IS Donovan Mitchell an opportunity the Knicks can't pass up? Or is it just a matter of time before the next young star hits the trading block?
Good morning! We begin the last week of August, which means we’re now about a month away from the opening of training camp. Will Donovan Mitchell be a Knicks by the time camp opens? And if he isn’t, just how rare of an opportunity will the Knicks be missing out on? All that and more, coming your way right now…
🗣 News & Notes ✍️
🏀Not a big news weekend where the Knicks are concerned, but there was some news of note. For starters, according to Marc Stein yesterday, we shouldn’t rule out the possibility of a three-team trade just yet:
“If the Knicks manage to win the trade race for Utah's Donovan Mitchell, or even if another team unexpectedly beats them to Mitchell, league sources say there's a decent chance that the Lakers will be involved in the deal. The two future first-round picks that the Lakers possess in 2027 and 2029 are the kind of top-shelf draft picks that Jazz CEO Danny Ainge is believed to covet. Russell Westbrook's $47 million expiring contract and those picks could be the Lakers' entree to a potential three-team swap ... depending on the players that would land in Los Angeles.”
We saw a report last week stating that LA would not likely have interest in Julius Randle, but Stein later pitched the possibility of a deal that sends Bojan Bogdanović and Evan Fournier to the Lakers. Something to be on the lookout for I suppose.
🏀 Cleveland, we hardly knew ya’…
…as a Donovan Mitchell suitor.
A few days after Begs reported that the Cavs were in the running, they now seem to be out. Sure seems like this is shaping up to be a one-horse race.
As we begin another week of Mitchell Watch 2022, today’s question from Matt Smith pertains to the talented guard, but also gives us a chance to dig into some fun NBA history:
What are the chances a 25-year old All-Star (from New York) ever sees this level of availability?
Matt’s question came as part of a larger email in which he laid out several considerations the Knicks should have on their mind during these negotiations, including what New York’s new ceiling would be with Mitchell, as well as possible benefits and drawbacks that come from waiting this out. This part of the question was the most interesting to me though.
Any analysis of how rare it is that a player of Donovan Mitchell’s age & accolades gets traded has to start by looking at how many such players have existed in NBA history. If we use the most cursory of measures - All-Star appearances - Mitchell is one of 86 players to have made at least three All-Star teams before their age-26 season.
That, by itself, only tells part of the story though - both for the better and the worse. On the plus side, looking at scoring averages through a player’s age-25 season, Mitchell’s career mark of 23.9 points is tied for 30th all-time, and is tied for 32nd if we look at the first five years of a player’s career1. Among both groups, he ranks 10th in efficiency. On the downside, Mitchell is one of just four players in the last 40 years on the "3 All-Star games before 26" list to not have made at least one All-NBA team by this point in their career, joining John Wall, Alonzo Mourning and Brad Daugherty. Notably, all three made it eventually2, and you have to go back to Jack Sikma, who eventually made seven All-Star teams, to find someone from the list of 86 who never made All-NBA.
But even if we consider Mitchell to be having something closer to the 100th best start to an NBA career than the 50th best, he still finds himself in exclusive company, and if he gets traded this summer, he’ll find himself in an even smaller club. Only a dozen times in NBA history has a player made three All-Star teams with one team before turning 25 and then been traded by that team either before or during his age-26 season.
Now for the really wild part: a third of those 12 times, including every such trade from the first 33 years of NBA history, that player was traded to the Knicks.
That’s right: for a very long time, New York had cornered the market on trading for other teams’ young All-Stars. The very first such trade happened in November of 1965, when the Baltimore Bullets traded 26-year-old four-time All-Star Walt Bellamy to the Knicks for Jim Barnes, Johnny Egan, Johnny Green and cash. The trade worked out well enough, with Bellamy helping end New York’s seven-year playoff drought the season after he arrived, but he could never shake his empty calories reputation and his fit with Willis Reed proved problematic. As a result, his best contribution to the franchise was the player he was traded for three years later: Dave DeBusschere.
The next two trades didn’t work out quite as well. In a span of 14 months in 1975 and 1976, the Knicks made two huge swings, dealing for 4-time All-Star Spencer Haywood from the Sonics and then 3-time All-Star and former MVP Bob McAdoo from Buffalo a little more than a year later.
Instead of helping the franchise recapture past glory, however, they showed why their former teams were eager to move on from them despite their prodigious talent, helping catapult New York into disfunction. As Phil Jackson said to the Times in 1978, “a former teammate told me this year that we had, as a team, the collective intelligence of an orangutan.” His response? “I cannot say that I disagree.” The Zen Master was never one to mince words.
It wasn’t until 1981 that a 3-time All-Star was traded before his 26th birthday to a team other than the Knicks, when Otis Birdsong was sent to the Nets the summer after helping lead the Kings to the Western Conference Finals. There was a catch though: Birdsong had gotten hurt in Game 2 of the West Semis, but his team didn’t seem to miss him, upsetting the top-seeded Suns despite his absence. When Kansas City had the chance to acquire 21-year-old Cliff Robinson coming off a 19 & 7 season for the Nets, they pounced.
We had to wait 16 years before another trade of this nature occurred, and then in 1997, Seattle acquired 3-time All-Star Vin Baker from Milwaukee a few months before his 26th birthday in a three-way deal that sent out the slightly older (27) but more ballyhooed (5-time All-Star) Shawn Kemp. Seven years later, a very similar trade occurred when the Magic said goodbye to two-time reigning league scoring champ and 4-time All-Star Tracy McGrady McGrady just before his age-25 season. Their primary return was 27-year-old 3-time All-Star Steve Francis.
That brings us to a little more than a decade ago, but before we get to the next trade on our list, a couple of observations:
First, there was unsurprisingly a lot of player movement during the 1970’s, which doubled as the NBA’s period of greatest volatility. Players traded in the 70’s who barely missed out on today’s qualifications, either by being slightly too old or not having made enough All-Star teams, include all-time greats like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (traded as a 28-year-old in 1975), Elvin Hayes (27, 1972), Earl Monroe (27, 1971), Pete Maravich (27, 1974) and Tiny Archibald (28, 1976), plus slightly less-accomplished but still notable names like Sydney Wicks (27, 1976), Dennis Johnson (26, 1980) and Maurice Lucas (27, 1979). This continued for a bit into the early 80’s, most notably with the trade of Moses Malone (27, 1982), but also with deals featuring Michael Ray Richardson (27, 1982), Kiki Vandeweghe (26, 1984) and Reggie Theus (26, 1984).
Starting in the mid-80’s though, there was over a decade of relative stability, where star players mostly stayed put through the entirely of their primes. This lasted through the late 90’s, which brought more movement when the league once again entered a period of instability. Whereas drugs wrought havoc in the 70’s, the “too much, too soon” era of massive contracts for young players resulted in a fallow period for the league’s post-Dream Team generation.
But everything is cyclical, and with LeBron & Co. came another period of relative stability in which the young talent was so good and so much more ready to handle the rigors of NBA stardom that we went through another stretch when guys stayed put. And then, a little more than a decade ago, the dam broke, which leads to the second main takeaway: it’s misleading to say there have only been a dozen trades involving under-26, 3-time-or-more All-Stars in NBA history when half of those trades have occurred in the last 12 years.
And just like the Knicks kicked off the era of trading for young stars with the Bellamy trade nearly 55 years ago, they kicked off the modern era of young star movement with the Melo trade in 2011. That deal was the first of a half dozen such trades that have helped repeatedly re-shape the league in the years since:
2011 - Carmelo Anthony: traded during age-26 season; 4-time All-Star at time of trade, with three All-NBA 3rd Team selections and one 2nd Team selection
2011 - Chris Paul: traded going into age-26 season; 4-time All-Star at time of trade, with one All-NBA 1st team selection, one 2nd team and one 3rd team
2014 - Kevin Love: traded going into age-26 season; 3-time All-Star at time of trade with two All-NBA 2nd Team selections
2017 - Kyrie Irving: traded going into age-25 season; 4-time All-Star at time of trade with one All-NBA 3rd team selection
2019 - Anthony Davis: traded going into age-26 season; 6-time All-Star at time of trade, with three All-NBA 1st Team selections
2022 - Ben Simmons: traded during his age-25 season, 3-time All-Star at time of trade, with one All-NBA 3rd team selection
If we adjust the criteria a bit to include players going into their age-27 seasons or who made at least two All-Star teams before age 26, we add four more names to the list:
2013 - Dwight Howard: traded going into age-27 season; 6-time All-Star at time of trade, with five All-NBA 1st Team selections & two 3rd Team selections
2017 - DeMarcus Cousins: traded during age-26 season; 3-time All-Star at time of trade3, with two All-NBA 2nd Team selections
2017 - Paul George: traded going into age-27 season; 4-time All-Star at time of trade, with three All-NBA 3rd Team selections
2022 - Domantas Sabonis: traded during age-25 season; 2-time All-Star at time of trade
If we count the trade of Deron Williams, who was 26 years old and a few days removed from making his second All-Star team when Utah dealt him to Brooklyn in 2011, and who certainly felt like a massive talent on the rise, that means Donovan Mitchell will be the 12th young star in 12 years to be moved before their age-27 season.
Looking at this list, should we draw the simple conclusion that one of these players becomes available about once per year on average, and thus, there’s no urgency to swing a trade for Mitchell? I’ve been banging the drum that the Knicks would be wise not to let this opportunity elude their grasp, and even I have to acknowledge that at first glance, that’s more or less how it looks.
Before we draw that conclusion though, let’s dig a little deeper. For one, we should probably eliminate both Ben Simmons and Domantas Sabonis from consideration here - Simmons because he was the lesser of the players who went out in the trade, and Sabonis because despite his two All-Star nods, he doesn’t really meet genuine “star” criteria. I also wonder if we should include Paul George, the price for whom was viewed as so cheap at the time because everyone assumed OKC would merely be a stopover en route to LA (which it turned out to be, although the Thunder were able to re-sign him and thus make out as massive winners in the end).
But even without considering those three and Mitchell, that’s still eight in the last 12 years, which is a lot of young star movement any way you cut it. There is also massive elephant in the room, and one that could embolden young stars to bypass extending their current contracts and thus keep one eye peeled on unrestricted free agency: the NBA’s next television contract. Reports in May suggested the league is seeking $75 billion for the next rights deal, which would be more than triple the amount on the current contract that expires in 2025.
We know this is going to produce massive increases in spending power, but it’s still unclear whether this will further liven up the trade market as well. Either way, it doesn’t hurt to look around the NBA and spitball some possible names who could become available. Rather than use my own judgment, I went with some basic criteria for who to include: if the player is entering his age-27 season or earlier, has made at least one All-Star team, and will no longer be on his rookie contract next season (so that means no Zion, Ja or Garland, all of whom are now under team control for six more seasons), I included them. In order of team control, here’s the full list:
1 year remaining on their contract (not counting player options)
D-Angelo Russell, 26, 1-time All-Star
Andrew Wiggins, 27, 1-time All-Star4
2 years remaining
Jaylen Brown, 26, 1-time All-Star
Dejounte Murray, 26, 1-time All-Star
Domantas Sabonis, 26, 2-time All-Star
3 years remaining
Jayson Tatum, 24, 3-time All-Star
Donovan Mitchell, 26, 3-time All-Star
Brandon Ingram, 25, 1-time All-Star
Ben Simmons, 26, 3-time All-Star
4 years remaining
Luka Doncic, 23, 3-time All-Star
Trae Young, 24, 2-time All-Star
Bam Adebayo, 25, 1-time All-Star
Jarrett Allen, 24, 1-time All-Star
5 years remaining
Karl-Anthony Towns, 27, 3-time All-Star
Shai Gilgeous- Alexander, 24, 0-time All-Star
I obviously cheated with the last name on this list, but it feels warranted. Last season, SGA became the 10th player ever to average 24, 5 & 5 before turning 24, joining Jordan, LeBron, Kobe, Oscar, West, Luka, Wade, T-Mac and Ja. He’s good.
Not on this list: Devin Booker, who signed a supermax this summer that reportedly did not include a player option. He’s about to turn 26, but like Zion, is under team control for six more seasons, and for as much as he’s always been rumored as a Knicks target, I don’t know how he can be reasonably considered here. Even so, Book would probably be the fifth name on the below list if I had to expand it.
With the above names in mind, we end today in the same way we began it: with a question, courtesy of Dom Da Dentist:
If the Mitchell trade falls through who are your top 3 candidates for a star to get traded here?
In putting together my top three, I thought both about who we can get and who we’d want. With that in mind, I considered several factors, including age, current ability, ceiling, fit, what the cost might be, how much sense it would be for them to be the first star in the door, and how likely they are to hit the trade market. With that in mind, here’s my list:
Honorable Mention: Jaylen Brown
There’s basically only one scenario I can envision where Boston trades him to the Knicks, and that’s if he’s dead set on entering unrestricted free agency (highly likely unless he makes All-NBA next season, thus becoming eligible for the supermax) and Boston is convinced it won’t be able to re-sign him. Even then, the Celtics would be looking to remain a contender, which means they’d be looking for the best win-now talent in return. That means RJ Barrett, or if he takes a massive leap this season, Quentin Grimes. If RJ or Grimes (plus picks, surely) were good enough to get Brown to begin with, wouldn’t New York just keep both and do what they needed to do to open up cap space in 2024 so they could sign Brown outright?
3. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander
I wrote last week that I found an SGA-to-NYK trade unlikely and my opinion hasn’t changed. I keep going back to the only time we’ve seen Gilgeous-Alexander’s name in rumors, and that was when Sam Presti was trying to move up for Cade. In other words, I think the Thunder would trade him to take a bigger swing at an even bigger star (i.e., to move up from 4 to 2 in next year’s draft, or something like that) and not for a grab bag of picks and young players, as they’re already filled to the gills on both fronts.
2. Brandon Ingram
It makes sense on paper if Ingram and Zion don’t really mesh and the Pelicans want to swap out one former Dukie for another. That would have RJ heading to the Big Easy, and Ingram getting to shine as the unquestioned guy in New York. Something about this doesn’t pass the smell test for me though, and I can’t quite put my finger on it. Still, amongst many unlikely options, it feels like it should be ranked second, only behind…
1. Karl Anthony-Towns
If the Twin Towers thing clearly isn’t working out, Towns would obviously have way more trade value than Gobert, and with Anthony Edwards as a cornerstone piece, it would be easy for the Wolves to flip KAT for a package of pieces that make more sense around those two. Mitchell Robinson, assuming he’s still here whenever Towns hits the market, would need to be diverted to a third team, but I doubt that would be an issue.
This was an easy No. 1 for me because normally when a team trades its entire future draft like Minny did, they have to see the current core through, but in the Wolves’ case, Edwards and Gobert might be good enough together to weather a brief adjustment period. You could also envision the Knicks putting together a very nice package, and a Brunson/KAT 1/5 combo makes all the sense in the world on paper (on offense, at least).
And even with this as my most likely alternative star trade to Mitchell, I still couldn’t imagine it happening within the next two years5. Ditto for the other two names below him. Donovan Mitchell, meanwhile, is available right now. For that reason, even though recent history suggests another young star will be on the trading block before you know it, I’d still bet on them completing the Mitchell trade before training camp in large part because of the sense of urgency. Throw in the key caveat from Matt's question up top - that Donovan is from here and wants to be a Knick - and it's an easy call to make. This trade is happening.
And the minute it does, we’ll immediately turn our attention to who will be the next star to join him.
H/t to Stathead.com, provided by our friends at Basketball Reference.
Wall and Daugherty in their age-26 seasons, Zo in his age-28 year.
Cousins made his 3rd All-Star team during the season of the trade, when he was already 26, which is why he doesn’t qualify for the first list.
This All-Star selection was a sham, but rules are rules.
I also remain concerned about whether a big man with KAT’s defensive issues can ever be a major player on a title team.