Even before Kristaps Porzingis began to sway public opinion with his eye-opening play at Las Vegas Summer League, the Latvian teen was a logical draft pick for the New York Knicks. Why? Not only due to his extremely rare amalgam of length, coordination, and skill, but also vocal excitement about suiting up for one of the league’s glamor franchises.
Despite the spotlight of New York City, not every top prospect was enamored with the idea of playing for the Knicks – including the one who hordes of fans preferred their team choose over Porzingis. According to Marc Berman of the New York Post, Denver Nuggets rookie Emmanuel Mudiay is ‘happy’ Phil Jackson didn’t select him with the fourth pick on draft night.
Nuggets rookie point guard Emmanuel Mudiay told confidants after the draft he was, in retrospect, happy the Knicks passed on him at No. 4, as he was unsure he would have been a good fit for the triangle. Despite public comments to the contrary that he felt team president Phil Jackson could “make me a star,’’ Mudiay said he felt he was a better match in a more freewheeling Denver offense, according to sources.
Mudiay shined during Summer League play, averaging 12.0 points and 5.8 assists per game while exhibiting the rare combination of size, burst, and innate playmaking ability that made him a prep superstar. The 19-year-old’s lone weakness in Vegas was the one that likely kept New York from drafting him: a shaky jumper. He shot 38.5 percent from the field over four games for Denver, including a dismal 2-of-14 from three-point range.
Derek Fisher’s triangle offense isn’t a good fit for ball-dominant point guards, especially those who lack comfort from beyond the arc. It’s a ballyhooed and complicated system about post play, precise off-ball movements, and quick-hit passing – essentially, one that flies in the face of why Mudiay is such a tantalizing lead ballhandler.
Denver, by contrast, is re-committing to the free-flowing, uptempo style that’s been a hallmark of its successful teams from yore. Even before the trade of incumbent point guard Ty Lawson, coach Michael Malone spoke glowingly of Mudiay in an interview with Grantland. All signs point to Malone handing him the keys to the Nuggets’ car.
Mudiay wouldn’t have been given that opportunity with New York, and not just because of the triangle’s demands. Carmelo Anthony will do a hungry lion’s share of shot-taking and playmaking for the Knicks, and Arron Afflalo is bound to more closely resemble the player who looked like a reliable secondary scorer for the Orlando Magic two seasons ago. Mudiay wouldn’t have the ball for the Knicks, and wouldn’t be put in the best position to succeed on the fleeting occasions he would, either. As Mudiay seems to fully understand, Denver is a better fit for him than New York – market size and other factors considered.
Whether that reality will be manifested on the floor in 2015-2016 is a different story.
The West will be even stronger next season than it was this past one, and the Lawson trade ensures the Nuggets will play in the conference cellar. Malone is saying all the right things about finding that tricky balance between pace and defense, and management seems willing to allow him a grace period of losing while it’s being implemented. Tim Connelly and company better be, too; Danilo Gallinari, Kenneth Faried, Wilson Chandler, and a talented but raw rookie floor general isn’t close to a winning recipe in a conference where the middle class is nearly as strong as the upper.
That would have been the case even had Denver played the long game regarding Lawson, too. The Nuggets are right that shuffling the deck is their best route to rebounding quickly and sustainably from the disastrous Brian Shaw era, and Lawson’s second DUI arrest in six months – coupled with the selection of Mudiay, of course – basically made his departure imminent.
Despite that conventional wisdom, it’s just hard to believe Denver couldn’t have received more for Lawson than what amounts to cap relief and a lottery-protected first-round pick. Even in a league saturated with impact point guards, the 27-year-old stands apart for his blend of scoring and passing instincts. Lawson is a terror in transition, a maestro navigating ball-screens, and flashed the perimeter jump-shooting prowess over past seasons that’s ever valuable in the modern NBA. Even better, he’s signed through 2016-2017 on a very reasonable contract.
Why couldn’t the Nuggets have let Lawson rehabilitate his image while insisting he and the oversized Mudiay comprised their backcourt of the future? There’s risk to that strategy, of course, but another off-court slip would have been even more debilitating for Lawson than Denver. This is his last chance before becoming a full-fledged NBA castoff, a situation he surely comprehends. Bottom line: A similar trade haul would have been available for the Nuggets at some point next season, and it’s not crazy to believe a better one might have materialized, too.
But Lawson is gone; it’s Mudiay’s time in Denver. And whether he shines during his rookie campaign or otherwise, the Nuggets still offer him a better chance for success than the Knicks could have – and did even before Mudiay became his team’s point guard of the future and present.
[Via New York Post]