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The Perfect Trade
As I teased on Friday, today I present my favorite theoretical Julius Randle trade.
Good morning! We’re now two weeks into the offseason. Enough time has passed that I feel comfortable pitching what will probably wind up as my most audacious trade idea off the summer. Fair warning: it is out there. But I also think it makes sense for a variety of reasons that I’ll get into below. Coming up later this week, I’m also going to have a film breakdown of Jalen Brunson, plus start going through some individual teams to see if there are trades that make sense. If you want to get fully on board for all of that, you know what to do:
The Perfect Trade
Let’s start with the dream.
And not just the dream of Knicks fans, but of every fan base around the NBA: a championship spearheaded by home grown talent, nurtured from infancy as more than simply trade assets, but as component parts of a title team.
It is dreamt of here perhaps more than anywhere, partially because we have not had a worthy young core to speak of for decades, and partially because no Knicks front office has given such a plan genuine consideration in nearly as long. It’s why, whenever the topic of mortgaging the youth for a star player comes up, a large segment of the fan base collectively rolls its eyes. Can’t we just give the kids more than a couple years? Would it be so terrible to see what years three, four and five look like for some of these guys, let alone years eight, nine or ten?1
In this dream, New York keeps its young guys - RJ, Obi, IQ, Grimes, pick one or two more to your liking, plus its upcoming lottery pick - and adds to that core rather than swapping it out for more ready-made pieces, and they keep ascending all the way to the top. It is a lovely dream.
History also says it is an impossible one.
A Changing Landscape
In the age of modern player movement - basically since Shaq left Orlando for the west coast - only two teams have won it all with a top three composed of homegrown talent, and San Antonio and Golden State both had the benefit of drafting not only a top-15 all time player, but two additional Hall-of-Famers as well. We can point to one additional team - the 2011-12 OKC Thunder - that made the Finals with a homegrown core, and they too followed that formula of drafting one pantheon-level player and two additional Top 75’ers.
At the moment at least, it would be a stretch to say that anyone on New York’s young core has this sort of upside. RJ, we hope, is a future multi-time All-Star. Is there a 10 percent chance one of Immanuel Quickley or Obi Toppin make an All-Star team as well? Five percent? Lower? Your guess is as good as mine.
And yet despite those limited ceilings, if the development we saw this year continues, these players are all going to get paid. How much will they get paid? One look at the current NBA salary landscape says “a lot.” Factoring in new contracts this upcoming summer for Deandre Ayton, Zach LaVine, Miles Bridges, Jalen Brunson, Collin Sexton and Anfernee Simons, 96 players will make at least $15 million next season. That’s four times as many players than make the All-Star team. $15 million a year is basically the minimum rate for a quality NBA starter or very high end backup
We know RJ is going to extend for a minimum of $25 million annually, and that would be getting off cheap. Let’s say Obi and IQ both take steps forward…that’s another $30 million between them. If Cam Reddish is anywhere close to the player the Knicks hope they traded for, there’s another $12-15 million annually2. If Grimes consistently plays like the sort of 3 & D wing we got glimpses of this season? Boom: another $12-15 million. And we haven’t even talked about the possibility of keeping Mitch at his market rate of around $13 million per year.
Conservatively, that’s $90 million for six players; $100 million or higher on the realistic end - again, assuming they’re actually as good as we’d all like to believe. Given the rate at which these guys will need to be paid and current projections of a cap that will rise to $128 million in 2023, $134.5 million in 2024, $141.2 million in 2025 and $148.3 million in 2026, the Knicks can still maneuver themselves into a max salary slot at some point.
Except not this summer, not with all this expiring money still on the books. Next offseason, Kemba, Noel, Burks and Rose all come off their cap sheet, but RJ’s contract kicks in to replace around two thirds of that money and Cam’s new deal might replace the rest. They also might have a new deal for Mitch already on the books, not to mention whoever they sign for the midlevel this summer and next summer. Oh, and IQ and Obi will be extension eligible. Fournier’s pact comes off the books in 2024, but that’s when the Toppin and Quickley extensions will kick in. Two years after that, assuming he opts into his player option, Randle will expire…and in that same summer of 2026, RJ will be eligible to sign his next extension3.
Life comes at you fast in the NBA.
Luckily, none of the above really matters in the way it used to, and that’s because free agency is all but dead. Yes, there will still be the occasional odd situation where a Jalen Brunson hits the open market, but for all intents and purposes, the primary method of star player movement we became used to over much of the last 20 years no longer exists.
Need proof? Four All-NBA caliber players in Zach LaVine, Bradley Beal, James Harden and Kyrie Irving can all hit the open market this summer. Did we see any frantic moving of salary last summer or at the trade deadline as some team or teams geared up to make a big run? Nope. Not one team game-planned their spending around any of these guys. Everyone got the memo: that’s not how it works anymore.
Now, players use the threat of free agency to force trades well before they ever hit the open market. As a result, unless you engage in a multi-year tank or simply get lucky in the draft, the trade market is the only remaining path to superstar talent for a team that doesn’t already have it.
Enter the Knicks.
I go through this diatribe on the state of the NBA in response to anyone who may have been confused or perturbed by the conclusion of Friday’s newsletter, and the fact that I ranked “Is now the time for New York to acquire a Star?” as my top question of the offseason. It is the top questions because it has to be. Because of the state of their cap sheet and the fact that this fun young core is about to get very, very expensive, the Knicks are entering a roughly year-long stretch in which they will be in the sweet spot for a star trade.
All the pieces are here. They have tradeable salaries at every level, with Julius in the high range, the other vets in the middle, and rookie contracts on the low end. They have all of their own picks, plus four extra selections in next year’s draft and five additional picks in the three years after that. Brock Aller has spent the last two years getting his battleships in position; he’s just waiting for the order to fire.
Everything - all the 2023 draft picks, all the expiring money, all the kids soon to be due for a raise - points to this happening sooner rather than later. It’s just a matter of how and for whom. Donovan Mitchell, Karl-Anthony Towns, Anthony Davis, Damian Lillard, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Bradley Beal4, someone else who has yet to emerge…there are no shortage of possibilities.
Conventional thinking is that said trade will see a lot of these kids pushed out the door, but as I said up top, no one is in a rush to do that. For one, their value isn’t all that high right now outside of RJ. More importantly, good NBA teams let their prospects germinate and grow. We saw the very beginnings of it this season. There is far more where that came from.
But what if there was another way? What if they could keep the kids, or at least most of the kids, and use a combination of veteran salaries and draft equity to get a deal done? Being even more specific, can the Knicks use their biggest veteran salary - and arguably their most talented player - as the centerpiece of such a trade?
Is that possible? It will take a unique situation, and probably more than one trade partner. Most teams that are at the beginning of their rebuild don’t have star talent that they might be ready to deal, and the one that does - OKC, with SGA - probably doesn’t want a pick-centric package, at least not one without a premium selection in the upcoming draft. They certainly don’t want Julius Randle. On the flip side, teams looking to win now aren’t going to willingly downgrade their star to Randle, even with a bunch of New York’s future picks thrown in.
So is there anything out there that would allow Knicks fans to keep the dream alive? Keep all the stuff we want, get rid of the stuff we don’t, and capitalize on the sweet spot that lies directly in front of us?
I believe that there is, but it’s going to take perhaps the most unprecedented situation in NBA history to make it happen.
The Big Fish
No one questions Zion Williamson’s talent. He can do things on a basketball court that have literally never been done before at such a young age. In just his second season, Williamson became just the third player ever to average at least 27 points with an effective field goal percentage of 61.0 or higher. A 29-year-old LeBron did it coming off four MVP’s in five seasons. A 27-year-old Steph Curry did it and was rewarded with his second consecutive MVP. And now this season, Nikola Jokic will likely be rewarded with his second straight MVP in becoming just the fourth member of the club. Unsurprisingly, the Pelicans scored 5.5 more points per 100 possessions when Zion played, a differential that ranked in the 87th percentile league-wide according to Cleaning the Glass. He was unstoppable.
How did he follow up that unprecedented sophomore campaign? By playing as many minutes for the Pelicans this season as you and me. What started as Williamson being ruled out for the start of training camp with a scheduled reevaluation in two weeks has turned into an absence that is six months and counting (and really, 12 months and counting if you factor in the six games he missed at the conclusion of last season).
This is the backdrop for the mammoth decision coming a little more than 10 weeks from now. Even though he won’t hit restricted free agency for a year, once the calendar hits July, Zion will be eligible to sign a contract extension worth more than $180 million, and over $200 million should he hit one of the rookie supermax escalators. If early July comes and goes and he doesn’t sign that extension, it will be a Bat-signal sized sign to the rest of the league that a divorce is almost certainly coming.
Adding to the complexity of the situation is the fact that we don’t even know whose decision it will be. Is New Orleans going to offer such a deal to a player who seems less than inclined to be a part of that franchise in any significant way? If offered, will Williamson accept it? Or will he bypass it, thus applying the most meaningful pressure yet on the organization to trade him somewhere he wants to be? There’s also the possibility that they decline to offer the full max, or offer a max with hefty injury protections, and that decision further sullies the relationship between both sides.
Like I said, this is an unprecedented situation, with one last layer of complexity: would another team give up the ungodly haul it would take to get Zion unless they were absolutely certain he was ready to make a true commitment to them in a way he clearly hasn’t to New Orleans, starting with getting in shape?
Meanwhile, after a 1-12 start, the Pelicans have become one of the best stories in the NBA. And they have done it largely with third-year center Jaxson Hayes playing out of position as the starting center. It is roster tailor made for Zion Williamson, complete with a stretch five to open up the floor.
All it’s missing is the Zion.
Let me rephrase that: New Orleans has a roster tailor made for a bruising, bulldozing power forward who moonlights as a playmaker when the situation warrants.
Know anyone who fits that description?
It was just a year ago that Julius Randle finished ahead of Zion Williamson in the All-NBA voting despite the prodigious numbers the second-year forward put up. We knew then, and we certainly know now, that neither Randle’s talent nor his physical gifts are on par with Williamson, but it’s not a stretch to say that Julius can be a poor man’s Zion when he has it going. That would require him to embrace driving the paint far more than he has in New York, although the presence of a floor-spacing five should go a long way in that effort. If he did, Randle might resemble the player he was, well…the last time he was in New Orleans. That season, Julius finished in the 68th percentile in efficiency and took 56 percent of his shots at the rim, as opposed to this season, when he took 32 percent of hit shots at the time and finished in the seventh percentile in efficiency.
Even with that theoretical upside, David Griffin would have to be sniffing fumes to swap out the former No. 1 overall pick for a man who just had the worst high volume shooting season for a big man in nearly a decade5.
This is where Zion comes in. It starts with demanding a trade. Then, Williamson would really have to throw his weight around6 and make other teams around the league uncomfortable about the prospect of trading significant assets to acquire a possibly injured, possibly disgruntled star who could threaten them with accepting the qualifying offer.
Sound familiar? Kristaps Porzingis tried something similar with the Knicks, who dealt him before his “list” of desired trade destinations was ever made public. There are similarities and differences here. On one hand, like the Mavs, the Knicks would be hanging onto what they felt was their most important asset (Luka / RJ & the kids). As was the case with Dallas, this would have more to do with the opportunity cost of giving up the picks in this trade as opposed to saving them for another opportunity down the line. Also like the Mavs, the Knicks would have to be taking a leap of faith with an injured player.
On the other hand, no one thought KP was really going to leave all that money on the table. Even though the Mavs weren’t on his list, they cold be pretty sure Porzingis would show up with a smile on his face. Whether anyone thinks Zion would take the qualifying offer or not, it feels like that threat looms larger here. Williamson is a year away from the decision. That’s a lot of time for a new organization to sell him on their situation, but it’s also enough time for him to say “thanks, but not thanks.” Who’s giving up the major haul of picks and/or players it would take to get him with that risk, plus the injury/conditioning thing, hanging over their head?
Even if Williamson gets heavily involved in this process, the Pels are still only going to make a trade that makes sense for their organization. If you’re David Griffin and you’re trading away a guy who has been compared to a young Shaq, you better make sure the roster that enters the 2022-23 season is at least a quasi-contender with additional upside in the years to come.
A four-man core of Randle, Brandon Ingram, CJ McCollum and Jonas Valanciunas is a good start, but is still one piece away from being really dangerous. Where could the Knicks send some picks and have that third team send a good player back to New Orleans? Here’s a few possibilities:
Detroit - Jerami Grant: This doesn’t solve the Pels’ point guard issue, but it makes them arguably the longest, rangiest team in the NBA. The Knicks would have to take on Devonte Graham in addition to Zion to make the money work, while the Pistons would get Garrett Temple, Jaxson Hayes, Willy Hernangomez, and a couple picks from New York - maybe the ‘23 Dallas first and New York’s own pick this season. The Knicks would also send a distant first or two to New Orleans to add to the Pels’ coffers.
Indiana - Malcolm Brogdon: Makes a ton of sense on paper - Brogdon is an ideal point guard to flank the undersized CJ McCollum - although it’s unclear how much Brogdon’s injury plagued 2021-22 campaign would impact the Pels’ thinking. Here, Indy would get the package Detroit ends up with in the above trade, although New Orleans would need to send out an additional small salary to make the money work, or swap out Hayes for Larry Nance Jr. If the Knicks really wanted to get nuts, they could expand this to include Myles Turner coming to New York with a few of their expiring salaries going to Indiana. That might just wipe away all of their future draft equity in one fell swoop.
Orlando - Cole Anthony: This makes the money a lot easier to maneuver because Anthony is still on his rookie deal; Orlando could even take on Graham in the deal because they’re so far under the cap this summer (for a price in draft compensation, of course). The bigger question is whether the Pels think the former NYC high school star is good enough to be their point guard of the present as well as the future. As with the last two deals, they’d get additional picks from New York for the trouble of finding out.
San Antonio - Dejounte Murray: Maybe my favorite deal…I just don’t know if San Antonio wants to pivot even further into a prototypical tank by trading away their best player. Murray is a 25-year-old All-Star, and is so good that the Pels might actually trade away one of their future Milwaukee picks from the Jrue Holiday deal to make this happen. The Knicks, of course, would send a motherload of draft equity to San Antonio. Would it be enough?
Brooklyn - Ben Simmons: A slight pivot here: the Nets gets Randle and some draft equity to restock their bare cupboard after the Harden deal, New Orleans gets Ben Simmons, and the Knicks get Zion. Talent and fit-wise, it’s probably the best New Orleans can do. The Pelicans also get the benefit of a guy on a long term deal. Are the Nets already tired of Simmons’s antics? Woj reported that they were “disappointed” by his decision not to suit up for tonight’s game four. They also know they’d be getting a motivated Randle, ready to show up the crosstown rival that traded him. There would need to be some additional moving parts here as well, with New York taking on Graham and Garrett Temple heading to Brooklyn.
If you’re getting queasy looking at all of these deals and imagining this transaction coming back to haunt the Knicks like the Eddy Curry trade on steroids, know that that very sensation is the only reason why it has a prayer of happening. The uncertainty surrounding Zion - his weight, his health, his next contract, his general level of commitment, etc - is why there’s an opportunity for a team like the Knicks to swoop in and grab a talent of his caliber to begin with.
Would there be better deals out there? Sure. Oklahoma City might entertain a swap of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and picks for Williamson. But do we really think Zion wants to be part of the continuous tanking job that is the Thunder? Miami always looms, but the fit with Bam and Jimmy is far from ideal. I could see Toronto getting involved; we know Masai Ujiri is willing to take a big swing when he smells blood in the water. Still, does Zion want to take his talents north of the border?
Again: New York has the advantage over every other team, as they’re the only one that gives Zion the chance to reenact his Duke days on the biggest stage in sports.
How would it work out here? That would depend on the premise we started with, and New York’s young core being as good as we all hope and pray they are. Zion and RJ would also need to be surrounded with ample shooting at all times, and they’d probably need a rim protecting stretch five to make this thing really hum. They’d be putting all their eggs in this basket. It would undoubtedly be a risk.
The alternative? Sooner or later, the young core will get broken up to facilitate a star trade by more traditional means. It’s going to happen unless New York can figure out how to parlay Randle into a difference maker. I’d argue that no better opportunity will surface than this one.
That’s why this trade, even with all its risk, is the one I’d target before any other. A lot would need to happen to give it even a remote chance of taking place, starting with Williamson making it unequivocally clear that he never intends to play another game in a Pelicans uniform.
If he does that though? New York should be at the front of the line.
Dream big or go home.
Two players in the 75-year history of the Knicks have played for the franchise for more than 10 seasons. Two.
I’d be willing to wager that Cam sees himself as someone who will someday make at least double this if he ever gets a chance to have a bigger role in an offense.
Want to have your mind blown? Assuming Barrett turns into the no-doubt-about-it max guy we pray he is, if he does wind up signing that next contract extension at his maximum value, assuming current cap projections, he’ll be due about $67 million in the 2030-31 season when he’ll be $30 years old. Clyde’s highest annual salary as a player was $300,000.
via sign and trade.
Fun fact: the last player 6'8" or taller to attempt over 1200 shots and post an effective field goal percentage as low as Randle? LaMarcus Aldridge in the 2013-14 season.