The supposed price is extraordinary.
First six rounds. Or maybe seven o’clock. Add various young players.
Regardless of the details, it’s clear the Utah Jazz want a historic pick-packed package in exchange for Donovan Mitchell, a bounty that leads to a fundamental question any team considering a trade for the three-time All-Star must ask: How is it too much to give up?
The New York Knicks, however, should follow the reverse: If we trade for Mitchell, what would be left?
The Knicks connected with the Jazz over Mitchell over a week ago. The two franchises seem to exchange kindred spirits. The Jazz want draft picks for a rebuild. The Knicks are full of it. The Knicks have been Mitchell’s next destination for years. And Jazz has Mitchell.
So wrap that up. Mitchell has his next team, right?
… or not.
It’s not so easy to come to terms with unloading so many early rounds. Maybe Utah never lowers the asking price or New York never gets to a place where it deems a Mitchell trade worthwhile. However, there is a middle ground. The Knicks can actually justify handing this historic swag to Mitchell, but there’s a specific mindset they should have when conversing with the Jazz. The maximum package they should offer Mitchell should still be enough that they feel like they could still bring in another headliner, especially in the summer of 2024.
Every now and then you hear criticism of the Knicks’ pursuit of Mitchell: Would his presence alone really inspire them to fight for a title?
Those who ask realize that the answer is no. There are only a few players on the planet whose mere existence guarantees that you won’t get stuck in the lottery. The Giannis Antetokounmpos of the world are special for a reason. But the fact is, the Knicks could rationalize a Mitchell trade while also acknowledging that rhetoric. Bringing the 25-year-old to New York shouldn’t be about the present. Instead, it could be the first step to building a viable competitor down the line.
All signs point to 2024 when the Knicks could be in a position to trade for another star.
The period of free agency isn’t what it used to be. The new fad is for big players to sign extensions and then ask later if need be, instead of waiting for the final years of their contracts to demand a trade or let them expire and then bolt elsewhere.
In the summer of 2024, Jalen Brunson will enter the final guaranteed year of his contract. He has a player option for 2025-26. Julius Randle will be in the same position. That’s two years from now, which means (because teams can’t trade first-round picks in back-to-back seasons and can only deal first-rounders up to seven) the Knicks would open another first. redeemable to include in a deal for an All-Star.
The reality is, the Knicks wouldn’t sacrifice much struggling to rise above the Play-In Tournament for a few seasons. If all goes well, in the summer of 2024, RJ Barrett won’t even be at his peak yet. Mitchell will be at the start of this one. He will be 27 years old. Barrett will be 24.
That’s why what’s left of a hypothetical deal with Mitchell would matter so much. The first rounds are not only useful for recruiting promising players. They are also currencies. And if the Knicks want to make another big splash to add Mitchell, they need those picks.
It ties into a concept covered in a story I wrote earlier this week. The amount of first-round the Knicks give up in a hypothetical Mitchell trade isn’t as important as the quality.
The Knicks have four first-round picks from other teams (the Washington Wizards in 2023, the Dallas Mavericks in 23, the Detroit Pistons in 23 and the Milwaukee Bucks in 25). All are protected. The Knicks also all have their own picks. Parting with young players and six first-round players seems to be cleaning out the closet, but it’s not as damning if it’s other teams’ first four plus the 2023 and 25 Knicks – even if the Knicks’ two of them -themselves are not protected.
A Mitchell package like that would still leave New York with its first rounds of 2027 and 29. And in two summers, when the Knicks could make their next move, they could also return their 31. First three, any youngster talent the Knicks can keep for two more years and a good player or two (like Brunson with a fair contract, Mitchell Robinson with two years and $27 million remaining on his contract, or Randle if he bounces back at a reasonable effort defensive and efficiency) is a legitimate offer for a second star. And who knows? Barrett may have jumped enough by this point for us to call this 2024 quest the hunt for a third star. Sure, the Knicks are crossing their fingers this is the case.
The Knicks will be expensive heading into the 2024-25 season, especially if they add Mitchell to the mix. Assuming Barrett receives a maximum contract or anywhere near it, the salaries of just the projected top five of Brunson, Mitchell, Barrett, Randle and Robinson will add up to near the total salary cap. The list will be in danger of going into tax. And paying the tax is all well and good…but every landlord wants to be more than a little competitive if the bills are so expensive.
If the Knicks miss a star trade or one doesn’t show up in 2024, they might not have to wait long to try another splash.
The salary cap is set to skyrocket in 2025, when the NBA’s new TV deal – which will make the current deal look like a silly change – takes effect. The last time something like this happened, in 2016, the cap went up so much that a 73-winning team had enough room to sign Kevin Durant. The Knicks could have some flexibility this time around.
Brunson and Randle could decline their player options, which could leave the Knicks without a lot of money on their books. If so, they could sign as many guys as they can add to Mitchell, assuming he wants to go back to New York, because he can also become a free agent that summer. If Randle and Brunson pick player options, the Knicks could still create maximum space that summer. Both would be on expiring contracts, and much of the league will have plenty of wiggle room. Dumping the salary wouldn’t be as difficult as it was in 2022, when just five teams entered July well below the cap.
There is a possible issue with the first-round picks.
There’s a good chance the NBA will open a tampering investigation into the Knicks’ recruitment of Brunson, whether or not any of the other 29 teams file formal tampering charges. Reports of an agreement between the Knicks and Brunson, who officially signed his four-year contract with New York this month, emerged before the two sides could legally negotiate. The Knicks indicated they were confident they could sign him when they began losing their wages days before Brunson’s contract with the Mavericks expired. There are also all the personal relationships.
Brunson said at a fan event this week that he signed with the Knicks because they are “one big family to me.” Athleticism chronicled the connections in this story.
The league seems to have set a precedent that a tampering penalty is the loss of your next second-round pick. Most recently, the Chicago Bulls lost their upcoming second round after violating tampering rules while negotiating a sign-and-trade deal to acquire former New Orleans Pelicans guard Lonzo Ball. But the league is not married to losing an organization’s next second round as a general penalty. If the NBA uncovers evidence of particularly egregious tampering, which it won’t know until it completes its investigation, discipline could be more severe.
It’s important to remember: What the league thinks happened when the Knicks recruited Brunson is irrelevant. He can only penalize based on the evidence he finds in an investigation, which means it’s impossible at this time to calculate the likelihood of this ending with the Knicks losing a first round. But that’s not completely irrelevant either.
It’s plausible that an additional first could be a key currency for the Knicks’ future. But we are still far from knowing the conclusions of the NBA and how the league could react to it. For now, the Knicks have four of their own first-round picks they can trade. And if they make a deal with Mitchell while keeping two of them, they can make some noise again in a few seasons.
(Photo by Donovan Mitchell and RJ Barrett: Rob Gray/USA Today)