Monday, August 15, 2022

Donovan Mitchell doesn’t make Knicks a contender, but it’s a foundational trade New York has been planning for

After the New York Knicks struck out on Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving in the summer of 2019 (which now looks like a blessing), they did well to not commit big long-term money to anyone. The most they doled out was a three-year, $63 million deal to Julius Randle, who eventually signed a four-year, $117 million extension following his All-NBA season last summer. 

Other than that, it was shorter, modest deals for guys like Derrick Rose, Taj Gibson, Alec Burks, Bobby Portis,  Elfrid Payton, Wayne Ellington and Nerlens Noel, providing the flexibility to strike when and if the opportunity arose to make a splash signing and/or trade. Well, here it is. Donovan Mitchell is on the market. The Knicks almost have to move on this. 

Why? Because at this moment, it would be hard for another team to beat the package they have to send back to Utah, but as other disgruntled stars become available in the coming years, that won’t be the case. Houston and OKC are loaded with capital. Once the timelines lineup for their young rosters and they feel they’re ready for a win-now star, they are both going to have pure gold to throw around. Here are the eight — yes eight — draft picks the Knicks could offer Utah. 

  • Four of their own (2023, 2025, 2027, 2029)
  • Dallas 2023 (lightly protected)
  • Washington 2023 (protected 1-14 in 2023, protected 1-12 in 2024, protected 1-10 in 2025, protected 1-8 in 2026)
  • Detroit 2023 (protected 1-18 until 2024, protected 1-13 in 2025, protected 1-11 in 2026, protected 1-9 in 2027)
  • Milwaukee 2025 (lightly protected)

Yes, if the Knicks don’t move on Mitchell they’ll still have these picks in the chamber. But again, those protections are pretty heavy on the Washington and Detroit picks. Pretty decent chance they never convey in the lottery. Milwaukee’s pick will be late unless Giannis decides to skip town and everyone else follows. And by adding Jalen Brunson and extending Mitchell Robinson, New York signaled that it has no intentions of being a tank team, so its picks will, if the plan plays out, won’t be lottery picks either. 

It’s still a big draft package, but it doesn’t hold a candle to what OKC and Houston, who will both be bad teams for at least a few more years with the high lottery picks to show for it (plus all the capital they’ve acquired in their superstar sendoffs), could offer. 

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If the Knicks don’t move on Mitchell now, they will very likely be out in the cold trying to build a contender around Brunson and RJ Barrett. Speaking of Barrett, the Knicks have to hold firm to not including him in a deal with Utah. Mitchell paired with Brunson is a bottom-rung playoff team in the East, at best. 

Maybe, if everything were to come together, meaning Randle returns to All-NBA form and Robinson solidifies himself as a top-tier rim roller and protector, the Knicks can scrap and claw for a six seed. But that’s not a ceiling to shoot for. The real upside lies in Barrett’s continued All-Star trajectory. 

To be clear, upside it relative. A Mitchell/Brunson backcourt is a defensive liability; if Gobert can’t clean up for Mitchell as a perimeter defender, neither can Robinson. The Knicks could hope for a Randle resurgence to then move him for more defenders. But Mitchell is not the the key to contention. If that’s what you’re expecting as a Knicks fan, you’ll be disappointed in your return on investment. 

The idea here is for Mitchell, Brunson and Randle to add to the Knicks’ growing credibility under Leon Rose. Put together a couple playoff seasons and become an honest destination for future stars eager to jump on an opportunity to be a New York hero with an honest shot to succeed. Mitchell gets that ball rolling. 

Doubts abound as to whether Barrett can be a 1A or even 1B foundational star. But with Mitchell at the top of the food chain and Brunson as a second potential All-Star, Barrett potentially positions as a true needle-moving third wheel. If he goes to Utah along with most of, or all of, New York’s future draft equity — plus Immanuel Quickley and/or Obi Toppin — in a Mitchell deal, the Knicks’ train will run out of gas a few stops before contention with no means to fill back up. 

Utah should be OK with leaving Barrett out of the deal. You don’t trade Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell in the same offseason and still look to be a good team. You’re looking to tank. You’re looking to acquire draft capital from other teams while also creating your own. Barrett would be a good player on a team trying to be bad who would also be up for a big extension next summer, when the Jazz would potentially be forced into paying him ahead of their timeline or losing him for nothing. 

Danny Ainge doesn’t do half measures. When he goes in on a plan, he’s all in. Can you really see him trading Gobert but hanging on to Mitchell just to be a play-in team for a few years until Mitchell inevitably demands out on his own? He’s going to strike if an offer is right, and New York needs to make the offer. 

For the foreseeable future, it’s kind of now or never for the Knicks. They wisely refrained from long-term commitments and opened up their cap sheet and stockpiled draft picks to be ready to strike when an opportunity presented itself. If not now, then when?

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