What to make of the Knicks reportedly shopping Tim Hardaway Jr and Courtney Lee

So news came out yesterday confirming what we learned last week from Mike Vorkunov that the Knicks are officially in the selling business with the trade deadline approaching.

Well, I use the term “news” loosely. That the Knicks would be thrilled to unload Courtney Lee has been an open secret since the summertime. Ditto for Enes Kanter, or at least it has been since he had his first hissy fit playing time reduced starting last month.

The minor revelation is that New York would also be happy to unload their $71 million man, Tim Hardaway Jr.

There’s been speculation that despite his subpar play of late and the overall holes in his game (see: his 115.2 defensive rating, second worst on the team, and a .475 eFG%), because Steve Mills is still in charge, he’d be hesitant to get rid of the man he signed just 18 months ago.

So much for sentimentality. The only question now is how desperate they are to move him. If noted Knicks critic and KFS Podcast alum Howard Beck is to be believed, perhaps very much so:

It doesn’t take much reading between the lines to guess that New York has at least had conversations with opposing front offices about some young players on their team.

This is neither a bad thing nor a surprise. Everyone in the league is gauging interest on their own roster right around now; to not do so would be malpractice, because you never know what someone will be eager to overpay for.

That said, the news is both encouraging and concerning.

On the bright side, the idea that the organization isn’t married to an undoubtedly flawed player just because he was signed by the guy running the show is a promising sign. It shows that they’re able to fairly, and I would argue, accurately, assess their own players. That’s good.

On the downside, the fact that they’re potentially namedropping a guy like Frank Ntilikina is a trigger for any Knicks fan who’s been around for a while. Regardless of your personal opinions on Ntilikina, attaching him to dump Hardaway would be terrible optics. A reminder:

To then include the player they drafted to ostensibly replace Rose as the tax of unloading Timmy could potentially cause the universe to implode, or at least what’s left of my soul. It would be a trade package sealed with “LOL Knicks” packing tape if there ever was one.

Does it mean it would be the wrong move? Of course not…if the Knicks co-opt the deal by offloading Courtney Lee in a separate transaction and then sign Kevin Durant and Superstar Sidekick X this summer, there will be a parade thrown for Perry & Mills, and justifiably so.

That, of course, is a long way off, and unless the Knicks know something about the thinking of Mr. Durant that we don’t (something that can’t be ruled out, but by all indications seems incredibly unlikely), attaching either Frank, Mitchell Robinson or a future first round pick to dump Hardaway Jr. would represent terrible process. That’s because, worst case scenario, such a deal would be available in the summer, at which point they’d know who wants to take their money and who doesn’t.

To those who say “the price will only go up if they wait,” that’s not really how it works. If Kevin Durant decides that he’s coming to New York, Kevin Durant is coming to New York. If the Knicks needed to waive and stretch Courtney Lee as a last resort to open up the space to make that happen, they’d do it in a heartbeat. That this option exists would be a signal to other teams that, hey, if we can get Lee’s expiring (or Timmy, if that’s their pleasure) and pick up a future second round pick in the process – or at worst, a protected 2020 first rounder – we might as well do it.

The only potentially rational thinking behind attaching a legitimate asset or assets to move Tim or Lee now would be if you could unload both before the deadline.

This would be a giant red flare into the sky above the NBA that two SuperFriends could come to the Garden at once, or at least one Superstar and a very nice sidekick (see the tweet below on why it would be difficult to add a max player next to Durant). This type of maneuvering might not be as easy to pull off in one fell swoop1 once July is already underway.

Oh, wait a minute…we saw that story before, in 2010, when Donny Walsh attached Jordan Hill and a future first to unload Jarred Jeffries at the deadline so the Knicks could make a play for two max guys that summer.

We know what happened next: one (semi) big guy took New York’s money, and the rest was spent on Raymond Felton and various roster flotsam that made New York just “meh” enough for Carmelo Anthony to demand a trade here.

The lesson learned is this: once you make an all-in move to attach a first or a promising  young player (or in that case, both), you’ve set your course. There is no pivoting. You are officially in “win now” mode, and it has the domino effect of, well…mortgaging the farm to bring in a guy like Carmelo Anthony.

That type of thinking might not bite you in the ass right away – neither Hill nor Royce White2 ever amounted to much – but it will eventually. Chandler was a fine player. Gallo was more than fine. And Dario Saric and Jamal Murray – a 21-year-old borderline All-Star – are much, much more than fine.

Sure, you can point to the overpay for Melo as the point where that whole process went to shit and say “we’ll be smarter this time,” but the time to start being smarter is now. With a high pick coming in the draft and an All-Star on the mend, the Knicks don’t need to go “all in.” They have options, including rolling over the cap space to 2020 or simply waiting for the next star who demands a trade.

There’s only one, last, tiny little caveat: we have no idea what has been said between the organization and Kristaps Porzingis…what promises were made, what allusions he’s under…nothing. There’s a very real possibility that he’s not putting his name on a five-year max until he sees a roster that’s ready to kick the rebuild into high gear, and will instead opt to sign a 3+1 offer sheet elsewhere if the Knicks don’t land a major player (read: Durant, Kawhi or Kyrie) this summer. Of course, the Knicks could match such an offer, and there are financial reasons why KP might want to sign a bridge deal until he is a 7-9 year free agent, anyway, but something to consider.

Either way, should KP’s contract situation change the team’s approach at the deadline? You could argue yes, but then again, should the organization lay beholden to a player that isn’t bought into a potential long-term vision? Would they, in such a scenario, be better off kicking the rebuild in reverse, signing and trading KP for more young players and/or draft assets, and further decelerating the timeline?

I’m all for good process, but I’m also a realist, and I don’t think anyone inside MSG has the stomach for that.

So where does that leave us? My gut feeling: the front office is fully aware that they’d get killed for a straight salary dump in which they attach either Frank or a future protected first to get out from under the remaining years and dollars owed to Hardaway Jr. This is also something the Knicks have stated on the record that they are not looking to do, as was confirmed in reporting as recently as yesterday.

My prediction: they will scour the landscape for trades involving their unwanted players and one of their young and/or draft assets, but will only accept a deal that will net them a “face-saving” player or pick in return.

For example (and I am not pitching this trade, or even suggesting it should be considered): Tim Hardaway Jr., Frank Ntilikina and one of the Hornets’ second rounders for Jabari Parker and Kris Dunn. The Bulls get an upgrade in their perpetual revolving door of young point guards and get to take a flier on Tim, which shouldn’t matter as much because they don’t figure to be a free agent buyer any time soon.

The Knicks, meanwhile, would get to sell the deal as them getting to take a free look at a talented, high pedigree player in need of reclamation (sound familiar?) in Parker, who they would then likely drop like a hat to free up cap space in the summer. BUT, they also get to wave a “see, we got a young asset back in the deal!” token piece in Dunn.

Should they do this? No. Would they? I hope not. But that’s the type of deal you’d be looking at.

Unless…they can finagle something that would require a bit of wizardry but for which the payoff could be huge. Such a deal would be a 3-teamer involving one of the few teams who are:

  • desperate to make the playoffs this year
  • not free-agent destinations, and
  • have no cap space for the foreseeable future

All of these factors combined equates to someone who would be willing to take the risk on the incredibly high-variance player that is Tim Hardaway Jr., and treat him as a minor asset, not an albatross.

The reason that it would need to be 3-team deal is because the only organizations that fit this mold – New Orleans, Detroit and Charlotte – don’t have the requisite expiring salary to send back in a trade.

In the Knicks perfect world, here’s how this goes: one of these teams would actually give up a nominal asset (say, Malik Monk, Stanley Johnson or Frank Jackson) to combine with smaller assets from the Knicks (say, Damyean Dotson and one of the Charlotte second-rounders), all of which would go to a team willing to take on some not-great money (say, Solomon Hill, the Langston Galloway/Jon Leuer pu pu platter, or3 Bismack Biyombo) that would then send back an expiring contract to the Knicks (some potential suitors: Jabari in Chicago, Wes Matthews in Dallas, or one of several expiring contracts in Sacramento).

Will that happen? Your guess is as good as mine. One of the aforementioned teams would not only need to think highly of Hardaway but also lack better options. That’s not a given.

I’m sure Scott is working the phones to find out if this is the case. In two weeks, we’ll know for sure. Knicks fans will be waiting to see whether they can pull a rabbit out of the hat, or if this will, indeed, be #SameOldKnicks.

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