Isiah's Folly: Why Curry trade makes little sense for NY

Editor's note: This article was published on Oct. 6, 2005.

CHARLESTON, S.C. -- Risk and reward. That's what most NBA deals come down to when long-term contracts are involved -- how much risk a team is taking in adding a large contract, compared to the potential benefit if the player lives up to his billing.

And the Knicks' trade for Eddy Curry on Tuesday, a trade that was finalized when Curry passed his physical on Friday, like nearly every other deal Isiah Thomas has made since coming to the Big Apple, is a classic example of the risk and reward being completely skewed.

Mind you, this could work. If Curry's heart situation is deemed a low-enough risk that the Knicks' doctors allow him to play, and if Curry shows up in shape and plays hard, and if New York's doctors are right and Chicago's are wrong and the heart doesn't subsequently become a problem, and if the Knicks are right about Curry's potential for improvement, and if all that allows the Knicks to have a winning record and reduce the value of the draft choice they gave Chicago, then by all means, the trade works out for New York.

Certainly, there's some upside Curry could explore.

"I've seen Curry play against Shaq and Yao Ming and do very well," said Jamal Crawford, Curry's teammate in Chicago and now again in New York. "It's gonna be scary how good he can be because Coach Brown is going to get the best out of him."

Even without new Knicks coach Larry Brown getting the best out of him, Curry was pretty good last season. He averaged more than 22.3 points per 40 minutes while shooting 53.8 pecent from the floor, so if he had been able to stay on the court longer he would have been one of basketball's highest-scoring big men.

Like Crawford, Brown's former players in Detroit vouched for Curry's skills.

"Elden [Campbell] and all of them told me he's as tough to guard in the post as anyone you can think of," said Brown. "Most kids now, they don't want to be post player, but he's a true, pure low post presence."

On the other hand, the Knicks are paying Curry as though he's an elite center, and right now he's not. It's great to say that Larry Brown will slap Curry into shape, but some of his performance numbers are deeply worrying.

Take rebounding, for instance.

"I always judge rebounding on rebounds per minutes," Brown said Wednesday, offering an ex-Piston as a prominent example. "Ben [Wallace] got a rebound every three minutes." (Brown's right: It was one every 2.96 minutes last season.)

I judge rebounders that way too, and let's just say Curry is no Ben Wallace.

Last season's rate of 7.4 rebounds per 40 minutes was pathetic for a starting NBA center -- barely half of Big Ben's rate and 66th of the 70 centers who played at least 500 minutes last season. (While we're sharing good news, Jerome James was 59th. I guess $100 million doesn't buy what it used to.)

If anything, Curry's rate is likely to diminish further this season. The Bulls forced as many missed shots as any pro team last season and also missed plenty of their own, resulting in six more missed shots in their games than in those of the Knicks. Since one can't get a rebound unless a shot is missed, it seems there will be fewer caroms available for Curry in the Big Apple.

Brown is aware of Curry's shortcomings in this area but hopes he can fix them.

"Looking at his numbers, he hasn't rebounded like you'd expect an athlete like him to do," Brown said. "But I think his basketball is way in front of him. With young kids it takes time."

Unfortunately, there is little historical basis for that last sentiment. Rebounding tends to peak at a young age, when the player still has lots of spring in his step, and varies very little from year to year.

In fact, rebound rates are perhaps basketball's most resilient stat: The same players show up at the top and bottom of the charts year after year. And Eddy Curry is a "bottom" guy.

Let's humor the Knicks anyway. For argument's sake, let's suppose Curry did become an elite center under Brown's watch. While Curry's six-year, $60 million deal is generous, it includes an opt-out in after the fourth season that would put him back on the open market -- an opt-out he would almost certainly use if he lived up to the potential the Knicks are raving about.

Meanwhile, compare Curry's deal to that of former Knick Michael Sweetney. He was due to be paid his rookie contract for two more seasons, after which the Knicks would have been able to keep him as a restricted free agent if they so chose. Over the next six years, he was likely to cost the Knicks much, much less than the $60 million owed Curry, and he was virtually guaranteed to be a Knick for the duration of it as long as the team was interested in keeping him.

In fact, one of the more amazing subplots to this summer was New York's continued insistence on trading Sweetney. He was included in nearly every offer (including one for the demonstrably inferior Kwame Brown) despite being one of the Knicks' most productive players a year ago at age 22. His per-game averages don't jump off the page because he's been in a playing-time crunch, but Sweetney is a vastly better player than most NBA followers seem to realize.

While Sweetney didn't score as much as Curry a year ago -- 17.2 points per 40 minutes compared to Curry's 22.3 -- he matched Curry in shooting percentage (53.1 percent) and absolutely destroyed him on the glass. Sweetney yanked down 11.1 rebounds per 40 minutes, compared to Curry's 7.4.

Overall, based on Player Efficiency Rating (PER), my per-minute rating of a player's statistical production, Curry and Sweetney were virtually identical last season. One can argue Curry's size gives him more upside, but it's hardly a home run -- especially considering the two players are the same age.

And for that minor difference in ability, the Knicks are paying a great deal of money, taking on a slew of risk and giving up a whole mess of other considerations. Though they can probably live without Tim Thomas, it's worrisome that the Knicks are giving up multiple draft picks. New York loses the better of its pick or San Antonio's in 2006 (I wonder which one it will be), and also agreed to swap picks with the Bulls in 2007 if Chicago wishes.

Read that again, because the downside risk here is enormous. The Knicks effectively doubled down their bet by including the draft choices. The worse Curry does, the worse the Knicks will do. And the worse the Knicks do, the more valuable the 2006 draft pick becomes. Additionally, the right to swap picks in 2007 changes from a non-consideration to a potentially enormous addendum to the deal.

I'm sure the Knicks feel they're managing their risk, in two ways:

First, they have a team of doctors looking at Curry's health data to determine whether he's fit to play. Isiah must have said "I have tremendous confidence in our medical team" about 12 times in a 20-minute press conference on Tuesday night. He said the Knicks' doctors had reviewed the situation "from afar" and talked to some of Curry's doctors before executing the trade.

Second, the Knicks put some language in Curry's contract that gives them an escape hatch if the heart condition renders him unable to play.

However, Curry's contract isn't insured, as far as we know. (Thomas deflected questions about insurance, which I presume means the contract is just as uninsurable as it was three days ago.) That doesn't necessarily affect the Knicks on the court, but it does make Curry impossible to trade at virtually any point in the future. No matter what Eddy does in New York, the Knicks are stuck with him. With a coach who wants to trade his players about once every three weeks, that could make for interesting theater.

Thus, the Knicks didn't just give up Michael Sweetney and Tim Thomas. They also gave up an insurable contract, multiple draft choices, and the increased risk of a free-agent departure -- all to pay more money for a player the Knicks essentially already had in Sweetney: a high percentage-shooting big man who is in less-than-ideal shape and struggles on defense.

But it seems that Curry's perceived potential has blinded the Knicks to all the potential pitfalls.

"Every 15 to 20 years a guy comes along with this size and this type of agility and skill," Thomas gushed.

He is technically correct, I suppose: He didn't say "this type of skill or better," and, hey, it's been exactly 20 years since the Clippers took Benoit Benjamin with the third overall pick.

Unfortunately, Knicks fans have seen this movie before -- Isiah's making a move that could add two wins this year but is likely to cost them 10 or 15 a couple years down the road. On its face, acquiring Curry wasn't a bad idea. The problem was the execution. New York took on so many additional risks to make the deal that the potential rewards simply don't justify the deal. And in the salary cap era, as the Knicks have repeatedly shown us, that's a disastrous mistake, regardless of the team's budget.

John Hollinger writes for ESPN Insider. His new book, "Pro Basketball Forecast: 2005-06," is now available at both Amazon.com and Potomac Books.