waiters was, albeit six years older, minus the handle, with a sprinkle of crazy tossed in for David Blatt's enjoyment, or demise. JR and LBJ are allegedly close from good ol' days back in Akron; it'll be a joy watching The King and Blatt massage, marvel, or death-stare the 2012-13 Sixth Man Award winners' oft-misunderstood offensive genius (a high-usage year, mind you, where Smith shot 35.6 percent from 3, identical to his current mark; his FG percentage this season also merely 2 percent below 12-13).
Plain and simple, Smith is a known-unknown; Shumpert is the deal's real wild card. Few 24-year-olds have experienced such a topsy-turvy career-arc or blatant idolatry from Stephen A. Smith, morphing from an unheralded, unpopular first-rounder out of Georgia Tech in 2011 to an immediately untouchable playoff contributor and potential cornerstone, only to tear his ACL, all in his rookie season.His stats aren't special, nor his shooting, but his offensive game is functional, and the prevailing ethos says Shumpert's build and athleticism make him an impactful defender. Whether injuries (a dislocated shoulder surgery this season) derail his value down the road, is uncertain. And a gamble that, thrown together with Smith and the recouped pick, make the loss of Waiters' 10 PPG and 25.6 3PT percentage (granted, their last real trade-chip left to play) well worth the risk—even if the Cavs are still likely too thin in the backcourt and without Anderson Varejao to make a Finals run.Meanwhile, in the Southwest, the Thunder got the 23-year-old microwave scorer whom Jerry West fawns over, less than a year removed from gaudy (if totally meaningless) 13-14 post-ASG splits of 19 PPG, 46 percent FG, and a respectable 38 percent from deep; numbers Sam Presti is surely reciting to an ever-scowling Westbrook, justifying Waiters' addition to a pull-heavy backcourt.One fairly big problem: the fit is exceedingly curious, and Waiters' well-documented catch-and-shoot identity issues will only run deeper as OKC integrates him (presumably, again) off the bench. Throw in Scott Brooks' hilariously curious rotations, and the prospect of Brooksy managing a Waiters-KD-Russ-Reggie four-scorer lineup becomes especially delicious. (There will be blood, and Kendrick Perkins must play with the foursome.)
Getting touches is a zero-sum game spread over 48 minutes, even with Serge Ibaka's unhelpfully differential ways. The potential odd-man out, should OKC play-out the combo-guard-crazy experiment's string?It could well be Brooks, especially with the Thunder still considered the West favorites by prominent NBA minds, and the OKC natives' likely championship-or-bust restlessness (assuming the Big Two stay healthy). Ultimately, though, it's reasonable to think Jackson, on the last year of his contract and with a sub-26 percent 3PT shooting touch in both November and December, could be headed elsewhere.Which brings us to the incredulous Knicks, or Sixers North, headed in one direction, fast, and a glaring question: which team's nucleus would Knick fans actually prefer?No doubt, the MSG loyalists are restless: absurd chants for crumble-resistant coach Fisher to sleep with the fired fishes; the worst record (5-32) in the league; and the anti-victory lap of February's All-Star weekend beckoning.Sure, they had to—repeat, HAD TO—start the 2015 cleanse soon, but why not roll the dice and take Waiters for a one-month spin from Cleveland? Maybe he's an incredible second-fiddle if Carmelo ever comes back (both not likly, sure) but his value surely wouldn't have dipped any lower than what Phil ultimately got back.Because the return for Shumpert and Smith, both riding reasonable deals thru 2015-16, feels markedly thin. As did the Jose Calderon and who-knows youngsters (Shane Larkin, Cleanthony Early) haul for Tyson Chandler, no matter what second-rounders are currently worth. Even more so after Sam Dalembert was on the trade-block for all of, what, eight hours, before being released.
No doubt, with about $11.5 million non-Melo bucks on the 2015-16 books, and merely Carmelderon tied to 16-17, the plan is stupid obvious.Kind of like the old hopes floated around the team's dying days; a month ago, Amar'e Stoudemire suggested the Atlantic was "still open" and today, they're 20.5 games behind Toronto. Stoudemire is, understandably, in shock.On Sunday, an ESPN NY beat writer (hype man?) trotted out hopeless embers after the 95-82 home loss to the Bucks, pointing to the resurgent Josh Smith-less Pistons and last year's Jason Kidd-led Nets turnaround as silly signs of something, anything, please:"The Knicks (5-31) somehow only trail the Miami Heat by 10.5 games for the eighth spot, with 51 games remaining in their season."Two days and a trade later, the pulseless pipe dream is a certifiable nightmare.La verdad … La pura verdad? It's time to buckle up, Garden faithful and Zen Master worshippers. It's going to be a long decade.