The Calm Before...
...more calm? It feels like the trade deadline might be a dud. I explain why. Plus, a recap of last night, and an update on all the current rumors.
Game 44: Knicks 131, Wizards 113 - “Thibs Giveth, Thibs Taketh”
⌚️TL;DW: This one was actually dicey for a bit at the beginning, with the score 31-28 Knicks with two minutes left in the first. What happened from there - New York outscoring Washington 57-29 over the following 18 minutes - was equally the result of three factors:
Julius Randle channeling his inner Steph Curry, ultimately hitting 7-of-10 from deep en route to becoming the first Knick ever with at least 37 points, seven triples on 10 or fewer attempts, and five rebounds.
The Knicks increasing their defensive intensity, and
The Wizards simply being abhorrent when it comes to the basic fundamentals of basketball.
It was impossible to watch this game and not give credit to Tom Thibodeau, who has turned his team into a squad that takes care of business against bad teams and competes like hell against good ones. They give no quarter, as Thibs wrings every ounce of talent out of his roster like a towel wound past its breaking point.
But every deal with the devil comes with a cost, and the level of accountability required to get this organization back on track did not come with an off switch. Obi Toppin not doing the job with 7:32 left in a 24-point game? Get his ass to the bench, even if it does result in another 38-minute outing for Julius Randle - his 20th of the season.
I wondered as I was watching the closing minutes of this one, in which Randle joined RJ Barrett (39 minutes) and Reggie Bullock (31 minutes, after being listed as questionable to return earlier in the game with an ankle issue) on the court with two minutes left and an 18-point margin, whether Thibs uses these blowouts as extra practice time. As Julius said on JJ Redick’s podcast a few weeks ago, they do not practice often. Perhaps this is a way to make up for that.
Honestly though, I think this is just something in Thibs’ blood. The game is too sacred in his eyes to ever settle for less than max effort. He gets guys to push themselves beyond their limits by pushing them as hard as he thinks he can.
A game like yesterday is proof that his gambit has worked so far, but as always, the ultimate costs bear watching.
📷 🔅 Highlights, there were a few… It’s hard to boil this game down to just a few highlight plays, simply because it had more jaw-droppers than you’d usually get in a weeks’ worth of Knicks action. There is only one place to start though…
This is one of those plays where you wish Breen and Clyde had the Madden telestrator so they could pinpoint the exact moment that Immanuel Quickley snatched the soul from poor Raul Neto, Ralph Wiggum style.
I’d go with right about here:
Quickley had an interesting night, with 12 points on 4-for-8 shooting in just 12 minutes, as Thibs went with Burks over him as the backup point guard in the first half and Frank in the second half. Maybe the last few games were enough to convince the coach that Q’s best role, for the rest of this season at least, will come off the ball
Thanks to Quick’s antics, what would have been the play of the game on any other night was rendered second fiddle, but it nonetheless deserves to be celebrated:
Mitchell Robinson was wonderful all night long. He came off the bench once again but played 31 minutes to Noel’s 17, rewarding Thibs faith with 16 points (on nine shots), 12 boards (including seven offensive) and three blocks. His screen setting was also noticeably crisper and the difference in him vs Nerlens as a threat around the rim is notable.
And of course, what would a Knicks game be without yet another opportunity to lavish praise on the 20-year-old wunderkind?
Barrett (21, 5 & 5) had no shortage of moments to point out - I really could turn this into an RJ-only newsletter at this point - but he had a stretch at the end of the first quarter that really stood out:
You may remember a few weeks back I issued RJ a first half report card. Under the “must improve” section, I wanted him to elevate his playmaking specifically in the area of driving and kicking out to corner 3-point shooters.
I did so because I noticed how after the first few games of the season, he hardly registered any of these sort of assists. So what does he do last night? Has three drives & kick-outs in the span of less than two minutes. The above play was the middle of those three - an incredibly high level pass that not many NBA wings can execute.
Barrett can. And he’s still 20.
💪 Unsung Hero: Alec Burks had another 20-point game last night, his sixth of the season. He’s averaging 20 a night over his last four, and it’s started to make some fans wonder whether it’s better off testing the market for him before the deadline.
To which I say: Why? Sure, if the Knicks can get a first round pick, have at it. But such a deal won’t be out there. And honestly, I’m happy it won’t be. Burks is exactly the sort of guy the Knicks need moving forward: an efficient shooter (over 40 percent from deep after going 2-for-2 last night) who can not only put the ball on the floor, but be a legit “break in case of emergency” point guard and not leave you wanting for more.
Who knows what his market might be, but I’m guessing they can get him for something less than the midlevel, which is a bargain for the production he’s given them this year.
🐘 Elf-ant in the Room: Elfrid Payton was back after missing nine of the last 11 games, and he had a very Payton-ish stat line in his return: seven points on 3-of-8 shooting to go with four assists in 20 minutes. Is it a coincidence the Knicks were down 14-8 when he exited the game with two fouls and then up 43-33 when he re-entered? Who am I to say.
Meanwhile, the Obi debacle continues. Breen flat out said it on the broadcast: Obi Toppin is lost right now. It’s painfully obvious, and while you love the franchise’s commitment to sending him out there for long term developmental purposes, the question needs to be raised: are these minutes helping him right now? Because they certainly aren’t helping the team.
One has to wonder how Kevin Knox would look during these stints instead. At least he hits rim on his corner threes.
🚫 Final Thought: Heading into last night, according to Ben Falk of Cleaning the Glass and relayed by the Times’ Marc Stein in his wonderful newsletter, home teams had won both games of the NBA’s two-game, baseball-style series only 15 times in 60 tries this season. In other words, for as good as last night was, the Knicks will have their work cut out for them on Thursday.
📈 Standing Update 📉: I’ve been hesitant to start including this for fear I’d jinx the season, but it feels like it’s the right time:
Oh, and New York is the first team to exceed their preseason Vegas O/U win total. Thibs for COTY.
Let’s do a quick roundup of yesterday’s rumor mill as it pertains to the Knicks, even though the mill will probably render these tidbits irrelevant by the time you read this:
🏀 Lonzo Ball missed his second straight game with what the Pelicans said was a right hip flexor strain. OK. The Pels sure didn’t seem to miss him much, beating the Lakers 128-111 with possible Ball replacement Kira Lewis Jr. scoring 16 points on nine shots and registering a +21 in 20 minutes.
There was a report from Mike Mazzeo that the Knicks have been trying to find a third team to take Eric Bledsoe's contract to facilitate a Ball deal, which is interesting in that one of New York’s theoretical advantages in a trade is that they can take Bledsoe off the Pelicans’ hands by sending out just $13 million in salary - so basically three of Frank, Elf, Bullock, Knox and Rivers.
Bledsoe, by the by, was 1-for-8 for two points.
🏀 According to today’s KFS Podcast guest Ian Begley, “New York and Orlando recently had a conversation about a trade involving Evan Fournier” although it was unclear how far the discussion went. Vincent Goodwill of Yahoo also noted that the Knicks were “monitoring” Fournier.
In regards to Ball and Victor Oladipo, Begs said “teams in touch with the Knicks recently have gotten the impression that they aren’t open to giving up significant assets” in a trade, which he feels takes them out of the running for those guys.
He also had a note that upon the seemingly imminent departure of Austin Rivers via trade or buyout, the Knicks may look to sign a big man, with John Henson and Norvel Pelle named as possibilities.
🏀 Speaking of Mr. Oladipo, there were several reports saying the Knicks were potential suitors, with Woj reporting that there is “mutual interest” between the sides but that New York “has been reluctant to make an aggressive trade offer on Oladipo,” ostensibly because they can simply sign him this summer.
🏀 More scuttlebutt on the poaching of several key off-court figures for the Knicks…
According to Shannon Ryan, DePaul is attempting to “zero in on” Knicks assistant coach Kenny Payne, who Jeff Goodman previously reported was high on their list of candidates. Mike Woodson, meanwhile, is said to be interested in the Indiana University job - a position he may have interviewed for over the weekend.
We also got a report from Yahoo that if the Cavs move on from general manager Koby Altman, “expect Knicks vice president of strategy Brock Aller to be front and center of their plans.” This would hurt, and I’d hope/expect Leon Rose to name Aller GM to prevent his departure.
Finally, Knicks associate head coach Johnny Bryant may be on Utah State’s radar after they fired their head coach.
🏀 Finally, congrats to two-way Knick Jared Harper, who was named to the All-G-League First team. Now let’s give him Elf’s job.
The Calm Before…
Now that I’m nearly three weeks into becoming a dad once more, I’m starting to remember why having a new baby is so hard.
It’s not any one thing. It’s everything. It’s remembering whether the bottles in the sterilizer are sterilized or just washed. It’s figuring out a baby carrier that looks more like a hipster’s scarf than a useful parenting tool. It’s nearly folding your kids into pretzels because you don’t know how to work a double stroller. It’s making a 10 pm trip to Walgreens to buy Gripe Water. It’s reaching behind the bed, in the dark, to unplug the humidifier without waking the older one (who at four and a half years old still can’t make it through an entire night in her own room) so you can dump out yesterday’s run off. It’s…a lot.
It’s enough to make you wish all of it were condensed into a lone, really painful hour or so of each day - like someone hitting your big toe with a tack hammer for 60 minutes - and the rest of the time you’re home free.
I thought of this parenting plight as I was sitting around trying to figure out what the Knicks were going to do ahead of tomorrow’s trade deadline, or more specifically, what they weren’t going to do.
The reason I tend to think it’s the latter is simple: Leon Rose and I have a similar problem. Just like me and my sleep-deprived wife, Leon Rose has a ton of stuff on his hands: mildly interesting young players, fungible vets on small salaries, a bunch of extra picks, and more cap space than he knows what to do with.
And just like I’d happily take an hour of misery in exchange for 23 hours of bourbon-infused bliss, Rose would surely love to condense all of his stuff into one player that can help his team in a signifiant way.
That’s what we’ve all been waiting for right? That perfect trade to descend from the heavens and allow the Knicks to turn all these nickels and dimes into a dollar (or at least a fifty cent piece).
But it’s becoming increasingly likely that we’re not going to get it. Why is that? It’s complicated, but I’d boil it down to three specific reasons:
Several young players have stagnated, or at least that’s the perception
Coming into the year, we all looked at the Knicks roster and reasonably hoped that at least two or three players out of the following group would establish themselves as long-term core pieces: RJ Barrett, Obi Toppin, Mitchell Robinson, Kevin Knox, Immanuel Quickley, Frank Ntilikina, Dennis Smith Jr and Iggy Brazdeikis.
Low and behold, we’ve gotten our wish. RJ and IQ are having better seasons than anyone could have reasonably expected. Robinson, meanwhile, has been hurt, but looked like a guy who took a solid step forward on the defensive end before he went out, and in comparison with his brick-handed backup, continues to have value on offense as well.
But while those developments have been wonderful, what hasn’t happened is another player or two stepping up and at least looking interesting enough to make some other team bite on the promise of what could be.
To be clear: I’m not suggesting that the team’s brass ever intended to move Obi Toppin before this deadline (or, for that matter, Kevin Knox, who we heard repeatedly this offseason that the team valued), but if the goal is to buy low and sell high, those two players have all but taken themselves out of the conversation.
Ntilikina, meanwhile, has obviously had his moments, and is shooting 47 percent from deep on a limited sample size. He’s also entering restricted free agency, and if the past several years are any indication, a player with his track record is not necessarily someone a team will want to commit long term years and dollars to. Iggy remains a mystery box, and DSJ is long gone.
Which gets us back to Knox, a player I’d guess the Knicks are comfortable including in discussions over the next day, but who is as likely to be out of the league in three years as he is making real contributions to someone’s rotation. Is he really going to move the needle for some team? I doubt it.
There’s no “Perfect Player” for the Knicks to trade for
Getting back to Leon Rose’s perfect world, ideally, a trade target would be out there on the market who would make him comfortable spending real stuff on; i.e., one of the Dallas picks.
That’s the line in the sand, right? Knox, Frank, the Pistons pick…these are all well and good. But a first rounder is a first rounder. We can be pretty sure the Knicks are saving all of their own firsts for a Godfather-offer to be named later, but that doesn’t mean Rose wouldn’t love to make an “in between” trade: something more than taking on JJ Redick’s salary but less than emptying the treasure chest for Bradley Beal.
Looking around the league though, there’s issues with all the possible targets:
Any unrestricted free agent: Norm Powell, Victor Oladipo, Kyle Lowry, Kelly Oubre Jr, Evan Fournier, whoever…they all present the same two-pronged issue.
Prong one: the Knicks know they can just sign these guys outright in the offseason, so their incoming Bird rights have very little value, or at least much less value to a team over the cap.
Prong two: New York might be OK paying a premium to get them several months ahead of time if those months really mattered, but the Knicks aren’t a contending team. If you’re, say, Miami, even though you can sign Kyle Lowry or Victor Oladipo outright this summer, getting that player now might make the difference in winning a playoff series or two. For a team like Philly, it might be the difference in winning a title. For New York, it’s the difference between…winning or losing a play-in game? The value just isn’t there.
Any restricted free agent: Similar issue: you’re not just trading for Lonzo Ball; you’re trading for the right to pay Lonzo Ball whatever it takes to keep him this summer. Is that $15 million a year? $18 million? $20 million?
Whatever it is, it’s an overpay…which is fine. But to send out real stuff for the right to overpay? Different story.
You might assume this situation would depress the market for Ball or Devonte’ Graham (and theoretically John Collins and Lauri Markkanen as well, although I can’t imagine the Knicks would be in on those guys), and thus, the Knicks could still buy low. And maybe that’ll happen.
But having a guys RFA rights is still valuable even if you don’t intend on matching, so my guess is that David Griffin is not going to be giving him away for nothing.
Any player signed beyond this season: Who? Who is the trade target that I’m missing?
By my count, these sorts of players are either too good (and probably not available) - Bradley Beal and Zach LaVine, basically - or don’t fit the Knicks needs (Larry Nance Jr? Anyone else been rumored? Bueller? Bueller?).
I mentioned Terrence Ross here a few weeks ago because I thought he might land in that sweet spot, but it seems like Orlando has no desire to move him.
There are other players who could theoretically help - Eric Gordon and Eric Bledsoe are two names - but I’d rather have the cap space than either of those guys.
Speaking of cap space…
The perfect storm hasn’t developed to allow NY to maximize theirs
For one, the combination of a down market in the summer of 2021 and far fewer terrible long term contracts throughout the league has all but vanquished the possibility that some team will gift the Knicks a first round pick in exchange for taking on their junk.
This isn’t to say there isn’t bad money out there (hello, Luke Kennard), but a team needs to have a reason and means to dump salary. Using the Clippers as an example, while they might love to hoist Kennard on the Knicks in a 3-team swap to end up with Kyle Lowry, they’ve traded away all their future picks, so that’s a no go.
So that moves the Knicks onto plan B, which is to utilize their cap space not to take on completely unwanted salary, but instead to have their cap room essentially serve as an asset in a deal, where said cap room is more or less what they’re “giving up” in the transaction.
Picture something like this: Team A has a really good player that Team B wants to acquire. Team B has the assets to acquire Team A’s player, but in order to match salary, has to send out the contract of another player who Team A doesn’t want for some reason, but is still good. The Knicks would swoop in and inherit the lesser player into their cap space, and maybe even contribute a small asset to the deal.
In order for this situation to play out as I described, a few things would need to happen. For one, the Knicks would need to want the player in question. We’d also need a Team A that not only has a really good player to trade, but ideally one that has a bloated payroll and thus values financial savings, and who is also far away from contention and thus values picks over decent players.
Unfortunately, I’m not sure this team/situation is out there:
The Raptors have Kyle Lowry, and if they shipped him to Philly, maybe the Knicks can get Danny Green for nothing, but he’d likely be of far greater value to a contender who would give up a real thing for his experience in the playoffs. There’s also Seth Curry, but if you’re the Raptors, why would you want, say, Knox and the Pistons pick instead of Curry himself?
The Clippers have Pat Beverly and Pat Beverly’s $14.3 million salary for next season, but for the Knicks to inherit that as the third team, that means LA would need to be acquiring a good player to begin with, which…how exactly are they doing that? They have no picks or young players to speak of.
Is there a Myles Turner 3-teamer out there that I’m missing? I’m guessing the Pacers would acquire a good player who fits better with their roster, the Knicks would get Turner (and maybe out-of-the-rotation point guard Aaron Holiday), and send Mitch to the third team, who would also get a first from Indy. Does Norm Powell do it for the Pacers? Does Toronto want Robinson? Do the Knicks want Turner over Mitch? My head hurts.
The Magic have Aaron Gordon, who apparently has half the league as suitors, including the Celtics. Does Orlando want Marcus Smart? If not, how much does he move the needle for New York? The Magic can’t do anything to get significantly below the cap next year, but they also aren’t slated to be up against the tax. As such, Smart’s salary doesn’t really hurt them, and they seem to value the idea of being competitive, which Smart helps immensely.
That said, if the Magic didn’t value Smart themselves, do I think the Knicks should get in on a three-teamer where they’re jettisoning Payton and giving up one of the Dallas picks and Kevin Knox? The biggest issue there would be a trip to the hospital for Tom Thibodeau as the result of an erection that lasts longer than four hours.
New York could also potentially take on Al-Farouq Aminu’s $10 million salary for next season, but would then need to send out about $7.6 million in the deal, but you could get there with Knox and Rivers. If they did that, Orlando would be a Mo Bamba salary dump away from being able to get really frisky this summer.
I’m sure there’s a situation or two I’m missing, but you get the gist. These sorts of trades are tricky, and really do require the perfect confluence of events to get the wheels turning.
Last night during my YouTube post-game livestream, for reasons I cannot possibly explain, people went a little crazy in the superchat, and one after another, started making incredibly generous donations to what quickly became the Macri Diaper Fund.
I just want to take a quick second to say: Thank You, Thank You, Thank You.
If anyone who is reading this got in on the effort, let me say that I’ve never been so overwhelmed in my life. Not close, in fact. The generosity of other human beings never surprises me, except when it comes to me, in which case I don’t get it, because who am I to be more deserving than anyone else? It’s a privilege to be able to do this work, and I appreciate each and every person who listens, watches or reads. You keep me going.
Well, you and these folks right here:
That’s it for today! If you enjoy this newsletter and like the Mets, don’t forget to subscribe for free to JB’s Metropolitan. See everyone soon! #BlackLivesMatter