Who should the Knicks call about a potential Courtney Lee trade?

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Courtney Lee has recovered from his neck injury and for the first time in this young season saw game action, logging 16 minutes and shooting 1-4 from the field vs. the Wizards. It will be interesting to see how he is deployed in the near future. There may be some incentive to ease him back into the rotation, but also to showcase his health and talent for a possible upcoming trade.

He is a leader and a mentor as our own Michael DeStafano has written. But signing Kevin Durant is the master plan for the Knicks and they’re currently a bit short financially for that goal. As our Knicks Film School Founder, J.B., recently wrote: 

“Really, it all boils down to Tim Hardaway Jr. and Courtney Lee.”

There are plenty of salary details in that last link, but the gist is they’re going to need around ~$6.4m more in order to create a max roster spot for Durant and that means someone on the books has to go.

A Refresher on the Lee Situation

If you know this well, feel free to skip ahead to trade scenarios. But here is some context:

As early as September, it seemed as if Lee was the most likely Knick to be traded for expiring contracts. Remember, Coach David Fizdale called Lance Thomas a “natural” leader but didn’t offer similar praise for Lee back in September and the team did not include him in their “Future of New York” promo and Lee appeared to reply to what the NY Post called a “slight” on his social media. 

With the stated focus on developing young players, and Lee’s apparent interest in playing again for a contender, it makes sense to reluctantly part with the 11 year guard out of Western Kentucky.

But…

What’s going on with his neck?

Then there was the mysterious injury which complicated things. On the third day of training camp, he took a hard foul from Ron Baker which sent him flying into the support beam under the hoop. Despite getting close to returning more than once, he was held out the lineup until this past week. There was even mention of nerve stuff and spasms at one point. He finally appears healthy again, or healthy enough to return to the lineup, so now it’s about revving the engine back up and finding a team where he fits.

Caught up? Good. Now one disclaimer: I researched this piece before Frank Ntilikina’s name popped up-a few times a day since Thanksgiving in trade rumors. I’m simply not emotionally ready to research much bigger trades that send out Lee with Frank.1 So for this piece, these are all trades of the “keep Frank a bit longer” variety.

Now let’s make some calls.

Click NEXT/SWIPE to view trades

1. Pelicans

The Pelicans have that clock in their heads. They may want to act boldly in order to retain their superstar, Anthony Davis, who might already have that wandering eye.

There are some players on the Pelicans who aren’t exactly indispensable.

Wesley Johnson is on the books for $6.1m and his deal expires this summer. He makes an ideal candidate to build a trade around.

Wesley is shooting a blistering hot 42.5% from three and holds a more than respectable .572 true shooting percentage.  Not exactly the kind of play that gets you shipped out for someone coming off a spooky neck injury. However, Wesley has regressed to career averages recently and may continue to do so.

A player like Ian Clark (eligible for trade on Dec. 15th) or Tim Frazier could be strewn into the deal to make the contracts work.

The margins are slim and the Pelicans may have their sights set higher as teams like Washington or Miami consider major changes. But in the event they whiff there, or if the Knicks sweetened the pot somehow, this might become something they’d consider and would fully clear Lee’s salary.

2. Wolves

It has been rumored since the Jimmy Butler trade that the Timberwolves would waive Jerryd Bayless.

They have not done so yet, and it might be fair to speculate that they’re considering if Bayless has any value as an expiring contract before doing so. By trading for Lee, it would give Tom Thibodeau a player he has long had his eyes on, per the Minnesota beat (you remember the Lee for Ricky Rubio rumors).

Perhaps Thibs could extract an asset in addition to Lee. I wondered aloud if this exact deal, pending Lee’s health, is part of the reason Minny hasn’t waived Bayless and heard back from the top two members of the T-Wolves’ beat:2

So you’re tellin’ me there’s a chance!

3. Grizzlies

The narrative surrounding this one is too good, isn’t it?

If you looked up Knicks’ Coach David Fizdale’s track record, then you know that he helped JaMychal Green develop into a player who was instrumental to the Grizz’s gritty playoff run in 2016-2017. Green saw perhaps his most efficient season as a pro, and played the third most minutes behind Mike Conley Jr. and Marc Gasol in their first round run.

Green received that compliment, likening him to Udonis Haslem, known as a leader on the 3-championship Miami Heat teams, and where Coach Fiz was an assistant coach. Well, Green recently broke his jaw which gave the exhilarating rookie, Jaren Jackson Jr., an opportunity to flourish. It doesn’t appear that Jackson is going to relinquish his role anytime soon – dude just dropped 36 and 8 on Brooklyn and he turned 19 in September.

Reuniting Green with coach Fiz and letting Memphis welcome back Lee, who enjoyed a couple terrific years in Music City, makes lots of sense. The Grizz have some choices for who to kick in to make the salary match, like MarShon Brooks, Omri Casspi, and Wayne Selden; none of them are exactly tearing it up.

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For Memphis fans, they get this guy back:

I think this is my favorite one for both sides as of this writing.

4. Pacers

Rookie Aaron Holiday is coming on. The Pacers may not feel they need both of Darren Collison and Corey Joseph (each expiring). Parting with one for Lee could create more opportunity for Holiday, while assisting their off-ball perimeter play on each end of the floor with a touch more size. Collison is involved in lots of twitter trades by Pacer fans, often in a bundle for Kemba Walker. Indy has loads of upcoming cap-space, maybe more than they’d “need” given their situation. They could afford ~$12m-$13m for Lee’s talents if preferred deals for players like Terry Rozier or Walker fail to materialize. Indy is Lee’s hometown and they’re a good team so there could be some “do right by Lee good karma” there too. He’d be a really great fit here.

5. Kings

The idea that Lee would want out of New York to join a contender and the Kings name would come up is absurd. But amazingly the Kings aren’t a dumpster fire. They’re on a skid lately, losing 8 of 13, but with no draft pick, and therefore, no incentive to tank, they have reason to remain scrappy. They have cap-space, but not a ton of options to lure players to Sacramento. Lee could potentially provide an excellent replacement for Garrett Temple, a mentor to Buddy Hield, and be a key contributor in a push to make the playoffs, no matter how unlikely.

The Kings are missing an athletic, experienced wing like they once had in former Knick Doug Christie, and they have an unbalanced roster, weighted towards lots of front-court players. Why not Courtney?

6. Jazz

The Jazz fall into the “non-expiring Plan B” section of my trade scenarios. Maybe finding someone else to pay all of next year’s salary is tricky, but at least the Knicks could reduce the cost of what they owe to Lee. Remember, they are only about $7 million shy of max space for Durant. Lee is owed north of $12 million, so they could technically take some money back and be ok.

Utah was really ailing, which is why they already pulled the trigger on sending Alec Burks and a couple second round picks to Cleveland for Kyle Korver. But that doesn’t mean they’re done making moves. Especially because Korver doesn’t address one of their biggest needs.

As that piece above suggests, the aggressiveness with which a team can defend high-screens has been limited with “freedom of movement” rule changes. This has hurt the Jazz especially, who had a stifling defense a year ago, and this change further increases their need for specialists on the perimeter.

Thabo Sefolosha was a solid perimeter defender and career 34 percent 3-point shooter, but he’s 34 years old now. He’s coming off knee surgery. And he’s played just 80 minutes this year.

Sefolosha’s expiring $5.2m and Ekpe Udoh’s (Knicks love former lottery picks!) $3.3m gets you the building blocks for this one. But you may need to involve trade exceptions (Utah possesses two, and NY one) or Raul Neto’s non-expiring but paltry $2.2m to make it all work which gets a bit complicated. But the need is there.

When healthy, Lee is a speedier version of Jae Crowder, enabling them some much needed depth. Tim Hardaway Jr. would have really infused life into an offense that now lives and dies with Donovan Mitchell’s creation. Another 3-level scoring counter punch might really have helped. But with Burks in Cleveland now, it’s less likely. All the more reason to talk about Lee.

7. Spurs

Gregg Popovich shoved his chips to the center of the table. Rumored to be contemplating retirement around 2020, he all but confirmed as much by seeking packages for talented All-Star DeMar DeRozan instead of asset bundles or developmental projects when he traded Kawhi Leonard. San Antonio has never been a place stars yearn to go, so $13m in 2019 cap space might not be as valuable to them as it would be to say, the Clippers.

Don’t you get the sense that Pop sometimes looks out at Davis Bertans heaving 3’s and thinks “two years of this for $7m per… or pay a little more for guy who can do that but also plays the other half of the game! Especially now that Dejounte Murray is hurt and Danny Green is gone. Man do I miss Timmy.

Here was what Pop offered last year on Bertans:

“It’s not his strong point, but it’s not for lack of effort,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said about Bertans’ defense in February, via Orsborne.

And here is what Marilyn Dubinski of Pounding the Rock recently wrote: 

You can’t not do whatever it takes to make the playoffs after going all in to win now in the Kawhi deal. They’re currently in a brutal conference and 538 hates their chances of making the playoffs as presently constructed.

Davis Bertans and Quincy Pondexter (expiring) for Lee. Who says no?

This is possible after January 15th since Bertans was recently extended. It would grant the Knicks very close to the amount they’d need to get KD, and offer a moveable contract in the form of a cheap stretch big, who just might rub off some Spurs-magic on Kevin Knox and the other young guns.

8. Pistons

Ahh the PuPu Platter. The east is open. The Pistons are currently 4th in the standings. Weird, I know. Because look:

How about Lee for Big Dog’s son, Glen Robinson III. Also everyone’s favorite NBA goon Zaza Pachulia and the best part of all…welcoming back José Calderón! That still leaves us a few million short. But man welcoming back Numero Ocho, the guy who you once thought was a solid centerpiece in a return for Tyson Chandler as a triangle point guard!

The trade that began the miserable march towards drafting King Kristaps Porziņģis.

Detroit has had almost impossible luck finding two-way wings who can space the floor and stay healthy3. They have even worse luck recruiting great free-agents. A healthy Lee could offer what they once loved about Avery Bradley, who they recently coveted before sending him to LA in the Blake Griffin deal.

As Detroit continues to involve promising rookies like Khyri Thomas and Bruce Brown into their rotation, there are even more players on their roster who could become expendable like Ish Smith (expiring) or former Knick, Langston Galloway; although both of them are key members of the Piston’s rotation now. Worth a preliminary phone call to see what they’d be open to down the road.

9. What about Tax Teams and Title Contenders?

Finally, a team who reasoned that acquiring Lee could put them over the top might consider making a win-now move at the cost of future cap spending. These teams might include the Thunder, Rockets, Celtics, Sixers, Raptors, Bucks or Warriors.

It’s tricky. The Celtics, Warriors, and Sixers are all playing in two competitive time zones, now and in the future. Philly has shot down any rumors of interest in Lee in the past. Maybe a call to see if that’s changed now that Markelle Fultz and Ntilikina might be in play?

The Bucks don’t have much in terms of cap-relief (a deal involving Matthew Dellavedova would only save NY a few million dollars). The Thunder do have one fit in a move for Alex Abrines and Raymond Felton, but major tax issues to address. The Rockets are always creative enough to give a call to as one of the teams who value Lee’s skill-set the most. But because Brandon Knight has two years remaining on his contract, it’s hard to find deals that work.

Because many of the deals in this article cannot even happen before December 15th and January 15th, anyway, it gives Lee a chance to prove he is healthy and rehabilitate his trade value, while giving the laws of attrition a chance to thin out some rosters as injuries have a way of creating new market needs.