Not Great, Leon
Good morning! It’s been a few days, and I gotta say, I’ve moved on from the Mitchell thing faster than I thought I would. Am I still a little bummed? Of course. Are there still some pretty big questions hanging over the organization and the roster? You betcha. We’ll get to some of those today, and over the rest of this week. All in all though, I feel pretty OK, at least in comparison to when the news first dropped.
Before we get to today’s newsletter, a quick announcement: Unless there is any breaking news, there will be NO NEWSLETTER tomorrow, September 6. I had a wedding in Woodstock, New York yesterday which also doubled as the first time my wife and I have had an overnight to ourselves since our youngest was born 18 months ago. If all went according to plan, I’m still extremely hung over right now, regardless of when you open this email today.
I’m pretty sure this is the last off-day for the newsletter this summer, as we have a lot to talk about before camp starts. Let’s get to it…
🗣 News & Notes ✍️
🏀 Not much news after the dust settled on Thursday, outside of some more informed speculation on what did and did not go down in the Mitchell trade negotiations, which I’ll get to below. Other than that, we got some tidbits looking back, but also looking forward at the same time.
According to Ian Begley:
Earlier this offseason, Thibodeau was open to the idea of reducing the role of at least one veteran Knick in order to increase the minutes of a younger player, per people familiar with the matter.
I didn’t get the sense at that point that any decisions had been made. So I wouldn’t take the note above as hard evidence that the Knicks will reduce the role of any veteran in favor of a young player.
After this story dropped, Marc Berman went on SNY and when asked about whether the young players would get ample time this season, said Thibodeau’s plan remains the same as it always has been: try to win games. He specified that it would be a surprise if Deuce McBride or Jericho Sims started the year as part of the rotation.
Naturally, this was followed by many a take on the ole’ Twitter dot com, but I’m not sure it’s worth getting worked up over…at least not yet. Regarding Deuce and Sims, I don’t know how anyone could have reasonably anticipated that either one would get minutes given the current state of the roster. The Randle/Obi dynamic bears watching, and I’ll have an entire newsletter dedicated to that later this week.
The real question comes down to the trio of Fournier, Grimes and Quickley. Assuming about 32-34 minutes each for RJ and Brunson and 20-22 for Rose, that leaves around 60 minutes left over. It’s hard to see a Thibodeau starter playing under 26-28 minutes, which leaves about 35 for Quickley and whoever doesn’t start at the two.
My assumption: the “veteran Knick” whose minutes Thibs is open to reducing this season is Fournier, first because taking him from starter’s minutes to something around 20 a night won’t materially impact his trade value, and second, because Grimes flat out deserves to start. I’m guessing that’s what happens, which means that most nights, if everyone is healthy, we’re looking at Quickley playing about eight minutes a half. Those minutes will go up when Rose rests, which I’m guessing will be fairly often, and it should go without saying that all of this goes up in smoke if the Knicks end up moving Fournier or Rose before the year starts. More thoughts on that below and later this week.
Oh, and Cam? There’s a Reddish-centric newsletter coming your way later this week, assuming he’s still on the team by then. Suffice it to say, if he gets off the bench on opening night, it means a) he’s been traded or b) the Knicks are involved in a blowout.
🏀 We got specs on the RJ extension:
…and as anticipated, this should make him easier to extend when the time comes.
Not Great, Leon
Before we get to one final analysis of last week’s events and then, mercifully, move on to where the Knicks go from here, let me take a few seconds to simply sum up what happened. The plethora of news and rumors flying around has been dizzying, but I’ve digested it all, and I think I can pretty much sum it all up as follows:
Donovan Mitchell isn’t a Knick because the assets the Jazz coveted the most - distant future unprotected Knicks picks, and to a lesser extent, swaps of the same ilk - were the same assets New York most steadfastly refused to give up1. Leon Rose & Co. valued their ability to retain control of their own future draft equity significantly more than any single player on the roster, and throughout the entirety of this negotiation, attempted to complete a trade on those terms. As such, they tried to force the Jazz into getting their value in this trade from those young players instead of the thing they actually wanted. Utah never relented, refusing to accept New York’s value priorities and terms. The Jazz held firm, believing a) that the Knicks would eventually find their way back to the top of the lottery and b) that they needed to be the ones to take advantage when they did. And if Utah did have to relent on the future picks, they’d only do so on a deal that included both of the young wings on New York’s roster, in part to ensure they’d be able to recoup additional picks by flipping those young players somewhere down the line. When the Cavs gave them what they wanted, they had no reason to go back to the Knicks, as the bridge would have been too far to gap. And if it fucked over the front office who so flagrantly laid bare its intentions by showing up at Game 1 of Utah / Dallas, why, that was just the cherry on top.
That’s it. Anything else you see is conjecture and spin.
Now for the analysis. Is it as simple as “This would have been a bad trade for the Knicks given their current situation, and thus, it was good they didn’t make a deal”? For some, yes, and in the end, not making a bad trade is probably the most important thing about all of this. Let me say up front: today’s piece will be critical of the front office, but their path forward now is no less daunting than it would have been if they’d given up RJ Barrett, Immanuel Quickley and three future first round picks for Mitchell. If they’d done that, something unlikely and/or incredibly lucky would have needed to happen for them to graduate to contender status.
But that’s not all there is to it. Because this process also revealed some very significant areas of concern regarding the operation, process and execution of this front office. As Brian Windhorst put it in his post-trade pod, even if a front office has certain strengths, “it’s really hard to land the plane” on a trade like this. In their inability to do so, we learned a lot.
Here’s my top four, starting small and working our way up to the top:
4. They miscalculated the value of protected picks
In a series of transactions on draft night, we saw the Knicks essentially swap out the 11th pick for three protected selections belonging to other teams in future drafts. Their wheeling and dealing also allowed them to dump Kemba Walker’s expiring contract, but the cost of that was really four future seconds, and credit to them for accumulating all those extra second rounders over the last few years. Good job there.
Not so good: assuming at the time, and then at the start of these Mitchell negotiations, that those protected selections would help grease the skids on a star trade. It feels like the Knicks thought they were gaming the system: instead of having to give up a young player we like or one of our own future picks, we’ll hoist these lesser assets on some unsuspecting GM instead.
Oops. That unsuspecting GM was Danny Ainge, who made it clear from the outset: keep your scratch offs; I want mega millions tickets. While we can’t know this for sure, based on all of the reporting about where negotiations started (Obi, Fournier and five picks, three of which were protected) and ended up (RJ, IQ, two unprotected picks, another Knicks pick that New York tried to get top-five protected, and then a lone protected pick from another team to send Fournier to a third team), these picks didn’t matter in the slightest, especially considering they already had the Mavs ‘23 first as a skid-greaser should they need.
There’s a separate discussion here about the opportunity cost (actually making the 11th pick), but we’ll save that for a bit later.
3. They thought Utah would come back to the table
According to Jake Fischer on his Friday Call-In show, New York’s front office was “shell-shocked” by the deal that sent Mitchell to Cleveland, while Marc Berman heard the words “shocked and disappointed.” Ian Begley has also recently reported that New York felt it had the best package out of everyone, while Woj wrote that “the Knicks had made a calculated gamble that they could still get a deal done for Mitchell” even after they walked away.
Making matters worse, there have been various reports of things between the two sides starting testy (because of Wes and Al showing up to that playoff game) and getting downright nasty by the end. Stefan Bondy already reported some members of the Knicks didn’t feel they got a fair shake. By the time we got to last Monday, it’s fair to wonder if tensions had gotten so high that some of the decision-making wasn’t altogether rational (on both sides, to be fair). Could it have gotten so bad that upon completion of the trade, the Knicks dragged the names of three of their own players through the mud, just so they could try and make Danny Ainge look bad?
Now, if you’re someone who thinks the reported final offer from the Knicks would have been a gross overpay, to say nothing of them possibly increasing the offer even more, the fact that they never got a chance to match Cleveland probably makes you happy. Either way, it’s quite clear that the front office never anticipated this scenario unfolding, and properly reading a situation like this is a massive part of their job. Agree or disagree with the severity of the outcome, it’s obvious that they wanted Mitchell.
They should have known this could happen for three specific reasons: first, the Jazz and Cavs have been more frequent trade partners than any two teams in recent NBA memory; second, Cleveland was known to be interested in Mitchell; and third and most importantly, the Cavs not only had the exact asset type the Jazz clearly desired (future firsts), but the motivation and reasonable excuse to give up those assets to get Mitchell.
Again, some may be thrilled by the ultimate outcome, but any way you cut it, there is peripheral damage here because…
2. They hung Rj Barrett and the other young players out to dry
To be clear: RJ Barrett has 120 million reasons not to be upset about how this all went down. I have no doubt he’ll handle this expertly at media day, and as I’ve written, I’m sure he realizes better than anyone that the NBA truly is a business.
Hell, there may even be ancillary benefits to how this played out…a “let’s show them” attitude by the young core2, all of whom were reportedly put in one trade construction or another.
All that being said: this isn’t a great look for the organization that has gone to insanely great lengths to appear player-friendly over the last several years. Regarding RJ, I can’t think of a higher profile player still on a rookie deal who was so obviously offered up in a trade, only for that trade to eventually fall through. He can rationalize it any way he wants, but the reality is that he knows the people running the team don’t see him as someone destined for stardom. If they did, he’d never have been offered at all, let alone with several additional assets. More on this in a bit.
As for everyone else, I thought Fred Katz had a great comp recently when he recalled the situation in Los Angeles with the Anthony Davis trade drama. That whole ordeal helped unravel LA’s 2018-19 season. Hopefully the same doesn’t happen here.
Was it worth it? I’d say no, not because the trade never went down, but (and this relates directly to the first point) New York should have known from the beginning that the Jazz didn’t value the young players enough to relent on their demand for future draft equity. The Knicks pretty clearly thought that offering Barrett was their trump card that would get them out of having to put distant firsts on the table. Whether you think Ainge is insane for passing on RJ or not, the Knicks were dead wrong in their assumption, and that, more than anything, is why these talks fell apart.
But this failure and the two before it pales in comparison to the fact that…
1. Their entire organizational strategy - and ability to assess talent - is now in question
We’ve known pretty much since Day One of the Leon Rose Era what the plan was: clean up the organization’s image, start winning some games, make it more appealing to star players, and accumulate enough assets to swing a trade for that star when the time is right. Taking this path required signing and playing veterans to varying degrees, all the while eschewing what was perhaps the more obvious tanking path for a team in their situation when Leon Rose took over. It’s how they justified trading out of the 19th pick in 2021 when they could have taken one of the high upside developmental projects still available, or trading out of the 11th pick this season. We have our fill of kids; this approach requires us to dedicate some of our efforts elsewhere.
Now two years in, that approach has unquestionably yielded some benefits, most prominently the accumulation of enough assets to be in the driver’s seat for Mitchell to begin with. Your milage my vary on whether Thibodeau’s old school approach has yielded more fruit than thorns where the young players are concerned, but there’s little doubt the Knicks have their best stable of young talent in decades. And while LOL Knicks is still alive and well…
…for the most part, they’re viewed as a sound, competent organization where players can come and be successful.
That’s all well and good. But only with this franchise, where the lowest of bars has been set by the ineptitude of the previous 20 years, would that count as a success. Most organizations are defined by how close they are to contending for a title, or at least, how easy it is to see their path to contention. With the Knicks, after two big swings and misses for star talent in the last two months (yes, I’m counting the failed pursuit of Jaden Ivey on draft night), it’s fair to ask how confident we should be in their ability to get from Point A to…something beyond Point A.
Yes, there will be other targets to hit the block, as I wrote about extensively last week. Like Thanos, disgruntled stars are inevitable. The hope, I’d assume, has to be that by the time the next of those stars becomes available, New York’s young assets appreciate to the point that they become easier to move for higher value. Perhaps they’ll even be able to add another premium talent in the 2023 Draft, as they currently have the 11th worst over/under win total in the league.
But even that hopeful approach comes with downsides. For one, we can be pretty sure that the cost of the next star won’t be lower than it was for Mitchell. If anything, his trade to the Cavs was even further confirmation that this is simply the going rate for stars. It’s not about the price coming down; it’s about putting yourself in a position to withstand the hefty cost.
The other issue is the tradability of the young talent. Obi Toppin and Immanuel Quickley become extension eligible next summer, and we just saw how much a new contract complicated the desirability of RJ Barrett, who is a better prospect than both. Maybe Barrett and/or another one or two of the young players pops to the degree that the organization no longer has to worry about saving enough draft equity for a second future star, because adding just one star to this mix will be enough. Outside of draft luck, that would seem to be the most likely path to contention.
Which brings us to the real kicker…in order for this path to come to fruition, we have to hope that the front office missed the boat here on arguably the most important part of its job: talent evaluation. Leon Rose & Co. looked at RJ Barrett and deemed him worthy of sending to Utah along with multiple unprotected first round picks. That says their evaluation of him was, at best, a high level starter. And given how they treated him as their trump card in these negotiations, it begs the question of what, exactly, they think of Immanuel Quickley and Obi Toppin3?
It’s easy to suggest that you have to give to get, but history has shown that when an NBA team knows they have the goods - even if it’s not obvious to everyone else yet - they won’t budge. All of Klay Thompson4, Jaylen Brown5, Pascal Siakam6, and most recently, Tyrese Maxey and Scottie Barnes were once or are currently first or second year players who were withheld from packages that either did or would have netted their teams a star player. Let's also acknowledge the reality that in the Mitchell trade talks, the notion of putting Garland (taken two spots after Barrett in 2019) on the table would have been so absurd that it never even came up. That doesn't mean that All-Star caliber talents don't get traded when they're young, as both Brandon Ingram and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander got shipped off from the LA teams to facilitate the AD and Kawhi/PG13 acquisitions, but it's hard to argue with either decision in retrospect.
The popular opinion - that it’s all Tom Thibodeau’s fault for not playing the kids, and thus, allowing them to show their value with more minutes and higher usage - might be right. We better hope it is.
At the same time, Thibs was hired specifically because he is a coach who will get more (wins) out of less than just about anyone. He also isn’t the one who inked veterans Julius Randle, Jalen Brunson, Evan Fournier, Derrick Rose, Alec Burks, Nerlens Noel, Kemba Walker, Taj Gibson, Isaiah Hartenstein and Austin Rivers to contracts totaling nearly half a billion dollars over the last three off-seasons.
The front office made those signings because the mandate has always been to win games, and in their opinion, their best chance to do so was on the backs of vets, and not the kids in house. They saw two years worth of RJ and a rookie year from Obi and still decided to pay Randle to be their horse, and I’ve lost count of the number of players they’ve brought in to effectively block IQ from getting a chance to really run the offense. It also isn’t an accident that Thibodeau was hired over the likes of Kenny Atkinson and other more developmental options (and oh by the way, that he still has a job today). They may have a chance to thin out some vets from the roster before camp, but whether they take the opportunity to do so is anyone’s guess.
Becoming a winning destination (and thus, a more marketable one) has been a top-to-bottom organizational priority from the moment Leon was hired; it was only in the midst of last season’s messiness that different priorities began to emerge. The goal, as always: keep building until a star helps us ascend to a different level. These negotiations made it plainly clear: in their estimation, what they had in house wasn’t nearly enough.
As of now, there’s no indication that their priority will change. If the young players play significantly more minutes and/or occupy bigger roles, it is more due to the ineffectiveness of the veterans in front of them - the ones signed by Leon Rose and his brain trust - than any other reason. And that’s only if the Knicks can find a taker for Fournier, and more urgently, for Randle. As Jake Fischer said on Friday, Julius is not viewed as an asset around the league. I’ve even been told there are members of the front office in favor of attaching a draft pick of some kind in order to dump the remainder of his contract.
This is the path they have chosen. If salvation comes in the form of a stud rookie obtained using a high pick in 2023, it certainly won’t be by design. Winning, and the pursuit of a star to beget more winning, remains the M.O. Will they be more successful the next time an opportunity presents itself, whenever that may be? On Wednesday, I’ll start to assess how they can put themselves in the best position possible to make that happen.
We better hope they get it right. After all, they haven’t really left themselves any other choice.
I felt like a few reports were intimating this, but Jake Fischer came out and reported on Friday that the Knicks didn’t want to give up their future picks or unprotected swaps.
This is especially true for RJ. According to Fischer, the Jazz flat out preferred Collin Sexton making $18 million annually to Barrett at whatever number they could have gotten him at. No, we can’t be sure what number RJ would have agreed to, if any number, in Utah, but it’s blatantly obvious that Ainge doesn’t think Barrett is the sort of no-doubt-about-it future star that you want to acquire at all costs.
I’m putting Grimes in a different category, as all reporting seems to indicate they were far more protective of him than the other two, and perhaps even as much or more than Barrett.
Coming off a rookie season in which he averaged 12 points and played 24 minutes a night, was held out of a trade for reigning 6th Man of the Year James Harden
Reportedly sought after from Boston in exchange for Paul George after a rookie season in which he averaged a mere 6.6 points per game, and then a year later for Kawhi Leonard after a sophomore season in which he averaged 14.5 points.
Held out of a trade for Kawhi after a second season in which he averaged 7.3 points in 20 minutes a night.