Noah Vonleh: The Perfect Backup Plan or a Genuine Trade Asset?

Remember the Knicks 2009-10 season? That was a fun year, if your definition of fun is getting a paper cut between your fingers, turning full speed into a closed door or accidentally pouring breast milk in your morning coffee1.

That season was 82 games worth of a windy, December morning spent waiting on an LIRR platform for a train that probably wasn’t coming. We were graced with a hot cup of coffee and a doughnut in the form of New York’s two most recent draft picks still on the team, Danilo Gallinari and Wilson Chandler, but little else.

There were some other minor bright spots. David Lee was an All-Star that season, but also entering free agency. He wasn’t someone who profiled as a core piece on a winning team even before the defensive revolution his own injury helped spur years later. Nate Robinson was always good for a night now and again, and I’ll admit it was cool seeing T-Mac in a Knicks uniform at first, but that was about it.

The rest of the roster was filled with assorted basketball muppets of all shapes and sizes. Al Harrington, Larry Hughes, Eddie House, Jonathan Bender, Eddy Curry and Darko Milicic probably shouldn’t have been on any team by 2010, let alone all on the same team. How Mike D’Antoni didn’t lose his mind is a minor miracle.

Sure enough, after the Knicks first, second and third choices in free agency all kowtowed to Pat Riley’s ringz, they were left with the Avocado that was just a liiiiiittle bit too soft but surely would be fine once you opened it up. As for the rest of the roster, Donnie Walsh had to pivot into “oh, shit!” mode once he realized that Amare Stoudemire, Chandler and Gallo, by themselves, probably wouldn’t have a great shot of coming out of the East.

All in all, they did fine, inking Ray Felton and turning Landry Fields from a second round pick to an 81-game starter. But with no foundation to fall back on, D’Antoni ran STAT into the ground just to keep the team’s head above water. We know what eventually happened.

It’s the reason I cringe whenever someone laments putting serious developmental time into players on the current roster who aren’t inked past this season. Granted, there’s a real, honest to goodness young core here (with another pick on the way) plus a young star in tow, both of which make 2019 very different from 2010.

Still, the organization has made it abundantly clear they want to attain a certain amount of respectability next season. The kids will all be better a year from now, but if KD says “no way,” the young core alone won’t be enough to get them there. In such a scenario, the Knicks could feel forced into the position of having to sign a Tobias Harris or a Kemba Walker to max money just to save face.

That, in short, would be a disaster. We’re the Knicks, dammit…let’s have higher standards than becoming the Joe Johnson Hawks.

There is a perfect middle ground available though: bringing back guys like Vonleh and Mudiay on one-year overpays2, reap the continuity rewards, and either take another swing in free agency in 2020 or (more likely) wait for the next star who demands a trade to become available. That version of the Knicks would be a playoff team. More importantly, it would show Kristaps that the organization really does have the patience to “build this thing the right way” and no longer jumps at the first shinny object.

The way he’s played this season, Vonleh might be the key to such a backup plan working.

You barely need two hands to count the number of bigs in the league today who can credibly switch one through five and knock down 3-pointers at an efficient rate.

As of December 13, Vonleh was 37th in ESPN’s Real Plus Minus rankings, and while that statistic is by no means dispositive, it’s telling that he is the only Knick with a positive rating 3. We are deep enough into the season that the 3-point shooting is real, even if it’s not 45 percent-real. His defense jumps off the screen.

So yeah…he’s been more than worth the gamble on his non-guaranteed contract. The only problem now is that Vonleh’s strong play may increase his summer asking price to the point that a big one-year deal might not cut it. If the Knicks really do have their eye on the prize, they may not want to give multiple years to Vonleh and jeopardize max space for 2020 or beyond. For this simple reason, it might be time to start gauging the market.

As with any player, it comes down to what you can get in return. There are two lines of thinking here: either the Knicks can move him in exchange for an asset by itself, or use him to unload unwanted salary (read: Courtney Lee4).

Let’s take the latter first. Spencer Dinwiddie’s contract extension from Friday was further proof that Lee, on his current deal, is a net negative asset. Even assuming he gets back to being the player we saw at the beginning of last season, that’s not someone anyone would be rushing to pay $12.7 million5 in 2019-20 (for proof, just look at the deals J.J.Redick, Tyreke Evans and Wayne Ellington got this summer. All are better overall players than Lee).

New York needs to find a very particular trade partner: a) a playoff contender that b) doesn’t care about cap space this summer and c) has the requisite expiring salary to make a deal work6 and for whom d) both Lee and Vonleh would play meaningful minutes.

Memphis is the most obvious example. The Grizzlies could send back David Fizdale-favorite JaMychal Green, along with MarShon Brooks, Wayne Selden and Omri Casspi to make the money work. While Lee would take up the little bit of cap space they would’ve otherwise had come July, the trade would likely open up their full midlevel exception. That figures to be about what they would’ve had to spend anyway if they did nothing. It really comes down to how much they value Lee and Vonleh as players.

The Pelicans could also make sense, sending back Wesley Johnson, Cheick Diallo and Andrew Harrison, but they seem somewhat set in their Davis/Mirotic/Randle big man triad.

Philadelphia looms as a dark horse. They’d certainly rather maintain cap flexibility than pay Lee next year, and it’s possible no prospective deal would jeopardize that. Still, Joel Embiid is averaging nearly 35 minutes a night and the Sixers are hemorrhaging points when Amir Johnson gets in the game as his backup. Vonleh is a natural replacement for those minutes, and could even play alongside Embiid at times. They also clearly need another shooter, so it’s not like Lee would be useless.

That about does it for “attachment” trades. The other option is moving Vonleh straight up for an asset, likely a draft pick. Reading the market from the past few years, players of Vonleh’s caliber might net a low and/or heavily protected first-rounder…but only if the team getting the pick also takes back between $10 and $20 million in bad salary7. Spoiler alert: the Knicks are not going to do this.

A second rounder, on the other hand, is possible. As we’re currently seeing with Damyean Dotson and Mitchell Robinson, such picks are anything but throwaways. They could also be used to grease the skids on a separate Lee deal, if not now, then in the summer.

Philly is once again a team of note here, as they currently own not one, but two of the Knicks next three second rounders. Of course, if the Knicks were really smart, they’d think far ahead and try to snag someone’s second rounder in 2022, currently pegged to be the “double draft” when high schoolers may once again be allowed to have their names called on the big stage.

Every option should be on the table. More than anything, the Knicks should continue to be flexible and keep an open mind. Losing Vonleh (and arguably Lee) would undoubtedly make their team worse. Depending on where you lie on the “winning helps build culture” scale vs the “Zion or bust” scale8, that could be a good or a bad thing.

What can’t be argued is that Vonleh and Lee’s absences would alleviate the crunch for playing time that will once again rear its ugly head once the roster is back to full health9.

At the end of the day, if a good deal presents itself, great. If not, the current path works just fine too.

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