A calm Knicks trade deadline before the impending storm

After a slow trade deadline, the real fun for the Knicks begins in earnest. A look at where things stand now and in the immediate future.

Aside from paying two men roughly the GDP of a small island nation to not play basketball for them over the next two months, the Knicks had a quiet deadline day. We probably shouldn’t be surprised.

After making a trade that sent shock waves throughout the league, the smart money said the Knicks were going to sit tight. Why? There’s different reasons for different players that fans may have expected to be involved in a deal:

  • Wes Matthews: it wasn’t the player, but the salary. It’s not easy to move $18.6 million and only get back expiring money, which was an obvious caveat in any trade. Once Philly and Sacramento made their respective moves, no suitors with the wherewithal to make a deal were left on the market.
  • Enes Kanter: it was the player and the salary. As I wrote about here and here, there was never going to be a trade market for Kanter. Sorry.
  • Frank Ntilikina: even the most ardent Ntilikina supporters1 would have advocated seeing what was available. That said, it’s tough to imagine anything but low-ball offers for the worst shooter in the league. Orlando made an offer, but was rebuffed. It made more sense to keep him, see if he can figure it out, and get his value up above the basement level.
  • Emmanuel Mudiay: he hasn’t been good enough for a playoff contender to look at and say “he can help us.” Orlando got their reclamation project point guard in Markelle Fultz. Even if anyone has been impressed by his play, his cap hold is so large ($12 million) that it’s hard to see anyone thinking they needed to get him on the books now so they could have an advantage in re-signing him. He will be eminently gettable this offseason.
  • DeAndre Jordan: Every little bit helps.

That leaves Noah Vonleh, the one guy who fans reasonably could have expected to be on the move, especially with his name in trade rumors.

What could the Knicks have gotten for someone who would have been a fourth big on most of the better playoff squads? It’ tough to say. The team acquiring him would have been doing so purely as a rental, which is why, as JB detailed last month, the Knicks should have been looking to move him in the first place.

A look at some other deadline deals may help explain why he’s still a Knick:

  • Nikola Mirotic – a player who could potentially swing a playoff series this spring and who came equipped with full Bird rights – netted the Pelicans four second round picks, two of which are likely to end up in the last 50’s.
  • The Lakers got Mike Muscala – a better shooting, worse defending version of Vonleh – in exchange for an interesting young player in Ivaca Zubac2, who is a restricted free agent to be.
  • The Lakers also acquired 3&D maestro Reggie Bullock for a 2021 second rounder3.

Could the Knicks have gotten a second for Vonleh? Almost certainly. Would it have been a difference-making pick? That’s less likely. Was it worth keeping him around, regardless of the return? It’s a fair question to ask.

On one hand, if the Knicks want to show some semblance of cohesion over the last 29 games – and they should – Vonleh should help them do that despite his less-than-desirable advanced stats of late.

More importantly, though, we just saw the team ship out the one-time franchise cornerstone ostensibly because he didn’t want to be here. By all accounts, Noah Vonleh is a player who has not only bought in to what the Knicks are trying to build, but can attest to the effectiveness of their program as well. Scott Perry would seem to want guys like that in the building for as long as possible. When you throw in the possibility that this summer may not go according to plan, it’ll probably be easier to negotiate a short-term extension for Vonleh operating in house than from the outside.

So Vonleh remains, along with a core group of young Knicks that, as Zach Lowe astutely pointed out yesterday, may be auditioning for jobs in New Orleans as much as they are for playing time in New York next season. Fans should expect to see a healthy dose of Dennis Smith Jr. and Frank Ntilikina together in the backcourt, along with Damyean Dotson, Allonzo Trier, Mitchell Robinson and of course, Kevin Knox.

On Knox, something that hasn’t been said explicitly but seems to be an obvious reality: if Kevin Durant is here next year, Kevin Knox almost certainly won’t be. If Knox is a serviceable NBA player by next season4, it’ll be at the three, which is where Kevin Durant calls home during the regular season. Of course the two could play together, but if Durant comes, he won’t be doing so to watch Knox continue to have his growing pains. Add in the fact that, aside from their draft pick, Knox is New York’s best trade asset, and it’s tough to see a scenario where Knox isn’t the centerpiece of a trade for a veteran following Durant’s (hopeful) arrival.

There are, of course, many bridges to cross before we get to that point though.

Looking ahead…

On one hand, Kevin Durant seems to be in his own universe, and will decide his fate irrespective of anything or anyone else. He is an enigma. While the KD-to-NY whisper campaign has been in full force for months, I maintain that no one has any earthly clue what he will do, including the Knicks.

As for things outside of Durant, the domino effect will be fascinating to watch, and it all starts on May 14.

That, of course, is the night of the draft lottery, and it effects everything that happens from that moment forward. If the Knicks don’t win – and there is at least an 86% chance they won’t – then they will effectively be taken out of the Anthony Davis sweepstakes, as no package New York can offer would beat a Boston one that includes Jayson Tatum.

Losing the lottery sets up a doomsday chain of events for New York: the Celtics trade for AD at the first possible moment they can after July 1, Kyrie knows he can play the next several years of his career with a generational talent in Davis, and then decides to re-sign in Boston. At that point, does Durant even look at New York, or does he wonder if there’s anyone worth coming here to play with? It’s a very real question.

It’s also fair to ask another question – one that will be dominating NBA war rooms over the next four months: would the Celtics even include Tatum in a deal for Davis without the assurance the Brow re-signs?

If the Knicks win the lottery, that conversation is moot, as they would move to the front of the line for Davis, whether Boston is willing to include Tatum or not in their own package. At that point, they’ll be able to gather enough intel to know what a move for AD would mean in terms of who would then come in free agency. Effectively, they may not just be trading for Davis, but for Davis, Kyrie and Kevin Durant as well. Zion Williamson could pee champagne and shit excellence, but if it’s him or those three, I’m taking the latter, and so will the Knicks.

The lottery isn’t the only thing that will have a say in all this. Of the Bucks, Sixers, Celtics and Raptors, two will be going home before the conference finals. With the Bucks currently the one seed and employer of the best player in the East, it’s a very real possibility that two of Kyrie Irving, Jimmy Butler and Kawhi Leonard will be going fishing earlier than expected.

Does that change how likely it is for any of those players to re-up with their current organizations? It very well may. On the flip side, if Boston were to make it to, say, Game 6 of the NBA Finals, would that alter Kyrie’s thinking in a different way? Would it change Boston’s approach if Tatum lit it up in June? Every outcome is on the table.

The ironic part is that the team that easily has the most to lose and the most to gain from all of this will have less of a say in the ultimate outcome than any other party involved. All the Knicks can do is the one thing they’ve been pretty good at doing in a season where not much has gone right: incrementally upping the stock of the young players on the roster.

If nothing else, should May 14 and July 1 not go as New York hopes, continued improvement from the young guys will give fans something they can rest their hopes on moving forward. In that scenario, God willing, the team would continue to emphasize youth, take on some bad money for picks and/or young players, maybe invest in another distressed asset or to, and bide their time until the next big fish became available.

Who knows…maybe Boston getting AD could be the best thing in the long run, making it more likely he hits free agency in 2020, right around when the Giannis talk will start heating up.

It bears repeating: everything is on the table. This is the NBA, remember? Chaos has become the only constant there is.

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