Dreamin' of LaVine, Part 2

Yesterday we took a macro view of Zach Lavine and examined what his market might be. Today, we look at the film and some numbers to see exactly what the Knicks would be getting themselves into.

Let’s start with something good, because I am nothing if not the eternal optimist:

That stat is from just before the NBA shut down in mid-March. The other four fellows on that list will all appear on MVP ballots this season and will find themselves on one of the All-NBA Teams to be announced shortly. They are all also undoubtedly max players, and among the top ten assets in the NBA.

That’s because when all the fancy sets break down and the game is on the line against a really good defense, you can’t really stop this shit right here:

Harden is the Babe Ruth of the step back, but LaVine is one of a handful of guys who can also do it in relative bunches and with a high level of efficiency. This season, LaVine joined Damian Lillard and Kyrie Irving as the only players for whom at least 45 percent of their 3-pointers were unassisted, shot at least 38 from deep overall and averaged over 25 points per game. Not bad.

But of course, Zach LaVine isn’t in the same class as Dame or Kyrie. He’s not getting any MVP votes, won’t sniff an All-NBA Team, and unlike all the players who will, there’s a legitimate question as to whether he’s even worth a salary that is less than half that of the league’s very best.

Why is that?

Because of nonsense like this:

You might have to watch a few times to find LaVine on this play.

Need a hint? He’s the one looking like a lost schoolboy at the top of the frame as his man - Bradley Beal, decent player - not so subtly sneaks by him to get in offensive rebounding position.

No, it didn’t end up mattering, but if there were ever a play that emblemized the enigma that is Zach LaVine, it’s this one.

On one hand, his indifference to Beal here is staggering, and is not at all uncommon. LaVine has a bad tendency to ball-watch on defense, often resulting in him losing sight of his man, like he does here against Washington:

The most unnerving part of this play is that you can see LaVine momentarily turn his head, see Thomas jet towards the arc…and proceed to do nothing.

(Appropriately enough, Chicago is ICE’ing Bradley Beal on this play, and as I detailed in this space two weeks ago, in order to run that coverage well, you need your defenders to constantly be aware of their reads. Had IT been a little bit more confident in his jumper, this would have been a wide open three.)

On the other hand, LaVine’s tendency to leak out does lend itself to one of the better parts of his game: transition play.

Take a look at these numbers, courtesy of Cleaning the Glass:

The Bulls were really good in transition when LaVine was on the court, ranking at or near the top ten percent of the league in transition points per possession and points per possession off steals. When you look at plays like this, it’s easy to see why:

(I’ve watched this play at least a dozen times and I still can’t tell for sure whether or not LaVine goes five-hole on Dillon Brooks, but I’m choosing to believe that he does)

LaVine also pulled down five boards per 36 minutes this year, which isn’t bad for a guard, and given RJ Barrett’s propensity to grab and go, this is one area where the two of them would figure to give the Knicks a nice added dimension.

He was also 15th in the NBA in steals per game, and although his gambles don’t always pay off, he’s shown the ability to take advantage of lazy pass by using his quickness to jump the lane:

To be sure, there’s a lot more bad than good about LaVine when it comes to defense, but he’s nowhere near the level of player that opposing teams make a habit of hunting for switches. Like a lot of prominent players today, his on-ball work is far more impressive than the lesser lights that occur when he’s not directly involved in the play.

But he’s 6’6”, is a good athlete, and as I detailed in Part 1 of this piece, when he’s surrounded by a few strong defenders, his teams fair just fine on the defensive end. For instance, check out the numbers on Chicago’s most-used five-man lineup from this season:

That dog’ll hunt just fine.

Also - and this is both a good sign and a terrible one - LaVine seems to get up more for the prime time matchups:

LaVine is usually slotted on the least threatening guard or wing defender from the opposing team, but was actually matched up with Harden a fair bit during this game, one that the Bulls kept close for two and a half quarters (until, actually, LaVine and the starters went out).

One would think that under Thibs - a coach who he openly praised just a few months ago - LaVine would not only be on his best behavior, but that the front office would be wise enough to flank him with enough solid defenders to make things workable. Of all the variables that’ll determine whether a LaVine trade would work out in their favor, these have to be near the top.

A potential starting lineup of D.J. Augustin, LaVine, RJ Barrett, Julius Randle and Mitchell Robinson leaves a bit to be desired on both ends, but it’s also not outright terrible. Ideally, Randle gets moved to the bench and is replaced by someone who could space the floor a bit better and be less of a defensive liability. If so, it could open up more drive and kick opportunities for both LaVine and Barrett, like we see below:

If the recent bubble games in Orlando have reminded us of nothing else, it’s that the more players you have who can handle the ball and make good, quick decisions on the move, the better off you’ll be. In RJ Barrett, the Knicks - maybe, hopefully - already have one player who can offer these skills from somewhere other than the point guard position. Depending on where they slot Frank in this season, they might have another. LaVine would give them a great third.

Even if the Knicks trade for LaVine and aren’t able to unload Randle’s salary in the deal, there’s a possibility (depending on what else goes out in the LaVine trade) to afford both a solid stretch four on a big one year deal and a serviceable starting point. In my proposed trade (LaVine to the Knicks for their own 2020 1st rounder, Knox and DSJ), New York would be left with about $40 million to spend under the currently projected cap. That should be enough for, say, Danilo Galinari and D.J. Augustin on big one year contracts, not to mention that they would have the midlevel exception to play with as well.

If you’re trying to imagine a world where it could make sense to give up the Knicks own first rounder in a trade for LaVine, that’s it. Augustine, LaVine, Barrett, Gallo, Mitch, Frank, Reggie Bullock, Randle, Taj (brought back on the midlevel, perhaps), and either Iggy Brazdeikis or a rookie obtained from the Clips or Hornets picks is a 10-man rotation that could theoretically compete for the eighth seed in the East.

Is that worth it? As always, the answer comes down to the details. How important is it for Mitchell Robinson to have someone else on the floor to feed him passes like this:

Just as vitally, how much more room would RJ Barrett have to operate with someone on the floor who is always a threat to pull up from deep and who makes defenses think twice about going under screens?

Tom Thibodeau has already spoken about the propensity for modern offenses to go four-out, one-in and five-out. What about a five-man unit in which Barrett was the nominal power forward flanked by LaVine, Frank and a traditional point guard? Or how about lineups without a traditional point guard that have LaVine and Barrett split the ball-handling duties alongside Bullock, Iggy and Randle as the small-ball five?

Having a player like LaVine on a team doesn’t solve all of your problems but it does provide you with a lot of options. If nothing else, the spacing that his shooting and shot creation can help foster will be substantial, and his propensity to attack the rim should fit nicely with both Barrett’s and Robinson’s games.

(LaVine is an excellent corner-3 shooter, btw. Hopefully in New York, with Barrett taking on some additional playmaking duties, he would actually begin to take more of them)

All told, LaVine’s benefit on the offensive side of the floor is undeniable. If they can get him to a passable level on defense, improve internally at some other spots, and make a few smart moves, bringing LaVine in could jump start the rebuild in a way that makes more sense than bringing in Chris Paul or adding solid but unspectacular vets who don’t really move the needle.

Ultimately, the question is going to come down to this: What is the upside that New York envisions getting from the seventh or eighth pick in the draft versus how big of an impact LaVine can have on the overall growth of their team, both by what he can do individually and what he can open up for others?

Or maybe it’s a lot simpler that even that: Is New York really better off spending another year trying to get water from a rock every time they have the ball? Because if they don’t swing this trade, the smart money says that’s exactly what’s going to happen.

So much of this is going to come down to draft prep, as well as how easily Thibs thinks he can break LaVine of his worst habits. The last time Thibodeau coached LaVine, Zach was a 21-year-old kid still finding his way in the league. He’s no doubt grown since then, and would probably relish the opportunity to star alongside RJ Barrett (the two are both clients of power agent and noted friend-of-MSG, Bill Duffy) under the bright lights of the Garden.

And because we’re always thinking big picture here at KFS, what, precisely, would be the long term goal following a trade for LaVine?

These are three best case scenarios:

  1. New York is good enough next year that they get a look from someone in the 2021 free agent class that could include Giannis, AD, Kawhi, Paul George, Victor Oladipo and Jrue Holiday. If this summer goes as I laid out, they’d easily have max space and would be within shouting distance of a double max.

  2. Alternatively, they don’t get a free agent, but the core plays well enough to up their collective trade value such that the team can continue to trade themselves up in weight class for the next available star.

  3. The Knicks are a better, more modern, and more cohesive team, but still finish just on the outside of the playoffs looking in. Thanks to the arms race in the West, they still finish with the eighth or ninth best lottery odds, giving them around a one in four chance at landing in the top four of a great draft.

    (To everyone who has made it through every word of these columns and by now is enraged at their laptop, tablet or phone, screaming “But trading a lottery pick for LaVine is the opposite of tanking, which is what we should be doing you idiot!”, remember: tanking is not a thing that’s going to happen this year. It just isn’t. They are going to try to win games, and under Thibs, win a few games they will. It’s about what they get out of the process that counts most now.)

As for a worst case scenario, this is Knicks-land…use your imagination.

Maybe LaVine leans into his worst tendencies and makes last year’s version of Julius Randle look like Magic Johnson, turning RJ and Mitch sour on the organization and spelling disaster for the Rose/Thibs regime before it starts.

Maybe they end up picking sixth in a five player draft (because that’s never happened before).

Maybe the pick they end up trading to Chicago turns out like the pick Chicago once got for Jimmy Butler, and Knicks fans two years from now are angry about missing out on Player X like Wolves fans still screaming about Lauri Markkanen.

Maybe Knox blossoms with a change of scenery.

Maybe I wake up tomorrow in an alternate universe where the Knicks have been well-managed for years and I don’t have to write 3000 words on Zach F—— LaVine.

Maybe. Maybe. Maybe.

Unless I’ve grossly misjudged the market, what Leon Rose will have to give up to get this dude is going to make any trade a gamble. At some point, the Knicks are going to make a bet. My guess is if that if the opportunity presents itself to wager on LaVine, they’ll do it.

And while I can’t say for sure whether that would be a good thing because I simply can’t know all the variables, in theory, it certainly has the makings of being the right move. Or the Knicksy one.

High risk, high reward. Nothing like starting off a new era with a bang.

New Podcast with Mike Vorkunov!

That’s it for Dreamin’ of LaVine! Check back later this week for another newsletter! #BlackLivesMatter

Dreamin' of LaVine, Part 1

His name has already appeared in connection with the Knicks. Does the Chicago swingman make sense as the first big acquisition for Leon Rose? The answer is complicated.

If you to were ask most Knick fans to name the top five players who would cause them agita if they saw their name in trade rumors, my guess is that Zach LaVine would appear on a lot of lists.

(My personal list only has one name on it: Terry Rozier. I just want no part of that dude, regardless of the cost in assets. Which of course means they will trade for him.)

This is understandable. Over his six-year career, LaVine’s teams have gone a combined 105-248, including 36-87 over the last two years. The advanced stats suggest he’s been as much a part of the problem as he has the solution over much of that time.

The very definition of a losing player for his first four years as a pro, LaVine turned it around in his second season with the Bulls, helping them become a better team when he played than when he didn’t. This season, things flipped back in the other direction thanks mostly to a defensive on/off number that was among the worst in basketball.

It’s the latest sign of an unsettling trend. Via Cleaning the Glass, in four out of LaVine’s six seasons as a pro, he was in the bottom 15 percent of the league in terms of how much better his teams were defensively when he wasn’t on the floor. This year, Chicago gave up 7.2 fewer points per 100 possessions when LaVine sat. Among the rest of the NBA’s elite offensive engines, only Karl-Anthony Towns (6.2 points per 100 possessions worse, 10th percentile) and Trae Young (3.5 points, 24th percentile) were close to that bad.

Of course, the entire reason I’m dedicating multiple columns to LaVine this week is because of the massive pock marks on his resume. Without those unsightly blemishes, there’s not a prayer in the world that a 25-year-old making under $20 million annually and averaging 25, 5 & 4 on .450/.380/.802 shooting would be available.

With a few other exceptions, he’s the only name on the below list who is a realistic (and potentially sensible) trade target for the Knicks this summer:

These are the NBA’s usage monsters, again courtesy of Cleaning the Glass. The second column, “PSA,” stands for “points per shot attempt,” which essentially translates to effective field goal percentage. As you can see, LaVine’s efficiency rivals some of the league’s best.

Notice any outliers there, by the way? Aside from Blake Griffin, who gets something of an injury pass, only Julius Randle soaked up an outsized percentage of his team’s offensive possessions without delivering at least a mediocre return on that investment.

Which gets us to why we’re talking about LaVine to begin with: the Knicks are desperate for an engine to make their sputtering offense go.

This is LaVine’s first basket of this season.

I watched ever goddamn minute of 66 Knicks games and never saw anyone use this level of functional athleticism to manufacture a bucket. Sure, RJ Barrett bully-balled his way to a few nice drives and Julius Randle, on his better days, got his fair share of buckets.

But they don’t have anyone who can do this:

There is no such thing as running a functional NBA offense without having an elite shot creator somewhere in the mix. Regardless of what your personal preference is for how the Knicks approach next season - wanting every last win, tanking the shit out of things, or somewhere in between - you should hope to see the Knicks replicate an actual NBA offense on the court.

In order to make that happen, they need to get a shot creator who brings at least some modicum of efficiency.

Right now, New York is quite literally the only team in the league without even one such player. That’s right: all 29 other teams have at least one player who is both in the top 25 percent in usage and in the top 50 percent in points per shot attempt. The Knicks had one - Marcus Morris, 86th and 82nd percentiles, respectively - but he’s gone. They’re left with Randle, RJ Barrett (86th and 10th percentiles) and maybe Bobby Portis (79th and 16th percentiles).

If they want to be decent - a top 20 offense, let’s say - then judging by last season’s best 20 offensive units, they need at least one player who is in the top 10 percent in usage and top 50 percent in efficiency. The only teams to skirt that requirement were Boston and Memphis, whose engines just missed the cut (Jayson Tatum was in the 93rd percentile in usage and the 46th percentile in PSA, while the Grizzlies’ Ja Morant was in the 80th and 63rd percentiles, respectively. Unsurprisingly, Memphis was barely a top-20 offense, ranking 19th)

Maybe one of Barrett or Randle makes a quantum leap in efficiency, or maybe the front office shocks me and gives Fred VanVleet the years and dollars he’ll be seeking. Heck, maybe they draft a rookie point guard who comes in and has the effect Morant did in Memphis this season. I’m highly dubious of any of these though, which means unless the Knicks want to spend another year banging their head against a brick wall when they have the basketball, they need to get themselves a horse.

Should LaVine be that guy?

While the win/loss and defensive numbers can’t be ignored, neither can a few other things. For one, LaVine has had five coaches in six seasons, including the man who is universally considered the worst HC in the NBA, Jim Boylan. It’s also worth noting that while the on/off numbers are generally unkind to LaVine, there are a few pockets of hope.

Let’s start during the 2018-19 season. Aside from the Bulls being 4.7/100 better when LaVine played, when Zach shared the floor with Robin Lopez - Chicago’s one solid two-way big - the Bulls outscored teams by 2.8 points per 100 possessions. When he was flanked by Lopez and an elite perimeter defender in Kris Dunn, that number increased to a +3.4 net rating. For a team with a negative 8.3 overall rating, that’s not half bad.

Fast forward to this year. Even amidst the Bulls dysfunction, when LaVine and a slightly more seasoned Wendell Carter Jr. shared the floor, they had a positive net rating together. LaVine, Carter Jr. and Thomas Satoransky - a solid if unspectacular point guard who should probably be a high level backup rather than a starter - had a positive 3.9 net rating in 765 minutes together. It’s more evidence that when you put a few half-decent pieces around LaVine, good things will happen.

All this is to say that at the very least, LaVine is worth looking into further, which is something the Knicks, along with the Nets and Hornets, have reportedly already done.

When examining any potential trade, the big questions are what it’ll take to get him and whether he’s worth that cost.

Today, I’m going to handle the first question. Once we get an idea of what the Knicks might have to give up in a potential deal, tomorrow I’ll dig into the film. Together, we’ll get a better idea of whether this is the right horse for Leon, Wes & Co. to hitch their wagon to.

Because he’s a fairly divisive player, figuring out LaVine’s trade value is tricky. That said, there’s a clear half-dozen teams besides the Knicks that figure to be in on talks should he become available, the first of which we don’t have to go very far to find.

Other Potential Suitors

Brooklyn Nets

According to Ian’s report, Brooklyn has been doing the same due diligence as the Knicks, but forecasting a trade here is tricky for a few reasons.

Primarily, if KD & Kyrie are really in it to win it, acquiring LaVine doesn’t necessarily put them over the top (and if anything, the potential fit could be less than ideal, as LaVine has gotten used to having the ball in his hands an awful lot). Bradley Beal makes more sense, and even though the asking price will be immeasurably higher, it mght be worth it, as a trio of Beal, Irving and a healthy Durant would have to be considered co-favorites for next season with either of the LA teams and Milwaukee.

But let’s assume the Wizards decide to hold onto Beal and the Bobbsey Twins have given the organization a mandate to upgrade from LaVert or else they will no longer share their toys with the other children. If that’s the case, and the Nets put LaVert on the table, it would beat any Knicks offer that doesn’t include their own first round pick this year, and even then there’s an argument that Chicago would rather have LaVert over whoever could be obtained with that pick, even if it does land in the top four.

It’s tough to see Brooklyn being willing to give up LaVert for LaVine, but crazier things have happened. There’s also a possibility the Nets could acquire LaVine and still hang onto LaVert, but this would mean the Bulls taking on Taurean Prince’s not-so-team-friendly contract (Chicago needs another big man like another hole in the head, which takes Jared Allen out of the mix, and it’s hard to see them wanting Spencer Dinwiddie, who is duplicitous with Coby White and can opt out in a year).

If Prince was the centerpiece, Brooklyn would need to add two other smaller salaries to make the math work - take your pick of Dzanan Musa, Rodions Kurucs, Nic Claxton or Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot - but that still doesn’t make the deal palatable for Chicago, and that gets us to draft assets, of which the Nets don’t have much. Barring a complete and total collapse from Brooklyn and the Walking Dead Wizards snagging the final playoff spot in the East this season, the Nets will have to give up their 2020 first round selection to Minnesota.

So basically, unless the Nets want to cash in their LaVert chip on LaVine, this doesn’t seem like the likeliest of landing spots.

Orlando Magic

I mention them here only because Aaron Gordon - who seems to perpetually exist on the trading block - can be dealt straight up for LaVine without having to add any additional salary, and in terms of player value in a vacuum, these two are about as close as you’ll get in the eyes of most neutral observers.

Both also have contracts that end in two years, so it’s not like one team would be taking on a worse obligation than the other (although Gordon’s contract is descending and Chicago would save about $4.5 million over the next two seasons - a nice perk for the always thrifty Bulls).

From a fit perspective though, this one is tricky. LaVine on the Magic theoretically works, and gives them insurance in case a deal can’t be worked out with unrestricted free agent Evan Fournier. They could also slot Fournier and LaVine side by side at the wings, which could make Orlando an morbidly interesting team next season.

The question here though is why the Bulls would want Gordon. He has the tools to be a good and versatile defender, although that hasn’t always bore itself out of late. Still, it’s pretty clear that Gordon belongs at the four, where Lauri Markkanen currently exists and Thad “boy, he aged quickly” Young is making a pretty penny on the bench. Even if the Bulls thought Markkanen’s range gave them room to try Gordon at the three, Otto Porter is a safe bet to opt into the $28.5 million he’s due this year.

Do the Bulls really want to upend their entire team and move Markkanen and LaVine this offseason? Given how things sound like they’re going over in Chicago, it can’t be ruled out.

But that’s a lot of moving parts, and they’d need to count on Markkanen netting them a suitable replacement for LaVine, which I’m not sure will be easy (although if they shot up in the draft and were able to snag Anthony Edwards - clearly a Jim Boylen guy if there ever was one - I could see this coming together).

Charlotte Hornets

Like Gordon, Terry Rozier for LaVine would work as a straight up deal. Rozier was also fine this season playing alongside another ball handler in Devonte Graham, so he should be able to work with Coby White. LaVine on Charlotte would also actually be pretty fun.

But again, does Chicago want anything to do with Rozier, who everyone (well, everyone outside of some brilliant minds inside the Knicks front office around the trade deadline, apparently) recognizes as vastly overpaid on his current deal, and wouldn’t represent much of a return for LaVine?

Would the Hornets add their own first round pick, which there’s a two thirds chance will be either 7th or 8th, to make this happen? I wouldn’t rule anything out, although that might be a hefty price to pay for Charlotte.

Denver Nuggets

There would be more a little irony in a LaVine trade built around Gary Harris, who the Bulls drafted and then, along with Jusuf Nurkić, shipped off to Denver for the rights to Doug McDermott. Dougie McBuckets was then sent to OKC (along with Taj Gibson and the pick that became Mitchell Robinson) a few months before the Bulls swapped Jimmy Butler for LaVine.

Harris has struggled shooting in the two years since signing his four-year, $84 million extension, with a 48.8 eFG% that includes him hitting only a third of his 3-pointers. His last dozen games before the shutdown were encouraging, but he’s also been bothered by lingering injuries, including a hip that has thus far sidelined him in Orlando.

The Nuggets would need to add a significant sweetener to make this swap, and while Denver doesn’t have its own first rounder this season, they do own Houston’s, which is currently slotted at 21. The Nuggets could theoretically do a draft night trade where they gave up that pick, plus Harris and their own 2021 first rounder.

This begs the question though: for an organization that seems to value this core of players (not to mention first round draft picks), would they give up so much to take a chance on a potentially imperfect fit who wouldn’t necessarily put them over the top even if it did pan out?

Utah Jazz

The elder Bogey would be the centerpiece here, as I doubt the Jazz want anything to do with giving up Joe Ingles, who represents the only other salary on their books north of $5 million outside of the big two (soon to be big three once Donovan Mitchell signs a likely extension this summer).

Bogdanovic gave the Jazz all they could have asked for this season after they signed him to a four-year, $73 million contract over the summer. He was .447/.414/.903 while putting up 20, 4 & 2. He’s good.

But he’s not the level of shot creator that LaVine is. LaVine would make the Jazz worse defensively, but with Gobert manning the middle, maybe it’s more workable than it would be for most teams (and as it stands, they have Royce O’Neal essentially as their starting small forward).

It’s unclear whether either team would be up for this though, and my guess is that even if the Jazz were willing to take the plunge, they’d scoff at any substantial ask on top of a straight up player for player trade. It’s also worth noting that because of the pick protections in the Conley trade with Memphis, the next first round pick the Jazz can deal away can’t convey until 2024 at the earliest.

(They could get around the Stepian Rule and trade this year’s pick after draft night, however.)

Dallas Mavericks

Talk about a nightmare outcome for the Knicks: Tim Hardaway Jr. would opt into the final year of his contract only to be shipped off to Chicago in exchange for someone who would be a perfect fit alongside Luka and KP in Big D.

The only issue here is that the Mavs already blew their load of draft assets in the Porzingis trade. They might have enough to get this done, however, as they can trade their own pick after draft night (see Jazz draft note above) and then a future first that could convey as early as 2025. They could also take on Cristiano Felicio’s $7.5 million expiring carcass for Seth Curry, who’s signed for three more seasons at just over $8 million per.

Curry is damn good, and the pick this year would likely be in the late teens, but this still feels a little light. The pièce de résistance might be the Golden State second rounder that Dallas owns this year. We know the Bulls are cheap as all hell, and being able to get the first shot this year at a player who doesn’t immediately need to be signed to a guaranteed contract could be enough to move the needle.

Which Brings Us To…

The Knicks, and the question that this little exercise inevitably engenders: What will it take to get Zach LaVine to MSG?

The biggest impediment to any deal is that the most easily workable salary the Knicks have - Randle’s $18.9 million with a partially guaranteed final season at $19.8 million - is not one the Bulls will have any interest in taking on (see the Aaron Gordon discussion above for a reminder as to why).

That means the Knicks would need to find a third team to take on Randle (no easy task - I’ve heard recently that opposing teams unsurprisingly don’t view Julius as a desirable trade asset at his salary) or do a deal without Randle involved.

The Knicks could do this quite easily if they decline the team options on Taj Gibson, Wayne Ellington and Elfrid Payton. In that case, they could take on LaVine and still only be at about $90 million in committed money even after factoring in likely salaries for their upcoming draft picks, dead money and cap charges.

So that gets us into what Chicago would demand. RJ Barrett is a non-starter in any conversation and even if Mitchell Robinson was on the table, the Bulls have no need for another big. The Knicks would also be insane to include any future first round pick of their own without significant protections, and if they made the protections strong enough, that would preclude them from including a future first in a later trade for a bigger, better name. Chicago also has their own version of Frank Ntilikina in Kris Dunn, who is entering restricted free agency. If they’re dead set on playing an offensively challenged point guard, they’ll likely just keep their own.

Fans who think the Bulls would accept a deal of Kevin Knox and the Clippers and Hornets picks can keep dreaming. As the exhaustive exercise I just went through shows, someone else is going to beat that offer pretty easily.

Next up on the asset ladder is the Mavericks 2021 unprotected first. Personally, I think there’s a better chance that selection ends up in the 25-30 range than it does anywhere near the lottery. Luka Doncic is about to make the All-NBA First Team and is 21 freaking years old. Even if we assume KP’s papier-mâché exterior gives out and he misses a large portion of next season, the Mavs were plus 6.0 points per 100 possessions in the minutes that Doncic played without Porzingis this season.

Is Chicago really going to give up LaVine for that pick, even if Knox were included as well? My guess is that someone beats that offer as well.

Which brings us to the doomsday question for much of the fan base: Would the Knicks include this year’s first round pick in a trade for LaVine?

If it lands in the top four, the answer likely would and should be no. My guess is that a top four pick outright nets them either LaMelo Ball or Anthony Edwards - the two players I believe Leon Rose was referring to during his introductory interview with Mike Breen when he said this draft had “a couple” of impact guys - or it puts them close enough to swing a trade and move up.

If they don’t get lucky on lottery night though, and the cost to grab one of their top targets is too high? For as divisive a player as he is, the seventh or eighth pick as the primary return for LaVine is objectively fair value. My guess is that the deal would look like this: LaVine for the Knicks 2020 1st rounder, Kevin Knox and Dennis Smith Jr.

(If the Knicks are going to take on LaVine without giving up Randle, they’ll need to shed salary to afford reinforcements to the roster elsewhere. Chicago, meanwhile, has a salary floor to hit, and given that they won’t be players in free agency, taking a one-year flyer on DSJ probably isn’t the worst idea)

But just because a trade is fair doesn’t mean the the Knicks should do it, even despite everything I said above. As Zach Lowe noted to Ian Begley recently, if LaVine is your best offensive creator, you’re likely not going to be a very good team, and giving up a top-ten pick to remain bad feels like unsound logic.

For a trade like this to make sense, the Knicks would need to count on a few things:

  • Tom Thibodeau being able to get LaVine to a passable level on defense

  • To that end, they’d have to surround LaVine with a few plus defenders in any lineup he’s in, and…

  • Most importantly, LaVine’s offensive burden would have to be lessened from what it was in Chicago, to the point that he could shy away from some of his less desirable tendencies, namely: long two’s (12 percent of his shot diet, a number that has decreased every year he’s been in the NBA but is still too high) and poor decision-making (he’s had a turnover rate between 13 and 14 percent in each of the last two seasons, which is not ideal).

So really, an evaluation on the wisdom of trading for LaVine is really an evaluation of several other things as well:

  • How big a leap can RJ Barrett make next season?

  • How much would playing alongside LaVine (along with more shooting and a competent, floor-spacing point guard) help Julius Randle look like the version we saw in New Orleans?

  • How much of an upgrade at point guard would be necessary to facilitate LaVine’s best tendencies? Would it need to be Goran Dragic running the show? Would DJ Augustin be sufficient? Or would Frank Ntilikina be able to steer the offense well enough for the time being?

The uncertainty surrounding all of this is what makes judging a possible LaVine swap more than a bit complicated.

Nonetheless, in Part 2 of Dreamin’ of LaVine, I’ll take a stab at an answer, along with some film breakdowns and what the eventual plan would be for a Knicks team that did acquire the Bulls swingman.

That’s it for today! See everyone tomorrow for Part 2! #BlackLivesMatter

What's the Point?

Predicting the Knicks starter at PG this season is no easy task. The success of the Rose/Thibs regime may also depend on the answer.

Follow my thinking here, if you will…

  • By all indications, the Knicks have set an internal goal next season of winning basketball games —>

  • The Knicks, as presently constructed, are not very good at winning basketball games —>

  • To get good at winning basketball games, the most important step is to get a modern, competent point guard —>

  • There are several potentially good point guards available in the draft, but rookie point guards are generally very bad —>

  • A bad rookie point guard will make it harder to win basketball games.

    *shrug emoji*

It’s quite the conundrum.

If ever there were a team that should draft a lead ball handler and then play that person significant minutes to work out the kinks, it is the 2020-21 New York Knicks. They have a pick to make it happen, a desperate need at the position, and no discernible chance of making the playoffs next season anyway.

But why on earth would you take the scenic route when there’s a perfectly good briar patch nearby that might be able to save you a few minutes on the trip? New York has often been accused of going out of their way to do the hard thing when an easier, perfectly sensible option is staring them in the face. Not using this season to break in a potential long term answer point guard would certainly qualify.

We have reason to know, however, that this regime is thinking big. Really big. Jerome James big. They want wins sooner rather than later in the hopes of making the franchise look more appealing to the next disgruntled star or curious free agent. I’d call this plan ridiculous, but I shudder at the thought of doubting Woldwide Wes, someone who, as best as I can tell, has never failed at anything in his life.

So there’s that.

My guess is that they will try to have their cake and eat it to, exiting draft night with a young lead guard and then playing that person enough to break them in but not so much as to derail their hopes of looking like a functional NBA basketball team.

Does this mean that the opening night starter won’t be a rookie? That depends on a lot of factors, which is the purpose of today’s column.

Before I list my top five educated guesses for who the opening night starter is going to be, we need to start with who last year’s opening night starter should have been: Elfrid Payton.

That statement may be a shock to the system of the Frank Hive, but facts are facts, and Payton was far and away the best point guard the team had last year. The advanced stats (courtesy of Cleaning the Glass) bear this out pretty undeniably:

The Knicks were nearly eight points per 100 possessions better with Payton on the floor than when he was off, second on the team only to Mitch. Elf was obviously nowhere near the defender that Frank was, but his offense made up for it and then some (see all the bright orange numbers adjacent to his name). With Payton on the floor, the Knicks had a 109.4 offensive rating - within shouting distance of a league average unit. With Marcus Morris on the court, that number rose to 111.3, damn near in the top ten.

All of this is incredibly impressive. It also isn’t enough to get Payton anywhere near the top five you’ll see below. Why? Simple:

These are the only five point guards in the league who started the majority of their team’s games last season that also averaged under one made 3-pointer per 36 minutes.

Leaving Ben Simmons out of the discussion, as he’s something of an anomaly in terms of his overall offensive impact, the only player remotely close to Payton was Markelle Fultz. Fultz was the number one overall pick in the draft just three years ago and the Magic have a decent incentive to try and rehabilitate his once promising shot (and career). Payton is entering his seventh season without any of the shot drama that has followed Fultz around. He is what he is at this point, and what he is is a non-shooter.

And that’s fine! Payton can and should remain employed as a high-end backup for many years, ideally on a team that can provide him with extra spacing on the second unit. Maybe that team will be New York next season. We’ll see.

What can’t be denied is that the Knicks need to go in a new direction. Moving forward with a point guard who can’t make a shot from outside 10 feet simply isn’t a sustainable offensive philosophy unless that player has freakishly outstanding parts of his game elsewhere (and even then, we’re seeing Philly trot Simmons out at the four in Orlando).

With that as the backdrop, let’s go through some honorable mentions for players I thought about before getting to what I consider to be a pretty clear top five, roughly in order of least to most likely.

Again, these are listed in order of likelihood by my own nonsensical estimation, not in the order of who I’d want to see have the job. My comments to that effects follow each name.

A WORD OF WARNING: Some of the names you’ll see below might seem batshit crazy, and that’s because they are. The reason is that, for the reasons I laid out above and some others I’ll get into with individual players, there is no obvious answer to this question. As such, I’m preparing myself for anything, and so should you.

Also, I couldn’t sleep last night and wrote most of this between 2 and 4:30 am, so please factor that in as well.

Honorable Mentions

Rajon Rondo - He’s a name, which I could see carrying some weight this offseason, and he knows how to run an offense. He’s also not much different than Payton at this point in his career, although he’s made about a three per game over the last two seasons at a barely respectable 34.5 percent clip. Has a player option for $2.6 million that he could very well pick up.

Collin Sexton - If the Cavs got a high pick, and if they felt like they couldn’t pass up LaMelo Ball, and if the Cavs didn’t want to deal with the headache of one too many ball-handlers (but were somehow OK dealing with the headache of one Ball handler - see what I did there? Tips in the jar, thanks…), and if the Knicks were up for paying what I’m sure would be an astronomical asking price, then, and only then, could I see this happening.

Terry Rozier - I sincerely hope that whoev-


(grabs water)

Sorry, I just threw up in my mouth a little.

Anyhow, I sincerely hope that whoever in the front office was a fan of Scary Terry around the trade deadline is no longer vested with decision-making input. I’d be somewhat shocked if they were willing to take on the $18 million Rozier is due in the ‘21-22 season, but he’s also shown (wildly inconsistent) defensive chops before, and he shot 40 percent from deep this season. I could see the wrong person talking themselves into Thibs turning Rozier into a winning player.

Aaron Holiday - My preferred trade target, although I have no idea what we have that Indiana would want. Maybe if Herb Simon really is strapped for cash, there’s a deal to be had.

Dennis Smith Jr. - Aside from being maybe one of the five worst rotation players in basketball last season, his approach to the game is not exactly what I imagine when I think of a typical Tom Thibodeau player.

Reggie Jackson - He’s had success in the league before, and could wind up being the starting point guard on the 2020 NBA Champions before all is said and done. He’s also a free agent and New York is probably the only team that would even remotely entertain giving him a starting job. Shot 40 percent from deep so far this season (45 percent in nine games with LA), and probably wouldn’t mind a “starter emeritus” role where he played less time than his rookie backup.

Michael Carter-Williams - Did you know MCW will be 29 in October? This floored me for some reason. In any case, he kinda learned to shoot this year? Maybe? I don’t know…this would scream that Scott Perry still has a heavy influence within the front office. That said, Orlando’s offense has hummed this year when he’s been in the game.

Fred VanVleet - Even putting him this high is probably generous. I don’t see the Knicks going multiple years, either via free agency or in a trade, on a player they can’t talk themselves into having an All-Star ceiling. VanVleet had an argument to make the team this year, but that was on the well-oiled Raptors. I think he’s going to want at least three years and I think someone is going to give it to him. I just don’t think it’ll be the Knicks.

Goran Dragic - On paper, he should probably be number one. He’s arguably the best guy that the Knicks can get on a one-year deal, and at 34 years old, I’m not sure who in the league is giving Dragic multiple years or a guaranteed starting job.

I just…I don’t know. There’s something about this that doesn’t pass the smell test. Is Dragic, after spending five-and-a-half years in Miami, really going to pack it up for a few extra bucks from New York? Something about him and Thibs also doesn’t quite jive for me.

Very happy to be pleasantly surprised and dead wrong about this.

Jeff Teague - Almost as scary as Scary Terry. Teague is just not very good anymore. He ran the offense just fine in Minnesota but he doesn’t have what it takes to defend at a passable level anymore, try as he might. Still, I’m probably kidding myself by keeping him out of the top five here.

Dennis Schroder - makes sense on a lot of levels - he’s expiring, has a contract that could be dealt straight up for Randle and a draft asset, shot 38 percent from deep this year, and his defense kind of reminds me of a pre-injury Derrick Rose (not ideal but spry enough to be functional) - but something tells me that if Sam Presti and Leon Rose are going to swing a deal, it’s going to be for the big kahuna.

Kira Lewis / Killian Hayes / Tyrese Halliburton - I’m cheating a bit by grouping these three together, but that’s only because I have no idea what New York’s draft board looks like. It’s very possible that one of these names, and not the guy I have listed below, should have made the top five, but, well…keep reading.

The Top Five

5. Chris Paul

Who blinks first?

I’m betting that, all things being equal, the Knicks will make the internal determination that taking on the final year of Chris Paul’s contract - $44 million in 2021-22, holy Lord - will be worth what he brings to the team on the court and in the locker room next year.

In a universe where New York trades for Paul, their worst case scenario also doubles as their best case scenario: they get so good next season that a star wants to come in 2021, and they need to attach a pick to dump Paul’s contract next summer in order to free up the space. First world problems, folks.

Yes, this would preclude Brock Aller from putting on his wizard’s hat and spinning some cap magic by taking advantage of potentially cash-strapped teams that might be in need of a dumping ground for unwanted salary, but my guess is that all things being equal (there’s that phrase again) no such available deal will outweigh the benefits they feel Paul brings them.

So what makes all things equal? If a trade for Paul doesn’t require them to give up an asset that they actually value, because even if OKC was on the verge of bankruptcy, they’re not trading the Point God for some future protected second round pick just to dump his salary.

What asking price is too much? I’m betting that the Knicks have already had those discussions (and that Frank Zanin, who was employed by the Thunder until a few months ago, has been a healthy part of them). My placing Paul fifth is essentially a bet that the asking price will be too high, but I don’t feel particularly confident about that, and something tells me I’m putting him too low. Far too low, actually.

My guess at what would get it done: something like dumping Randle (a benefit to New York), Knox, the 2021 Dallas pick (lottery protected such that if it doesn’t convey, it flips to the 2023 top-ten protected Dallas pick, which could be given with a swap option between that and the Knicks own 2023 first, but also top-ten protected), and another menial draft asset.

Would Sam Presti demanding Frank stop this deal from happening? What about significantly lessening the protections on the Knicks 2023 pick? No idea.

Last point: don’t discount the possibility that Paul could offer to decline his player option in 21-22 in favor of re-signing for more years at less annual dollars, a’la Dwyane Wade in Miami a few years back. If anyone knows whether this would be an option for Paul under the right circumstances, it’s probably the guy that represented him until a few months back.

4. Frank Ntilikina

There’s really only one scenario where I can imagine Frank getting the starting job next season, and it’s this:

The Knicks acquire a legitimate shot creator who also is a capable ball handler - perhaps someone whose name rhymes with Mack MaVine - such that Ntilikina is a point guard in name only, and would really just function to get the team into its sets and then let others do the heavy lifting.

Other than Paul and VanFleet, Frank’s defensive upside is so far and away higher than any other name on this list that it might be worth it for the Knicks to see if this can work. I don’t think there’s any universe where they view him as a long term answer at point, and honestly, I’m not sure they should. Even if the shot comes around, he’s probably best suited in the type of role that Andre Iguodala played for Golden State.

That’s still an immensely valuable player, and one I would kill to see them lock up in an extension this summer. It’s just not a starting point guard.

3. LaMelo Ball

I see no world where the Knicks start LaMelo Ball next season and they aren’t a bad basketball team. His shot form still needs work, his defense is going to be a train wreck, and he’s going to make all the sorts of mistakes that rookie point guards typically do, except he has supreme confidence in his abilities, which, while it will help him in the long run, will probably make next year incredibly painful.

But if they draft him, I think they start him. Even saying that, what would this starting five even look like? If they started Ntilikina at the wing for make up for LaMelo’s defense, barring Frank making a quantum leap from deep, the spacing will be a disaster even if they don’t move Randle to another team or the bench in favor of a stretchier option. The market for capable wing defenders who can shoot is thin, and whatever options there are will likely command multiple years (keep dreaming, Joe Harris fans).

Do they start…Reggie Bullock? Re-sign Moe Harkless and hope this is one of the years his shot is semi-respectable? Or do we go full-on Crazy Town and trot out a Double Melo first five on opening night?


Crazy Town it is. Let’s move on.

2. D.J. Augustin

I think there’s a better chance than not that he’s a Knick next year. Thibs guy, put up great numbers in Chicago, can shoot, is a free agent, the advanced stats in Orlando were kind last year, he can play alongside another ball-handler without an issue…in short, he checks all the boxes.

I just have trouble believing he’ll be the starter. Unless they bring in a guy like LaVine, giving Augustin the nod over a rookie would be a tough sell to the fan base.

Unless, that is, they wind up with Deni Avdija from the lottery, and have Augustin as the director of an offense that features RJ, Avdija, Stretch Four X, and Mitchell Robinson. How ‘bout them apples?

1. Cole Anthony

As much as I might want to talk myself out of it, he’s still the guy I’d bet the most money on being the Knicks’ pick in October, assuming they don’t move into the top four.

All the concerns about Ball will be there for Anthony, except Cole will be a better shooter and probably a slightly better defender, at least initially. But the spacing concerns will still be there, and unlike LaMelo, Cole doesn’t possess transcendent passing that will open up the offense in other ways.

If he’s the opening night starter, we’re probably going to be looking at a clunky offense that resembles last year’s jalopy-esque outfit, especially if Randle is still with the first five. Trading for LaVine would not necessarily improve things, as Anthony is not quite the guy I’d entrust to corral LaVine and prevent him from being the worst version of himself.

And yet, of all the options, this remains the one I find to be the most likely outcome. He’s the son of a former Knick and I think this regime will place value on New York not being too big a stage for him. I could also see them imagining him having a similar effect to a young Derrick Rose, as insane as that might be.

Maybe it’s Kira or Tyrese or Killian, but given all the parameters, despite how I opened this very newsletter, I’d still bet on a not-very-good rookie ball handler getting the job out of the gate.

And maybe that’s for the best.

That’s it for today, and probably for this week, barring any news breaking today. Last call on questions for the mailbag - send ‘em to KFSMailbag@gmail.com by this afternoon. Thanks for reading! #BlackLivesMatter.

Money Troubles

Jeremy Cohen highlights some cash-strapped teams the Knicks could target for a possible trade. Plus, news and notes from yesterday.

Good morning!

Jeremy Cohen has been on a bit of a writing rampage, so for the second day in a row, today’s newsletter features a piece from him, this time on the recent ESPN story that many NBA owners are hurting where it counts, and specifically how the Knicks can take advantage. I also offer some of my own thoughts throughout.

Before we get to it though, a couple quick news and notes:

Last but certainly not least, I’m THRILLED to report our final tally for the Higher Heights for America fundraiser pods as $705. THANK YOU once again to everyone who participated and also everyone who listened. ICYMI, here’s Part 1 and Part 2.

And without further ado, here’s Jeremy on how the Knicks can take advantage of the NBA’s current financial predicament…

How Can the Knicks Take Advantage of a Reeling NBA?

by Jeremy Cohen

There are a few three-word phrases that can inspire fear and terror.

For some, it’s being the first person to say “I love you” in a relationship. For others, it’s the crushing “Is it in?” For me, at least when it comes to basketball this week, it’s simple.

“Thank you, Windhorst.”

For weeks, we have been starving for any news related to future spending. While we still don’t have a clear picture on what the salary cap will be or where the Knicks will land in the draft, ESPN’s Brian Windhorst came through with an article on how cash-strapped teams are surviving COVID-19.

If you didn’t read the article, here are some takeaways.

  • The owners of the Warriors, as well as other NBA owners, are considering raising money to support themselves. Other teams may sue insurance companies that denied them pandemic-related claims (Rockets’ owner Tilman Fertitta has already done this).

  • One team executive believes that first round picks will be for sale in this draft.

  • One owner believes his team could lose $50 million next year.

  • Cavaliers’ owner Dan Gilbert is richer than we thought.

  • Clippers’ owner Steve Ballmer is even richer than before.

  • The Buss family, who own the Lakers, is relatively poor.

  • Fertitta took out an expensive loan with a high interest rate.

  • Pacers’ owner Herb Simon’s company has lost more than $25 billion in stock value since January.

  • Heat owner Micky Arison has seen his net worth decrease by $2.5 billion since March.

  • The energy industry has been hit hard by COVID, which impacts Thunder ownership, which is deeply involved in profiting off energy.

Let’s address each point and how it relates to the Knicks, shall we?

The Warriors have $150 million in commitments to Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Andrew Wiggins, and Draymond Green over the next few years. The Warriors aren’t trading Curry or Thompson, and the Knicks won’t want to touch the other two salaries with a ten-foot pole. Seriously, if you’re thinking about taking on Wiggins’ contract for Golden State’s 2020 first round pick, it’s not worth it, especially now that Tom Thibodeau is head coach of the Knicks.

Would the Warriors be interested in trading down with the Knicks? Perhaps attaching the Clippers’ first round pick and cash might be enough to move up three or so spots. In a normal year, such a deal would feel blasphemous. Now, maybe not so much.

(Also keep in mind here the lower cost of paying, say, the seventh pick than the third or fourth pick. That difference amounts to only about $2 million next season, but given the fact that the Warriors are deep into the tax, it would effectively be quite a bit more, and then there are the remaining years on the deal. It’s not absurd to think the right swap [I’d replace the Clips 1st with the Hornets 2nd in Jeremy’s scenario because the later means no guaranteed money and Golden State could then draft and stash someone] could easily wind up saving Golden State more than $10 million this season between salary and taxes. Even so, I can’t imagine they’d stomach the PR backlash that they saw Chicago get first hand a few years ago when the Warriors bought the pick that became Jordan Bell. Therefor, if the Knicks ever did something like this, my guess is that there would be a future draft asset going out in the deal, such as the 2023 Mavericks 1st - Ed.)

First round picks could be for sale, and if they are, the Knicks would be wise to jump on that. The CBA states that “Cash cannot be the only asset sent out in trade for a first round draft pick. In other words, teams can't 'sell' their first round draft picks, but they can sell second round picks, player contracts or draft rights.” Windhorst writes about how Rudy Gobert is the last first round pick to be sold, and while that’s technically true, the deal was Gobert for cash and a second round pick. 

The Knicks have or project to have three excellent second round picks in the next two drafts but they could trade conditional second round picks of their own and call it a day (Shoutout Brock Aller and his magical pick protections). They also have the draft rights to players like Louis Labeyrie and Ognjen Jaramaz, each of whom can be used to grease the wheels in a deal. If the Knicks dealt Theo Pinson, his team option would have to get picked up next year, so Pinson isn’t as easy to deal like the assets previously listed, as he would count against the cap. With that said, if the Knicks took back a more expensive contract, Pinson could be used as salary filler.

New York has $5.6 million in cash that can be used as cash considerations. If the Knicks send out $1 million in cash and receive $1 million in cash, they still have only $4.6 million at their disposal. The Knicks used $1 million last year to acquire Ignas Brazdeikis, although that was under Steve Mills. I’m inclined to believe that he was not the brainchild behind that idea though. Also, because the salary cap (usually) resets on July 1st, that $1 million shouldn’t apply to this year’s draft. 

If the Knicks fall in the draft and want to move up, they could use that money and those assets to purchase picks and send the assets to a team positioned above them. If the Knicks rise in the draft, they could still try to purchase picks and then package them with the Clippers’ first round pick and the Hornets’ second round pick for a better player. The Knicks also gained a trade exception worth $3,988,766 in the Marcus Morris Sr. deal, which means that they can absorb any salary worth that number or less.

An owner losing $50 million in a year? Ouch! Dolan is heavily invested in the entertainment market, which has been decimated by COVID. The good news is that Dolan has reportedly shown zero signs of limiting expenditures, seeing as how he has added people around Rose and the Knicks have hired the head coach who will likely cost the most.

(And over more years than they would have liked to go on the contract - Ed.)

Gilbert being richer than we thought means that the Cavaliers may be less likely to trade down. Although seeing as how talent-strapped Cleveland is to begin with, the odds of them trading down were probably slim anyway.

Ballmer being the richest owner already means he has the ability to give Morris Sr. a multi-year deal. The Clippers can give Morris Sr. up to 120% of what he’s earning this year, which would be crucial towards keeping Kawhi Leonard and Paul George happy. Similar could be said of Montrezl Harrell but he’s likely lower on the priority list. The Clippers should try to re-sign Morris Sr. and Harrell, because if they don’t, their options for acquiring talented players are limited due to their salary commitments.

The Buss family being poor compared to their fellow owners is more about how long the effects of coronavirus last. I have no doubt that the Lakers can afford to re-sign Anthony Davis next season. If the NBA is still feeling the burden of coronavirus in 2021 though, that’s a different story. It’s hard to believe the Knicks wouldn’t want Davis, so using their assets to put themselves in a better position to get him and another star in 2021 is probably an idea they do not want to discard right now.

The Lakers, meanwhile, will have to figure out a way to entice Davis to stay long term. That’s hard to do considering the 2021 Lakers project to have two players under contract: a soon-to-be 37-year old LeBron James (assuming he opts in) and their 2020 first round pick. Those two players and Anthony Davis’ cap hold project as around $80 million in salary, which gives the Lakers little room to assemble a competitive roster depending on what the salary cap is.

Tilman Fertitta sucks. That’s all I have to say about that.

If the Pacers want to slash as much payroll as possible next year, they would still be at $123,348,594 in salary commitments. They traded their first round pick to the Bucks in a sign-and-trade for Malcolm Brogdon. I would love to see TJ Leaf’s expiring deal and a future protected first round pick for a second round pick and cash. Leaf should get some playing time in the bubble with Domantas Sabonis sidelined with a foot injury. As mentioned, in any other year, such a trade scenario would be considered crazy. Maybe this type of deal is still unrealistic, but once again, their owner’s company (which operates malls) has lost $25,000,000,000 in stock value in six months. I don’t see too many people going to malls right now or in the near future!

(I have no earthly clue if either the Knicks or the Pacers would consider a swap of Knox and cash for Aaron Holiday and the remaining two years on Jeremy Lamb’s deal, but if New York parted ways with all of their partially guaranteed contracts, they could easily take in the salary. This would be selling massively low on Knox and betting big on Holiday as a league-average point guard sooner rather than later - a designation he hasn’t earned, to be clear - but I’d do my homework on Jrue’s little brother. He’s good. Regardless, they’re almost certainly not taking on ‘21-22 salary, and the final year Lamb’s contract is fully guaranteed for $10.5 million, so this is probably mute - Ed.)

Arison and the Heat will maintain flexibility and go after Giannis Antetokounmpo. If anything, coronavirus is merely another reason why they are likely to only give out short term contracts this offseason.

If the Thunder want to slash as much payroll as possible next year, they would be resting right around what this year’s salary cap is, which is $109,140,000. I don’t see any team willing to take on Chris Paul’s contract right now. If the final year were a team option instead of a player option, absolutely. As it stands now though, the Knicks would be punting on 2021 for Paul in his mid-thirties. No thanks.

Danilo Gallinari is a different story though. If the Thunder would like to keep costs low, and if no team is willing to offer him a multi-year deal, New York would be the perfect place for him. The mix of shooting, passing, playmaking, and high basketball IQ would complement the young core extremely well. However, I’m not sure how Gallinari, who has eclipsed 70 regular season games once since 2010, would hold up with Thibodeau as coach.

(Other than Miami, I don’t see the team that would be willing and able to give Gallo both a one-year balloon payment in the $20 million range and a starting spot, which is why I think there’s a decent chance he ends up back where he started his career next season - Ed.)

This could be an extraordinary offseason for the NBA. With so many teams and owners facing financial ruin, the Knicks have opportunities to capitalize. You know how the narrative is that every presidential election is the most important election of our lifetimes?

Well, this upcoming offseason is the most important one in Knicks history.

(Until the next one, of course - Ed.)

That’s it for today! See everyone with at least one more newsletter later this week, likely on Friday. #BlackLivesMatter

The Life of POBO

Jeremy Cohen takes on several popular talking points as he chimes in on the Thibs hire.

Before we get to today’s column courtesy of Jeremy Cohen, a quick announcement: this Thursday we’ll be doing another Mailbag episode of the KFS Pod, so email your questions to KFSMailbag@gmail.com. Thanks in advance for your help!

The Life of POBO: Why Tom Thibodeau’s Hiring Shouldn’t Kill the Rebuild

by Jeremy Cohen

In the wake of the Knicks hiring Tom Thibodeau as their head coach, there’s a take you’ve probably seen flying around online. Perhaps you’ve even thought of it as well. 

“The rebuild is about to be over.” 

To some, Thibodeau represents a feeble attempt at rushed contention, the dark path the Knicks consistently take. It’s a precursor for inevitable doom, like clearing cap space to not sign LeBron James, trading the farm for Carmelo Anthony, or trading Kristaps Porzingis to not sign Kevin Durant. Thibodeau is the first stop on the highway to hell.

(Editor’s Note: And not the good kind either…)

I couldn’t tell you what the Knicks will look like three months from now let alone three years from now. You can be sure that this team will undergo more significant organizational changes. What those changes are is certainly unclear.

Yet the panic button being hit as a result of Thibodeau’s hiring feels like chicken little. So I must ask, why is the sky falling? What does the rebuild being over really mean to those sounding the alarm? How exactly is the rebuild ending? It’s worth exploring what Thibodeau’s arrival means for the rebuild, and how his time serving as president of basketball operations (POBO) with the Timberwolves is so fresh in the minds of fans that it serves as the rule for his career, not the exception. 

Let’s start with the 2020-21 season, assuming it even occurs given the effects of COVID-19. There are no superstar free agents who are coming to New York this offseason. It’s unlikely that an All-Star requests a trade, and the Knicks shouldn’t part with the assets it takes to trade for one right now anyway. The draft will yield talent, but those players will need time to adapt and become winning contributors. 

The Knicks are set to enter the season with RJ Barrett, Mitchell Robinson, a 2020 lottery pick, another 2020 first round pick, Frank Ntilikina, Kevin Knox, and Dennis Smith Jr., all of whom will be under 23 years old. If the first five assets listed are still in New York, the rebuild hasn’t gone anywhere. If the first three assets are the only ones remaining, the rebuild is still intact. Even if you’re high on Ntilikina, Knox, and/or Smith Jr., if a situation arises where your best assets currently in-house are all in Knicks uniforms next season, have you compromised your future? No, you really haven’t.

I examined the last 20 conference finals matchups and highlighted some key ones. Take a look at how many of those teams had players who were either drafted or signed as an undrafted free agent by the same organization earning at least 20 minutes per game and playing more than 10 games a year during the regular season.

  • The 2018-19 Raptors traded beloved All-Star DeMar DeRozan for a year of Kawhi Leonard. Outside of Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet, and OG Anunoby, the Raptors didn’t have any homegrown players contributing at a high level.

  • The 2018-19 Blazers had two homegrown players in Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum.

  • The 2017-18 Celtics had four in Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart, and Terry Rozier.

  • The 2017-18 Rockets had zero.

  • The 2015-16 Cavaliers (technically) had four in LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, Tristan Thompson, and Matthew Dellavedova. 

  • The 2014-15 Warriors had four in Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, and Harrison Barnes.

  • The 2014-15 Hawks had two in Al Horford and Jeff Teague.

  • The 2013-14 Pacers had four in Paul George, Lance Stephenson, Roy Hibbert, and Danny Granger. 

  • The 2010-11 Thunder had five in Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Serge Ibaka, and Nick Collison.

You could pore over the rosters of several other great teams but you’re likely to find around three or four homegrown players on each roster.

If the front office views RJ Barrett, Mitchell Robinson, and someone like LaMelo Ball as integral pieces to New York’s future, then congratulations! Because that would mean that the Knicks are essentially 67% or 100% of the way there, depending on if they should have four or three homegrown players, respectively, long term.

If at least one of the homegrown players can take a huge leap, and if a free agent signing and/or a trade when the time is right occurs, the Knicks are in fantastic shape. And if the 2021-22 season features a homegrown player through the draft with a higher ceiling than anyone else on the roster, then you can keep everyone or have more flexibility to trade surrounding pieces for a star.

Interestingly enough, there’s one team that I purposefully excluded from the homegrown list: The 2010-11 Chicago Bulls, coached by none other than Tom Thibodeau. Five of the seven players who led the Bulls in minutes were 25 or younger. Four of the five (Derrick Rose, Luol Deng, Joakim Noah, and Taj Gibson) were drafted by the Bulls. The concern of playing the youth not enough minutes no longer persists. It will soon be that the youth is playing too many minutes, and while I would really rather not see RJ Barrett average 36 minutes per game, there is limited public data to tell us that a player averaging 36 versus 32 is that much more at risk. I mean, we’re talking about an average of a minute more per quarter. I digress.

The 2020-21 Knicks will not have a season similar to that of the 2010-11 Bulls. You could say the main reason is talent, and while that probably isn’t incorrect, a major contributing factor is age. When your four best players are 22 to 25 years old, taking that jump in year one is manageable. However, when your four best players are 18 or 19 to 22, your team’s ceiling won’t be high unless you add win-now talent. If that win-now talent complements the youth, then great. Of course, you’re also decreasing your lottery odds, which is a nice reminder that every rose has its thorn.

(I see what you did there - Ed.)

The Knicks could find themselves having a season closer to that of the 2016-17 Timberwolves, also coached by Mr. Thibodeau. Minnesota finished that season at 31-51, albeit in a tougher conference, with limited win-now talent. The Knicks don’t have anyone as good as 21-year old Karl-Anthony Towns but with players naturally developing, free agent upgrades in ball-handling, playmaking, and perimeter shooting, and being in a weaker conference, meaningful games in March and April shouldn’t be out of the question.

The Wolves had Towns, Zach LaVine, Andrew Wiggins, Kris Dunn, and Ricky Rubio. That’s five players, all drafted by the Wolves, ranging in age from 21 to 26, with the average age being 22.2 years old. If the Wolves kept everyone, they would be a low ceiling team with little concept of what defense is. Outside help had to happen, and it came in the form of Jimmy Butler.

My personal thoughts are that the trade for a star like Butler was the correct idea but the timing could have been better for such a deal, as the Wolves’ players were too young and/or not good enough. Hindsight is 20/20 but we must explore why life went wrong in Minnesota. You’ll soon see why so much of it was because of POBO Thibodeau.

First of all, there’s a reason why so few teams have found success with one person operating both POBO and head coaching responsibilities. Teams need a more objective eye to evaluate talent, something that’s hard to accomplish when you have the power to play and trade a player on the same day. Thibodeau lacks that power in New York. He has a relationship with Leon Rose and there is a system of checks and balances in place. His direct boss is no longer the team’s owner, whose “wife didn’t like Thibodeau’s penchant for profanity on the sidelines.”

Next, Thibodeau’s selection of Dunn, as well as hiring the talent evaluators around him, proved to be quite poor. David Fizdale reportedly had a major say in drafting Kevin Knox, a move that hurts when considering the players drafted after him. Could the same thing happen with Thibodeau? It’s possible, except the Knicks have upgraded their scouting and analytics departments. So if Thibodeau is truly onboard with the analytics train, he should have input but also respect the choice the front office ultimately makes.

Additionally, trading for a star like Butler was not Thibodeau’s problem per se. As mentioned previously, the timing played a factor, yet a crucial component was the lack of a supporting cast. Why was the supporting cast bad? 

  1. Thibodeau stuck to what he knew, which was targeting former Bulls to play the way he wanted the team to play. This was a bad decision, and one that went unchecked because he was also POBO. The hope is that he now has a front office who can better evaluate talent, so he can focus on coaching players who are better fits for the modern game.

  2. The Wolves are a small market team but absolutely destroyed their payroll by having Jeff Teague, Gorgui Dieng, and Taj Gibson’s salaries, worth a combined $47,112,360. For reference, the NBA’s salary cap was $99,093,000 that year. Keeping your best young players while they’re on their rookie deals and acquiring star free agents is the key to moving the needle, but that’s a luxury few teams have. This is unlikely to be an issue if the Knicks continue their mission to stay financially flexible, as it avoids locking role players into unsavory, contractual albatrosses.

  3. Minnesota committed max contracts to Wiggins and Towns, further mitigating any future flexibility. As you can imagine, Butler didn’t love that. Here’s what Yaron Weitzman wrote in his book, Tanking to the Top:

On the court, Butler did everything asked of him, leading the Timberwolves in scoring that year and carrying them into the playoffs. But they were eliminated in the first round and he was set to be a free agent in summer of 2019. Over the year he had recognized that the Timberwolves were not a team and Minnesota was not a place where he wanted to be long-term. One problem was that [the Wolves] already handed max deals to two former No. 1 picks - Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins - limiting how much money Butler could make and when he could make it. But he also thought Towns was soft and Wiggins was lazy, and he had no patience for such apathy. It was only because of hard work that he’d made it this far.

Thibodeau inherited Towns and Wiggins. Maxing Towns, even with his “soft” disposition, is necessary due to his talent. Wiggins, on the other hand, is an incredibly questionable move. Except while Thibodeau played a major role in giving Wiggins the contract, Wolves owner Glen Taylor sat down with Wiggins, wanting “to look [him] in the eye and measure his commitment to become a better player throughout the extension’s life.” Taylor then gave Wiggins a max contract and Wiggins showed little to no progress. Thibodeau deserves criticism here but Wiggins was extremely well-liked by Taylor. Again, extending players to unworthy extensions is unlikely to be an issue with this new front office.

Towns and Wiggins, as well as the others on the roster in 2016-17, were drafted as part of someone else’s vision, not Thibodeau’s. It’s fine to part with some of them but it’s what you’re trading them for that matters. In this case, trading for Butler was a great call. The Wolves had the fourth-best offensive rating thanks to Butler, and a +13.5 difference with Butler on the court with his presence being worth +32 wins.

Unfortunately, Butler was injured about three-quarters through the 2017-18 NBA season, and when that happened, the Wolves held the third-best record in the West. If Butler isn’t injured, the Wolves may have home court advantage and face a different team than the Rockets. A second round exit instead of a first may not be a big deal to you but it would still be an accomplishment for a team so devoid of playoff victories. Look how many Knicks fans revere the 2012-13 season, and that was the only playoff series win since 2001.

(While I argued yesterday that Butler and Towns/Wiggins was never a match made in heaven, the above circumstances can’t be overlooked - Ed.)

Taking all of this into consideration, I view the trading of any non-essential Knick this offseason as trimming the fat and not sacrificing a rebuild, because there is an inevitability factor. And for the record, I don’t view any current Knick as untouchable, but I do view Barrett and Robinson as essential. I would be willing for the Knicks to part with both but the price for each would be quite high. History indicates though that if a player like Knox is not going to be part of a seven- or eight-man rotation for a playoff team, especially around the time he’s 25 and if he’s on his second contract, then he’s likely headed elsewhere between now and the 2022 trade deadline. 

(Fun fact from a few newsletters ago: no top-ten pick from this century has spent multiple seasons with the team that drafted them and been considered a significant disappointment after those years, got dealt or waived, and then came back to haunt the team that drafted but didn’t stick with them. In short, if the Knicks trade Knox this summer and he turns into a star player or even significant rotation contributor elsewhere, it would be virtually unprecedented - Ed.)

What’s more, trading ancillary pieces does not have to be a stepping stone to stripping the roster of its best goods. If Knox goes, it doesn’t mean Barrett is next. Fans get capricious because we often assume the worst, which is not necessarily the case moving forward. And as I tweeted, the Knicks are scheduled to enter the 2021 free agency with 13 players either under contract or as restricted free agents, all of whom will be 23 or younger.

Something has to give, and that’s fine, so long as it’s trading what you have for future assets so you can either add to an illustrious core or trade for a disgruntled star while having some sort of insurance in place. Devin Booker won’t cost the same in two years as he will cost now, and if you diversify your asset portfolio, you can either a) trade your own players and picks for a star while having other teams’ picks to cover you or b) trade other teams’ picks for a star while keeping most of your own players and picks.

And speaking of Booker, just because Thibodeau traded for Butler, it does not mean the Knicks will trade for a star of their own at an inopportune time. Would the Knicks consider going after Booker? I wouldn’t doubt it, but everything has its price. I would like to think that because Leon Rose had a front row seat to the Carmelo Anthony trade that he’s keenly aware of how damaging it is to trade for a star when you don’t have the right pieces to surround him.

If you can finagle a way to get Booker in a year or two without giving up Barrett and Robinson (i.e. the players drafted in 2020 and 2021, plus other picks, instead), then it’s something to strongly consider. The problem is that I don’t see how Barrett isn’t a Sun in any Booker trade proposal. And based on the right roster construction, that’s fine by me. As of now though, the Knicks lack a level of maturation for such a scenario to be entertained.  

Not landing stars in free agency has led to some completely ruling it out as an available avenue, which is utterly foolish to me. You don’t hire World Wide Wes for the draft and you probably don’t need him for when a player forces a trade (although it doesn’t hurt). You bring Wes into the fold to restore your brand’s reputation and ultimately appeal to star free agents. Yet because of missed opportunities, the free agency option is deemed closed by a healthy segment of the fanbase. If you ask some women if they want to dance, and each one says no, you wouldn’t give up and join the priesthood.

(You should really start looking at the priesthood as a viable option, Jeremy - Ed.)

All of this ties in with the debate over whether to have a strong veteran presence or not. History tells us that outside help is paramount for eventual success. It’s when those players should be added to the roster that begs the question. Because if they’re added too early, it affects the team’s draft standing and ability to win. If the Knicks wait until Robinson and Barrett are on their second contracts in 2023, then the Knicks will have waited too long.

Maybe it’s recency bias and/or confirmation bias, but Thibodeau’s stint in Minnesota has terrified a section of fans who have this unrealistic mindset of keeping all the players the Knicks have drafted. To them, Thibodeau represents an upending of a process that can never truly come to fruition, when there’s little proof to show that this Knicks front office is prepared to compromise the entire process to fit a 62-year old Thibodeau’s timeline. It’s the concern of not maximizing players as they develop because someone like Kenny Atkinson did a great job and there can only be one person adept at that.

We as fans are overprotective of our picks and players because we’ve spent the last 20 years giving up on them before they were anywhere close to being ready. Our affinity for rectifying those wrongs can stand in the way of objective decision making, which is that some players on the roster will be gone. The front office would be doing as it pleases regardless of who is coaching.

Thibodeau wants to contend - what coach doesn’t want that? - but fans are assuming that the Knicks will accommodate him in year one or year two. If he shows progress on his five-year deal, there may not be a burning desire to make rash decisions ASAP. If there’s tangible growth without the use of hired talent on the free agent market, the team may not feel the need to force anything.

History tells us Leon Rose and Tom Thibodeau won’t be here in 2023 but something has to give eventually. For all we know, James Dolan may be willing to give the team some time to, at the very least, trend upwards. If you’re not floundering by year 3, you’re probably doing okay in Dolan’s mind. Besides, if Rose and Thibodeau are fired, it’s not your money. If the core players remain intact, and if Thibodeau instills an improved work ethic and positively impacts their progress, this coaching hire is a success.

Having said all of this, I cannot in good conscience rule out the possibility that the Knicks do the opposite of everything I’ve listed. (This is why I pay you the big bucks, Jeremy. Thoroughness - Ed.) If the Knicks trade their future for a superficial shot at contention, I’ll stop by my local hardware store and pick up a pitchfork on the way to Madison Square Garden. You don’t have to love the Thibodeau hiring but he’s not the anti-Christ. And if you think Tom Thibodeau only got the job because of his connection to Leon Rose, what would you say if CAA client Kenny Atkinson had been offered the position instead? The NBA is a fraternity that is built on relationships. Much like other industries, it’s who you know and not necessarily what you know. It helps that Thibodeau knows quite a lot too.

The Knicks landed a respected, proven head coach who understands the process involved with developing talent. He is not without his warts - which candidate wasn’t? - but he brings with him a NBA coaching career spanning almost 30 years, 20 of which were spent as an assistant coach. His track record should speak for itself, and using a two and a half year period where he wore too many hats and had low motor players in Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins, is merely one piece of the pie. 

This past Saturday, word leaked that Thibodeau was hired as head coach of the Knicks. Thibodeau will soon be officially introduced. After that, the draft lottery, the draft, and free agency will follow. Cross each bridge when you get to it. I assure you, there will be a clearer vision of this team’s future three months from today.

For now though, the reports of the rebuild’s death have been greatly exaggerated. 

That’s it for today! See everyone soon! #BlackLivesMatter

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