Top 63 Trade Assets, Part 3
I finish doing a stupid thing. Plus, analysis of yesterday's behind the scenes look at the Knicks' front office.
Happy Wednesday! Before I get to today’s letter, I want to take a second to thank everyone who has reached out with congratulations on the birth of our daughter. If for some reason I didn’t respond to you directly, please know that your kind words warmed our hearts. I’ve said it before, but my Knicks family is like family family to me. All the love right back to y’all.
Also, today’s edition is free, but if you’d like to become a full subscriber in time for the second half of the season (and the playoffs…and draft…and free agency…) you can do so here:
Before we get to Part III of my Trade Value column, we have some news…
Yaron Weitzman, author of of Tanking to the Top: The Philadelphia 76ers and the Most Audacious Process in the History of Professional Sports (a fantastic read for any NBA fan) and today’s KFS Podcast guest, dropped the piece we’ve been waiting for: a behind the scenes look at Leon Rose and the Knicks front office.
The entire piece is a must read, and well worth your time. In short, it gives an in depth look at Leon Rose and the leadership team he assembled, how their decision-making process has played out on a few occasions, and hints at what might happen from here.
Here are my main takeaways and some specific tidbits I found notable:
William Wesley and Brock Aller sure seem to be the de facto co-GM’s of this team, with Rose as the final decision-maker when there are disagreements (of which there have seemingly been a few).
I read this as a portrait of a healthy, if non-traditional, front office, in the same vein of a family who throws the occasional dinner roll at the kitchen table but ends the night with smiles nonetheless.
Clearly Leon Rose valued existing relationships in putting together this team, as Weitzman notes how Brock Aller “grew close to Rose while working for the Cavaliers and to Wesley when the two lived in Detroit.” Rose seemed to want to be able to have his cake and eat it too: a group of people who would be open and honest about their opinions, but without inducing the hurt feeling that might come if relative strangers were butting heads.
Thibs - as he has said himself - certainly has a voice, and it is usually saying something along the lines of “get me good players now.” The line that will surely have every Knicks fan clutching their pearls is that Thibs initially “thought RJ Barrett and Mitchell Robinson could potentially be flipped for seasoned veterans.”
But this isn’t anything we shouldn’t have already assumed. Ultimately, as Weitzman notes, Rose resisted Thibs’ urging to give money to three players in particular: Gordon Hayward, Marcus Morris and Bogdan Bogdanovic.
Instead, this free agency period went the way Aller (who Thibs jokingly referred to as “Hinkie” on occasion) desired: one year contracts and forward thinking trades (the Ed Davis deal).
There’s some irky stuff about Worldwide Wes in here, including his disinterest in non-CAA/UK guys, and some odd anecdotes about his Zoom decorum and musical interludes, but he also comes away with one major accolade as the one guy pushing hard for Immanuel Quickley when no one else seemed to be sold.
Walt Perrin is mentioned once, as having been part of the team’s draft night braintrust, along with Rose, Aller and Wesley.
In addition to Toppin, Rose was also high on Devin Vassell as an option at eight. Weitzman doesn’t say so explicitly, but it sure seems like Toppin was Rose’s call all the way.
Wes, meanwhile, also had eyes for Payton Pritchard, Tyrese Maxey, James Wiseman and Kentucky’s Nick Richards.
Finally, Scott Perry is mentioned once, in passing, when Weitzman notes how “those loyal to now-former team president Steve Mills often clashed with those brought in by general manager Scott Perry.” We get the picture that if Rose has a circle of trust, Perry is on the outside looking in.
On that last point, Marc Berman (also on today’s pod) flat out told me that Perry, who was absent from the last five games before the break because he was scouting in the G-League bubble, no longer has a significant voice in this front office. Shocked - shocked - I am, at this news.
All in all, are there things about Weitzman’s piece that scare you? Of course. As fans, we have an idealized view of NBA front offices as well-oiled machines where a combination of refined scouting eyes and database upon database of analytics combine to make the decision-making processes streamlined if not simple.
This front office, it seems, is not that. Instead, we seem to have a group of strong and unique personalities, some of whom are learning as they go. Wesley in particular seems to be the front office equivalent of JR Smith: amazing when right; downright frightening when he’s on one.
But in the end, he put his chips on Quickley and it paid off. And Rose, for as much as he would probably benefit from one more trusted basketball mind in the place of Perry, seems to have made all the right calls thus far. For a year now, I, like many fans, have trusted in Rose’s gambit - that he has what it takes to corral a diverse group of personalities who might otherwise fracture at the seams, in part because of his steadfast hand, but also because it is, in the end, a group of guys who trust one another at the end of the day.
So now we just have to sit and hope he keeps making the right calls and picking the right side in these arguments, especially when the stakes get higher and higher, which I trust they will before very long. Collaboration is a beautiful thing, and when things are going well, not necessarily hard to achieve. If Rose can keep it going, untraditionally or otherwise, he deserves all the praise in the world.
Top 63 Trade Assets, Part III
Before we get to the top 30, I want it noted for the record that everyone I ranked in parts one and two - 31 on down - I was placing with a slightly more refined eye than blindfolded dart tossing. Are there 10 guys I had on the list that should have been replaced by 10 guys in the Honorable Mention section? Probably. Have at it with your critique.
But with one exception, I’m pretty rock solid on the top 30, at least as far as these being the right 30 guys to top the list.
Speaking of the list, let’s get started with that lone exception - the one guy I know I’m wearing blue and orange colored glasses with my placement, but who I think might come to deserve it nonetheless…
Tier 6: Potential Cornerstones on Rookie Deals
30. RJ Barrett
I know what this looks like.
If I was going by league-wide consensus, I’m guessing that he’d be towards the bottom of Tier 6, somewhere around Herro, MPJ and Anthony Edwards. Sam Vecenie, who did an excellent ranking of prospects on their rookie contracts a few weeks ago, had him in that range. Herro in particular seems to have the edge on him, just because it’s easier to believe in the scoring ability from someone who hasn’t had the shooting struggles that Barrett has.
But since the 12th game of this season, RJ has an effective field goal percentage of 53.3 - almost a full 10 points higher than his desultory rookie year numbers. The threes he’s taking are set shots and usually open, but they are still going in at an impressive clip.
He’s also doing a little bit of everything for New York. There are 27 players in the league that meet the following thresholds: 23 usage, 48 eFG%, 13 REB% and 13 AST%. The only ones not to make an All-Star team are LaMelo Ball, Jerami Grant, Aaron Gordon, Dejounte Murray, and Barrett. RJ’s shooting has already progressed past Gordon and Murray, and he’s showing as much on-ball ability in his second year as Grant is now in his seventh. He’s also the third youngest player on the list after Ball and Zion, who are both a few tiers up here.
Barrett is growing in front of our eyes. The patience and savvy he’s displayed on offense over the last few weeks is impressive, and defensively, he has the tools to be well above average.
Most of all, he wants to be a part of the foundation here, having seen the Garden at its worst, and now, playing a part at returning it to its best. That means he’s arguably far more valuable to the Knicks than any other franchise.
So yes, while 30 is probably far too high, I legitimately think there’s a chance the Knicks wouldn’t swap Barrett for anyone below him here, especially due to the fact that he’s owed less than $20 million over the next two seasons.
29. Jaren Jackson Jr
28. Ja Morant
I’d have Morant much higher but the 3-point numbers have to be concerning at this point. We now have a 269-shot sample size that he’s a 30 percent shooter from downtown.
JJJ has been a little out of sight, out of mind this season, but he’s still a 21-year-old big who offers switchable rim protection and 40 percent 3-point shooting on good volume.
So basically what Porzingis was supposed to be.
27. Trae Young
I don’t like him. You don’t like him. And most importantly for the purposes of this column, I’m not sure his teammates like him.
If I were surer that he was a guy who rallied players instead of repelled them, he’s probably a tier higher, just because I’m a believer that you can always hide a perimeter guy on defense if you really need to, and his offense makes it worth the trouble.
But I’m not, so he goes here.
26. Shai-Gilgeous Alexander
I struggled with this one because all the peripherals suggest he should be higher.
Still 22. Went to Kentucky. Has a season left on his rookie deal. Has emerged as more than serviceable from deep (41.2 percent on nearly five attempts per game). Is putting up 23, 6 & 5 on ridiculous efficiency (57.6 eFG%) - literally the only person in NBA history to hit all those benchmarks at this age.
And yet…I put him side by side with all the players in the top 25, and if I were these teams, I’d rather have the in-house guy instead.
Tier 5: Under-25 Second Contract Young Studs
25. Brandon Ingram
Kind of the same guy this season as he was last year, but then again, the next step for him is a top-five scorer on elite usage and efficiency with high-level playmaking and as much positional versatility as anyone in the league. If he had gotten there already, he’d be in the top 10.
Even so, he’s one of a dozen guys both in the 94th percentile or higher in usage and the 70th percentile or higher in points per shot attempt this season according to Cleaning the Glass, the others being Zion, Dame, Paul George, Book, Kawhi, Beal, Jokic, LeBron, Embiid, Trae and KD. He’s still just 23 and is under contract for four more seasons, and thanks to the beast he shares the front court with, has no reason to ever ask out of New Orleans.
24. Jaylen Brown
23. Ben Simmons
Along with Ingram, the two other top-three picks from the 2016 Draft.
(By the way, we went, like, forever without a draft where there were no misses in the top three, and now we might have two in four seasons between 2016 and - assuming RJ’s progress continues - 2019. I guess you can say 1999, which gave us the Brand/Francis/Baron Davis trio? Not exactly an inspiring group though. Maybe ‘94, with Big Dog/Kidd/Hill? It’s amazing how few of these 3-for-3’s there really are…)
Anyway, Brown and Simmons…take your pick. They both offer different things. Throw a dart.
22. Karl-Anthony Towns
Putting him at 22 is going to look very, very stupid in a few years…I’m just not sure in which direction.
(and yes, I know I cheated on putting him here because he turned 25 in November. Whatever. He belongs in this group.)
21. De’Aaron Fox
Probably the player I’m irrationally highest on who doesn’t play for New York. The 3-point progression has been uneven but he’s increased both his volume and accuracy a ton from last season. He’s also averaging 23 points and seven dimes as a 23-year-old, which puts him in the company of Oscar, Tiny Archibald, AI, Stephon Marbury, LeBron, D.Rose, Trae and Luka.
I just want to see him outside of Sacramento.
Tier 4: Not-Quite-Best Guy on a Title Team
20. Rudy Gobert
Toughest guy for me to rank, easily.
Just signed a $205 million extension thanks mostly to his defense, and we have seen that defense exploited in the playoffs on more than one occasion. Doesn’t create offense for himself or others, at least not in the traditional sense. Will be 29 by next season. I’m not sure you can win it all if he’s your second best player.
But I’m also not sure you can’t win it all if he’s your second best player, and Utah seems to be betting that you can. He is the foundation to everything they do at both ends of the court, and at the moment at least, they are doing all of the things better than anyone else.
So it is with as little conviction as possible that I put him here.
19. Paul George
Second toughest guy for me to place. He’s a meh asset (at best) thanks to this extension - he’s almost 31 and will earn a whopping $44 million annually for four years starting next season - and yet the Clips need a player of his caliber to win it all this season, and probably to retain Kawhi.
18. Jimmy Butler
Come to think of it, I should have just named this category “I don’t really know where to put any of these guys so I’m sticking them all together.”
Butler is 31 and 15 months away from a player option that he’ll likely decline as he enters his age-33 season. Is it good for Miami that he’ll be off the books then, and that they’ll have the option to let him walk if his asking price is too high? Does this mean their window is only open for another season and a half? How well will a guy age who goes balls-to-the-wall 24/7, especially when he’s not a threat from outside? Is this Russ 2.0 waiting to happen?
I have no idea what the answers to these questions are. So, yeah…18 it is.
17. Damian Lillard
16. James Harden
The last two players on the list before we get to the 15 who either are or might someday become the best players on a title team.
Harden has already proven that for as great as he is, he’ll never earn that designation. Lillard is a tougher one to call, because he might be the second best nominal point guard in the game today after Steph.
But he’ll also turn 31 this summer and has nearly $49 million coming his way as a 34-year-old in the 2024-25 season.
Tier 3: Future Top Bananas
15. LaMelo Ball
I think we’ve already seen enough.
14. Donovan Mitchell
Quietly up to 38 percent from deep this season on nearly nine attempts per game. Even so, I’m not sure he’ll ever be a Booker-level offensive force, but some guys just have “it,” and Spida is one of them.
13. Zion Williamson
Was going to put him in the top five until I thought about what it must be like to root for New Orleans and live in perpetual fear that one day his 6’7” frame might decide it no longer wants to carry around his 300-and-your-guess-is-as-good-as-mine-pound personage.
12. Devin Booker
Orange is a nice color for him, but it would work a lot better surrounded by a royal blue. I look forward to seeing first hand in a few years.
11. Bam Adebayo
There was a moment during last season’s playoffs when I thought Miami wouldn’t trade him for anyone in the league besides Luka.
I’ve come back down to earth a bit, maybe by the fact that the Heat were just OK when Adebayo was forced to carry the load without Butler for a few weeks this season, but Bam is still putting up 19, 9 & 5 on a 56 effective field goal percentage. No 23-year-old in the history of the league has ever put up those numbers over a full season, and he’ll be in Miami for at least the next five years.
10. Jayson Tatum
Had him in the top tier until the last moment, just because I’m not sure he’s “there” yet, but top-10 isn’t bad in the meantime.
Tier 2: Elephant in the Room
9. Kawhi Leonard
I mean, he’s not really going to test free agency again just two years after jetting Toronto, right?
Tier 1: Top Bananas
More than any other, this tier exemplifies how much the league has changed over the last several years. Once upon a time, if you had a potentially generational talent on a rookie deal, that player might be considered a better asset than even the very best players on the best teams.
But now? Now, we live in the now more than ever. You never know when the next trade request will come. No, we haven’t yet seen a player on a rookie deal ask out, but my guess is that it’s only a matter of time. Or, for that matter, until someone 18 months into an extension decides he’d rather pick up shop and move on.
For that reason, the only guys in this tier are the players good enough to guarantee their respective teams a shot at the title right this second (with a few notable exceptions). Also, there’s no real margin between any of these dudes. None of them are ever getting traded unless they absolutely demanded to leave.
8. Joel Embiid
That the current MVP-front runner is 8th here speaks to how freaking stacked the league is right now.
Why so low? Because I can’t help but shake the feeling that one day in the next 18 months, Embiid is going to wake up on the wrong side of the bed and decide he’s done sharing the floor with Ben Simmons. Or that Philly isn’t good enough. Or that he no longer likes cheese steaks.
Whatever. Some guys seem destined to spend their entire primes in one spot. I just don’t think Embiid is one of them.
7. Steph Curry
He’s 10 spots higher than Lillard less because of any difference between them and more because this summer, Golden State can swap the Minnesota pick (almost regardless of if it conveys this year or next) and Wiseman for a win-now player that can vault the Warriors back into contender status in the snap of a finger.
Or they just make the pick, keep Wiseman, and Curry becomes the rich man’s version of late career David Robinson, except at the guard spot. He’s also made a boatload of money and I’m guessing will be willing to sign a somewhat team-friendly contract in 2022.
6. Anthony Davis
Might not be as valuable without LeBron, but the Lakers won’t have to worry about that for a while. In the meantime, they’ll be favorites every season he and James are on their current deals.
5. Giannis Antetokounmpo
The two-time MVP barely cracks the top-five.
4. Kevin Durant
I think Brooklyn’s championship equity is second only to the Lakers this season and next.
3. Nikola Jokic
The advanced stats say that he’s pretty clearly the best player in the league right now. He also just turned 26 and seems like the next guy in the Duncan/Dirk/Steph lineage to spend his entire career with one team.
But so does Giannis…so why is Jokic higher?
Simple: I think there’s a better chance he wins a title as a top guy than Antetokounmpo, even if it might not happen until after LeBron and Kawhi age out.
2. LeBron James
It feels like this ranking goes against the whole point of the exercise because James is 36 and even he can’t play forever.
But the Lakers are title favorites right now because of him, and barring anything completely nuts, they will enter next season as favorites once again.
In the NBA, nothing is guaranteed for much more than 18 months out. If you can assure yourself the best title odds over multiple season, every other consideration almost has to go out the window. That’s why the Lakers, Clippers and Nets all made the AD/PG13/Harden trades without blinking an eye even though they completely and totally compromised their long term futures in the process.
As a result, there’s almost no one in the NBA the Lakers would deal LeBron James for.
1. Luka Doncic
In the last, oh…roughly two decades - since the days of prime Shaq and Duncan - the only players that have ever been definitively more untradeable than Luka is right now are 2014-2016 Steph Curry and LeBron James during, well…pick your season.
I think Kevin Durant had a half-decade or so stretch in OKC where he was right there, as did Derrick Rose during his MVP season, but I’d put Doncic ahead of both of them by a hair. After these five, no one else really comes close. Early career Wade, maybe? Ehh.
The Porzingis thing complicates matters because his contract might make it tough to find a taker and having to settle for KP as the second banana might take a few years off Luka’s championship window that otherwise would have been there. At the same time, would it shock me if the Snake put together six weeks of good, healthy ball at the right time and Dallas won it all in the next three seasons? Not really.
And by the time KP’s contract runs out, Luka will be all of 25 - just entering his prime.
So yeah, he gets the top spot, and it’s not particularly close.
Hope you enjoyed this 3-day break from exclusively Knicks content, which will pick back up tomorrow. If you enjoy this newsletter and like the Mets, don’t forget to subscribe for free to JB’s Metropolitan. See everyone soon! #BlackLivesMatter