The Godfather of Knicks Trades

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As an Italian kid who grew up in Staten Island, I have a particular affinity for The Godfather1.

Shocker, I know.

Naturally, when Bill Simmons wrote a LeBron James column breaking down the King’s then-upcoming 2010 free agency decision into Corleone brother-based categories,2, I was a fan.

Ever since then, I tend to think of prospective decisions a team can make in terms of what each Corleone brother would do in the same situation. This has often been quite painful, as I root for a franchise that has arguably made more Fredo Corleone-moves than any NBA team over the last 17 years.

Now, a mere six weeks into the season, the Knicks are getting close to their first major decision of the year, and I’m already starting to ask myself: WWMD3?

There’s a couple balls in the air here that we have to consider. The most immediate one is Allonzo Trier, who the team needs to either send to Westchester or sign to an NBA contract by approximately December 15. The latter would require the opening of a roster spot, which means that someone on the current 15-man squad would need to go.

Second, Courtney Lee is back4. It’s an open secret that the Knicks want to move his 2019-20 salary before the trade deadline. His debut vs Washington was about as you’d expect, with Lee looking rusty on offense but fairly spry on defense.

Finally, there’s Damyean Dotson and Frank Ntilikina. Reports have surfaced over the past few weeks saying teams are calling about both players, ostensibly because they’ve each had a stretch of DNP-CD’s, with Frank’s still ongoing. Dotson is signed through the rest of this season with his guarantee date for next season reportedly around July 15, or right after the major free agency decisions are made.

So let’s go through the WWMD possibilities.

First, everyone’s favorite rowboat captain, Fredo:

With a hat tip to the Post’s Marc Berman, the Fredo move is absolutely to trade for John Wall. The list of reasons not to trade for John Wall is almost too long to go through5. Luckily, thanks to a trade kicker that amounts to the Wizards shelling out approximately $21 million just to dump him, it’s almost certainly not going to happen this season, to the Knicks or any team. If it did, I imagine that at the introductory press conference, Scott Perry would remove his mask to reveal he was fooling us all along. Shaggy and Scooby are crestfallen, hilarity ensues.

Thankfully, Fredo doesn’t work here anymore. If the Knicks brass has been clear about one thing, it’s that this team would not make a halfhearted playoff push that in any way jeopardized the long game. At least we’ll always have Vegas.

Next up, Sonny:

The Sonny Corleone move is actually pretty obvious given all the parameters of the situation: package Dotson with Lee to a good team that needs wing depth in exchange for an expiring contract and maybe a middling second-round pick. Between the two of them, Lee and Dot can give a lot of teams – even good ones – 48 minutes of quality two-way play every night. Dotson is the tax you pay to get someone to give up some of their 2019 spending cash on Lee, but for Perry and Mills, you then can get up on the roof of Madison Square Garden and shout loud enough for all to hear, “WE OPENED UP ENOUGH CAP ROOM TO SIGN KEVIN DURANT! ALL HAIL CEASAR!

It makes sense on several levels. Aside from the cap space you’ve opened up, you’ve solved your roster crunch and done a solid for a veteran who deserves to play for a playoff team. You even get a nominal “future asset” to boot. There are also several possible deals out there, as our own Dave Early detailed earlier this week.

If this happens, Knicks fans shouldn’t feel like they just got caught on the wrong side of the toll-booth. The move accomplishes a purpose, and for as much as Dotson seems too good to merely be the sweetener in a Lee salary-dump, if the team is headed where it thinks it is, his presence is probably not going to wind up being a difference maker one way or the other6.

Of course, it’s not the way I would go.

You curious?

All right. Just this one time…this one time…I’ll let you ask me about my affairs.

The Michael Corleone Move

If it were me, I’d take a page out of the book of the Michael Corleone of modern-day general managers, Danny Ainge.

It’s not just that he’d trade anyone at any time to help his team; it’s that he trades guys when their value is at its highest. On the Knicks right now, no one’s perceived value is higher than Tim Hardaway Jr.

Conversations about Hardaway Jr., and specifically whether he’s worth his contract or not, never seem to come to a satisfying conclusion. At this point though, at the very least, even his detractors admit it’s not an awful deal. A fair deal? Maybe, maybe not.

On one hand, he’s one of 19 players in the NBA currently averaging at least 22 points per game. That’s not insignificant, especially when the other names on the list are All-Star caliber players. He’s also nearly doubling his career high in free throw attempts per game, which has always been the knock on him, and has become a more willing passer, netting 3.4 dimes per 36 minutes. There is still the occasional “No…no…nooooTimmywhatareyoudoing?!?!?” shot, but less so than in the past.

On the other hand, of the 19 players, his true shooting percentage is the second lowest, just edging Russell Westbrook. He also has the second worst individual net rating, topping only Zach LaVine of the hornless Bulls.

That last one shouldn’t be a surprise for someone who’s the best option on a bad team – one that is shouldering far more of an offensive load than he has any right to. Theoretically, once he’s in his natural role – a third option on offense, someone you hide on defense – his efficiency should go up quite a bit. After all, in the 759 minutes THJ shared with KP last season, the Knicks had a positive 4.1 net rating, which is borderline miraculous considering how bad that team was.

It’s also the reason you don’t salary dump him for expiring money (the Sonny move, as some have advocated), let alone attach an asset to make a trade (the Fredo move, which Bill Simmons himself advocated for on today’s podcast with Marc Stein).

Unfortunately, those look like the only options right now, because for as much as he’s had a nice season, teams are hoarding space for the Summer of Durant.

But what if Timmy wasn’t the only player you were sending out? What if you were able to attach another asset that might not be in your long term plans, but who would be just juicy enough to net something decent in return?

Enter Emmanuel Mudiay. It’s been less than a month since he went from arguably the worst point guard in the NBA to “hey, that guy might be pretty good!” and fans are already trying to figure out a way to keep him aboard for next season. Without going through all the possible machinations of how they might be able to do this (because God knows, there’s a lot of them), here’s a modest proposal: attach him to Timmy as a sweetener and up your chances of getting an honest to goodness asset back in return.

A team making a run this season might want to try out Mudiay’s services, and then they would have the option to re-sign him with his Bird rights this summer.

I know what you’re saying: Deal Burke instead! Of course you are, because you have eyes, and have watched Trey Burke play this year. Save for a handful of nice games, he’s been…not great. Mudiay, on the other hand, has been downright decent. Some team might just talk themselves into him becoming the player the Nuggets thought they were drafting with the 7th pick in 2015.

But wait…what if he actually becomes that guy, leaving the Knicks looking as silly as Denver for giving up too early? It could happen, which is exactly the reason some team might actually offer something decent or the right to find out. Coupled with Timmy – who himself could just be beginning his upswing, as we noted – you might get someone to give up something nice.

While I myself have advocated repeatedly for waiting this thing out until the summer and not worry so much about Mudiay’s cap hold or Timmy’s salary, there’s a difference between making a move because you’re scared and making one from a position of strength. It wouldn’t come without risk, but what worthwhile move is ever risk-free?

Who would make such a deal? The Pelicans are woefully short on wing depth, currently sticking with a nine-man rotation that includes Solomon Hill (26% from deep) and 28-year-old journeyman Tim Frazier. They’re also a game under .500 with no point guard for at least a month 7 and a giant, Anthony Davis-shaped clock ticking above Bourbon Street. Mudiay is the perfect uptempo point guard to fill the void until Peyton returns and then back him up (or continue starting) from there on in, while Hardaway gives them extraordinary lineup flexibility to play big or small.

A swap of Hardaway Jr. and Mudiay for Hill and Wesley Johnson works financially, and the talent upgrade would be enough for New York to demand a top-10 protected first round pick in the deal. Johnson is expiring, while Hill is on the books for $12.2 million. If the Knicks don’t move Lee, that leaves them a few million short of max space for KD this summer.

No bueno, right? Not so fast. Aside from still being able to move Lee separately in a straight salary dump in February or July, they could also attach a smaller asset – one of the Hornets second rounders from the Willy trade, perhaps – to move Hill if and when they know they’ll need the space. Absolute worst case, you stretch the last year of his salary.

Of course, if Kevin Durant doesn’t come, you can just leave Hill and Lee on the books and let them expire. In that scenario, you’d completely wipe the slate clean for 2020, aside from KP’s extension and your rookie salaries. Not factoring a possible extension for Allonzo Trier, that would equate into enough space to add a 10+ year max plus a $10-15 million sidekick, depending on where the cap eventually falls. On top of that, you’ve added another juicy draft asset in the process – one they could use themselves or deploy in a trade.

Would we miss Timmy, someone who has embraced being a leader in the locker room and worked hard to live up to a contract so many have derided? Of course. But remember: this isn’t personal.

It’s strictly business.