By John Schmeelk
» More Columns
In September, Knicks general manager Scott Perry wrote a blog in which he mentioned five Knicks by name as building blocks for the future. One of them was Willy Hernangomez. On Wednesday, the Knicks traded him for a journeyman they plan to waive and second-round picks in 2020 and 2021.
How we got here is a perfect example of mismanagement: how you take a strong asset, destroy its value and then sell it for pennies on the dollar.
Hernangomez was a second-round pick who came over to the Knicks from Europe for the 2016-17 season. He had a four-year contract at minimal expense. He excelled as a rookie, averaging 8.2 points and 7.0 rebounds in just 18 minutes per game. He was an efficient offensive player who shot 53 percent from the field. He was named first-team All-Rookie.
Hernangomez had his flaws. He had limited range, didn’t move well laterally and was a poor interior defender. He was also a second-year player. Any team in the NBA would have liked to have a 23-year-old player like Hernangomez on its roster. The Knicks, for good reason, did not want to move him unless they got back something good in return.
Even though there was a high probability that Hernangomez’s skillset was not a long-term fit next to Kristaps Porzingis, he was the perfect type of developmental player the Knicks needed for the rebuild that Perry and team president Steve Mills touted when they took over the Knicks last summer. It was exactly why Perry mentioned Hernangomez in his blog post. This year, they were going to find out what they had in him and decide the best way to move forward.
It never happened. Enes Kanter arrived via trade, and coach Jeff Hornacek gave the backup job to Kyle O’Quinn, whom he believed had outplayed Hernangomez in camp and preseason. As the season went on, despite reports Hernangomez worked hard in practice and that he shot over 60 percent in the games he played in, he could never get on the floor consistently. It didn’t matter how much the team lost or whether O’Quinn struggled. Hernangomez was buried underneath a glut of centers. His value around the league began to decrease.
At no point did the Knicks’ front office intervene with Hornacek and see the forest from the trees. It is important to make a player earn playing time, but not at the expense of destroying a valuable asset who can help your team in the future. You certainly do not devalue an asset for a player like O’Quinn, who will likely exercise an opt-out after the season and not be re-signed. And you never do it on a team that has little hope of making a significant playoff run.
There was still time for the Knicks to fix their mistake. With Porzingis out and any hope for the playoffs gone, Hernangomez could have played significant minutes the rest of the year. He could have begun developing again, regain some value and given the Knicks more insight into exactly the type of player he is. There was no downside to that plan.
Instead, they traded him when his value was at its lowest. There was no real reason to trade him now. Hernangomez’s agent had asked the team to explore trades so his client could develop. If he was reinserted into the rotation, the request would have been moot. The only other report came from the Daily News’ Frank Isola, who said some people in the Knicks organization were annoyed that Hernangomez and Porzingis sometimes spoke Spanish to each other. There was never a report that he was disgruntled or was hurting the team with his attitude. There was no real reason to trade him now.
It’s important to understand how self-destructive the Knicks were in how they handled Hernangomez. They took a valuable commodity, voluntarily devalued it for no good reason and then traded it for pennies on the dollar. What you think of Hernangomez is immaterial. He had value to the league last summer. The Knicks reduced that value and then traded him when they didn’t have to. They did it to play O’Quinn, who is probably gone in five months. It is management malpractice.
The Knicks won’t see the second-round picks they acquired until 2020 and 2021, two seasons they do not have their own picks. If you gave the Knicks truth serum and told them that they could get one player of Hernangomez’s quality with one of those picks, they would sign up for it right now. There’s a decent chance both those picks are another Cleanthony Early or Thanasis Antetokounmpo. There’s some value there, but far less than what the Knicks could have gotten if they moved Hernangomez last summer or at the draft. Even if one of those picks worked out, it doesn’t mean the Knicks went about this the right way.
This is the type of foresight that front offices need. They need to be able to look ahead, maximize player value and develop young assets and see the forest from the trees. In how they handled Hernangomez, the Knicks failed on every one of those measures, and they deserve to be criticized for it.
It appears the Porzingis injury has made Mills and Perry do what everyone though they should do anyway: sell off the Knicks veterans for future assets. Their only goal should be to collect as many assets as possible to compete in the 2019-20 season. Courtney Lee is their most valuable veteran asset followed by O’Quinn and Lance Thomas. It is unlikely they find takers for Michael Beasley and Jarrett Jack, but they should try. Let’s see if they can wrangle a protected first-round pick or a player on a rookie contract from someone. It would be considered a victory.