Why the Knicks should trade Noah Vonleh

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When the Knicks signed Noah Vonleh last summer, it was a relatively easy decision. They knew Joakim Noah’s time on the roster was going to be short-lived, Kristaps Porzingis was hurt, and it was impossible to predict how many minutes a raw Mitchell Robinson could provide. They needed a body, they preferred someone with a little bit of experience, and Vonleh came on a non-guaranteed deal that wouldn’t impact their 2019 free agent spend plan. A perfect match.

What Noah Vonleh also presented to the Knicks was a reclamation project, something that has become a theme on their roster. He joined Trey Burke and Emmanuel Mudiay as recent lottery picks looking to rejuvenate their careers in New York. Of course, Mario Hezonja would become another player who fits this mold. Like Vonleh, he signed a one-year deal hoping he could prove he still has value in the NBA.

Both Hezonja and Vonleh signed what I like to call “prove it” deals. They faced a tight market in 2018 and knew the following summer would be flush with cap dollars. If they could prove they still had game as players who are only 23 years old, they could turn their one-year “prove it” deal into a nice payday.

The problem for the Knicks is that these one-year “prove it” deals end up helping the player more than the team.

The way the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) works, teams gain salary cap exception rights on players based on the number of consecutive years they play for the team. Since both Hezonja and Vonleh are only signed through this season, they will become non-Bird free agents in July. The Knicks can exceed the cap to re-sign them, but only by offering a very modest 20% raise over their current salary.

This is where we will transition our focus to Noah Vonleh, keeping in mind that the same principles apply to Mario Hezonja, but in a much more limited capacity since Hezonja is making more money and doesn’t offer the same potential return in the trade market right now (at least that is my educated guess).

Noah Vonleh is making only $1.6 million to play for the Knicks this season, an amount that was only recently fully guaranteed. His cap hold in July would be minuscule, only 120% of his salary, but the amount the Knicks could exceed the cap to re-sign him would be prohibitively low in trying to keep him, the same 120% amount.

This means the Knicks have found a player on the cheap who has proven he could be a valuable piece going forward, but they essentially have no advantage as the host team in trying to keep him, other than using cap space like every other team would need to do in trying to sign him away from them.

Meanwhile, Vonleh’s name is beginning to appear in trade rumors. Stefan Bondy of the New York Daily News recently confirmed what we saw in an earlier report from Sean Deveney of the Sporting News that Philadelphia might be interested in parting with a draft pick to acquire the versatile big man. A report which was later refuted.

Normally, you wouldn’t consider trading a player you found in the bargain bin, but since the Knicks don’t gain anything by keeping him on their roster for the remainder of this season, it makes sense to explore a trade.

Had the Knicks signed Vonleh with a team option for next season, this discussion would be completely different. By exercising his team option, the Knicks could have earned his Early-Bird rights by next summer, which would give them greater purchasing power in retaining him while trying to maximize the amount they are able to spend with their cap space.

Signing players to one-year “prove it” deals seems appealing, but if you don’t structure in a team option for the second season, you basically cancel out the long-term benefits of finding a diamond in the rough.

Of course, adding a team option to a one-year deal is easier said than done. Players want to give themselves a chance to “prove it” so they can make more money in the subsequent offseason. But with someone like Vonleh, who signed a non-guaranteed deal, I would have to think he would have gladly accepted guaranteed money with a team option attached.

Water under the bridge now, but all to be considered in how you maximize Vonleh as an asset going forward. Do you simply let him use New York as a jumping off point, only to let another team reap the long-term benefits? If the Knicks are truly in contention for a player like Kevin Durant, perhaps none of this matters, since they would have trouble saving the necessary cap space to re-sign him, anyway.

But if the Knicks don’t max out their cap space and they do want to re-sign Vonleh, nothing changes by trading him. He will undoubtedly command more than a 20% raise on his current salary, so the Knicks will need to use cap space to sign him whether they trade him or not.

This is why you need to trade him. You are not forfeiting any advantage in re-signing him by trading him, and you risk losing him for nothing if you don’t trade him. The Knicks made a wise decision in believing Vonleh can be a positive contributor; it would be nice if they could reap some reward for this other than the play he provides on the court during a tanking season.

Exhausting Vonleh as an asset by letting his contract run up without making a trade is simply poor asset management. It would be like purchasing a savings bond and not collecting the interest that is owed. The Knicks invested in Noah Vonleh, he has appreciated in value, and since their ability to re-sign him is not tied to whether he finishes this season in New York or not, they need to find a way to cash-in on his increased value by trading him.

For those ready to scream at the screen that the Knicks are not able to re-sign Vonleh after trading him, that is partially true, but not true at all come July. If Vonleh is traded this season, and the team that acquires him then waives him, the Knicks would be prohibited from re-signing him for the rest of this season. Come July 1, it is a new NBA season, Vonleh becomes an unrestricted free agent, and there is no rule that prevents the Knicks from inking him to a new contract.

Of course, all of this is being said from an asset management standpoint which doesn’t consider the very important factor that Vonleh is a human being with arms and legs and a working heart. Perhaps being traded by the Knicks during the season would turn him away from ever wanting to come back. We don’t know how much a trade would impact his view of the organization in terms of deciding to sign with them again in July, shall the Knicks make him an offer to come back. However, I would have to think that offering him a chance to play for a contender where he can showcase his skills, raising his market value even more, would appeal to both his competitive and financial sensibilities.

If the Knicks want to become a championship organization, it starts with little moves like this one. Sign a player to a non-guaranteed deal, let him flourish during an otherwise meaningless season, and then turn him into a future asset. The Knicks need to trade Noah Vonleh. That is not a hot-take; it is just sound asset management.

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