How can the Knicks land a franchise cornerstone?

Some moons ago on a podcast, Jon and I discussed whether or not the Knicks should trade for Brandon Ingram. While we may have disagreed on whether to trade for Ingram or not, what we did agree upon was that it would take quite a bit to acquire Ingram, and that he has the potential to be an excellent wing. The trouble is that, as good as he is, he’s unlikely to become a top-10 player in the NBA.

The conversation got me thinking: How can the Knicks get a top-10 player that aligns with their long term vision? What can the team do differently compared with the last time they acquired a top-10 player in a trade in Carmelo Anthony?

Over the last 30 seasons, only two championship teams have lacked a top-eight MVP finisher that season: the 2013-14 San Antonio Spurs and the 2018-19 Toronto Raptors. Notice a similarity? Both teams employed Kawhi Leonard. The Knicks have had one top-eight MVP finisher since the 1997-98 season and that was Carmelo Anthony in 2012-13. New York had its best season of the new millennium that year and finished tied for the best offensive rating in franchise history. A top-10 player having a top-eight season, and preferably for more than one year, is crucial to a team’s success.

The MVP doesn’t always go to the most-deserving player but this isn’t about winning an MVP award. No, this is about having someone playing at an elite level, specifically on the Knicks, for more than one season. One person’s top 10 can be different from another person’s. What’s more, that list can change from season to season. For example, LeBron James is one of the 10 best players right now but may not be one in a season or two. What’s important for the Knicks is acquiring a player who will be elite moving forward, as opposed to one who is set to decline. 

So I took a look at the three ways for the Knicks to obtain elite talent in the NBA: the draft, free agency, and the trade market. I then analyzed the challenges involved with each. Top talent doesn’t come easily but with the right scouting, development, creativity, patience, and luck, the Knicks can get a franchise player.

Draft

The draft is New York’s best way to find high-upside, low-cost talent. It’s a comfort to know that the Knicks will either do poorly during the season and have a good pick or have a bad pick because they’ve done well during the year. The Knicks have a surplus of first round picks and are extremely likely to finish with a bottom-10 record for the sixth year in a row. What’s more is that the Knicks will have two future first round picks in 2021 and 2023 from the Dallas Mavericks and will have two early second round picks in 2020 and 2021 from the Charlotte Hornets. All of that’s fantastic from an asset management standpoint. 

New York has yielded mixed results in the last five drafts: Kristaps Porzingis, Frank Ntilikina, Damyean Dotson, Kevin Knox, Mitchell Robinson, RJ Barrett, and Ignas Brazdeikis. These players range from 15th man to bench player to starter to All-Star. The two best players of the bunch, Porzingis and Barrett, are former top-five picks. Coincidence? Absolutely not. It’s why if the Knicks are going to continue going for upside, they should look for even higher upside with the top-five. In fact, here’s a shameless plug about the importance of having multiple top-five picks on an NBA roster.

There is talent all over the board but elite talent, historically speaking, is concentrated at the top. Lucking into a top-five pick, especially if it’s the first pick, is not the only way to find a game changer, but it’s a tried and true method. And if you’re a top executive in the front office, and you love a player you can get later in the lottery, your high pick can be used to acquire another asset in a trade down. However it’s done, the team must then develop players properly. 

If Luka Doncic can become an MVP front-runner in his second year in the NBA, it’s certainly possible for the next few draft classes to feature an elite talent right away. It’s up to New York to be in position to draft that type of player, or trade for that player on draft day, before that player’s value skyrockets to the point where his team wouldn’t give him up for anything.

Free Agency

Let me preface this section by stating that after this past summer, you probably don’t want to hear about future free agencies. In order to best assess the direction and potential return(s) of this year’s trade deadline, we need to keep free agency in mind. We must do this, not because we should have high hopes, but because it’s still an important way to obtain talent. After all, every big name is under contract through summer 2024 at the latest.

If New York’s previous summer was any indication, preserving cap space for unrestricted, superstar free agents is dearly important to this front office. The team could have thrown a max offer at a player like Kemba Walker or Tobias Harris, and while both are quite good and neither may have signed anyway, neither projects as a top 10 NBA player moving forward.

There’s only one definitive, game-changing player in the prime of his career who is worthy of a max contract in 2021 and that’s Giannis Antetokounmpo 1. I’ve stopped pretending I know the motives behind superstars who have left their respective teams. For Antetokounmpo, however, his comments reflect that he wants to win more than anything. Will the Knicks offer Antetokounmpo the best path to a championship for the 2021-22 season and beyond? Maybe the beyond part, but barring a massive turnaround or trade, they’re unlikely to get their shit together before Antetokounmpo enters free agency. Life could absolutely change in a season but teams like the Milwaukee Bucks, Toronto Raptors, Miami Heat, and Dallas Mavericks can all offer Antetokounmpo a max contract in 2021 and are head and shoulders above the Knicks. When deciding on a team, consistent winning probably goes farther with Antetokounmpo than slow but (hopefully) steady progression. 

That brings us to 2022, which features… not a single unrestricted star worth signing to a max deal. A 33-year old James Harden and a 34-year old Stephen Curry aren’t targets that make sense. They’re top players now but are they worthy of long term deals when they’re in their mid-30s? Certainly not. So what we’re looking at is one potential star free agent in Antetokounmpo who could look to leave his current team over the next three summers, with better teams having a significant leg up on the Knicks.

2023 has Nikola Jokic, Joel Embiid, and Bradley Beal. Jokic is the best passing big man we’ve ever seen and he’ll be 28 years old. His conditioning isn’t great, and while he hasn’t suffered any significant injuries, big men tend to not age gracefully. Nevertheless, he’s really goddamn good, at least right now. We must take into account why Jokic leaves an uber-talented team in Denver, let alone for the Knicks? Next we have Joel Embiid, who will be 29. He’s shown durability over the last couple years but he still has an injury history and the next three years will provide a clearer answer. And finally, as good as Beal is, he’s not one of the 10 best players in the NBA. Paying him a 35% max contract for his age 30-33 seasons makes the most sense if you already have a better player than him on your roster. Given the Knicks’ shooting woes, it’s hard to say “They don’t need him.” His play will age well because of his pull-up game, he’s fantastic on the catch-and-shoot, and he’s been a solid passer and playmaker, but is what he’ll give truly that of an A1 player? Does the ceiling get raised that much with Beal?

And finally, 2024 features Karl-Anthony Towns, Devin Booker, Jamal Murray, and Pascal Siakam. KAT and Booker will be 29 and 28 for the 2024-25 season, respectively. Both could be top-10 players years before hitting free agency2. An argument could even be made for Siakam, 30, because of how his two-way play continues to improve. Then there’s Murray, who at 28 the following season is less likely to elevate his game to that level.

Now consider a few facts:

  1. The 2021 thru 2024 seasons are far away and anything can happen.
  2. The stars in free agency have to want to sign with the Knicks.
  3. Barring any trades, every young Knick currently on the roster and expected to remain long term either needs to be paid, traded, or will have a high cap hold between now and 2024. That’s important in regards to cap space.

So if the unrestricted free agent market doesn’t work, the Knicks should look towards the restricted market. The problems that exist are:

  1. Teams are likely to sign their young stars to extensions.
  2. Teams are extremely likely to match any offer sheet extended to their stars by other teams if an extension was not previously agreed upon with said stars.
  3. Players who aren’t stars, and whose offer sheets aren’t matched, are often overpaid.

The 2020 restricted free agent market features Ingram and Bogdan Bogdanovic. 2021 has Donovan Mitchell, John Collins, Lauri Markkanen, and Jonathan Isaac. 2022 has Luka Doncic, Trae Young, DeAndre Ayton, Jaren Jackson Jr., and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. And finally, 2023 has Zion Williamson, Ja Morant, Rui Hachimura, and Tyler Herro.

Now ask yourself, how many of those players are potential top-10 NBA talents and would not have their rights matched if they even made it to free agency? Next, think about how many would sign their qualifying offers to become unrestricted free agents in the following summer. It’s incredibly uncommon, with the last big name player to do it being Greg Monroe in 2014.

So if you’re looking to add elite talent other than through the draft, but can’t sign unrestricted superstars who make sense, and you struggle signing restricted stars, you have one other option available to you.

Trade

It’s been quite some time since the Knicks made what we can definitively say is a winning trade, let alone for a star. New York has had the habit of buying high and selling low on the trade front over the last decade. The team’s most franchise-altering trades have either led to increasing cap space for top free agents who never came (2010, 2016, and 2019) or trading too much for a star (2011).

There will always be a star who becomes available but we must wonder aloud if that star is truly worth the haul. And while a player can demand a trade, his team is under no obligation to meet that demand. It was reported by Marc Berman that the Knicks are monitoring the situation with Karl-Anthony Towns. The big man could ask to be traded tomorrow and the Minnesota Timberwolves could say no and leave it at that, since Towns is signed until 2024. For the sake of it all though, let’s use Towns as a possible target, merely as an example.

If the Knicks want to trade for a star in the future, they’ll need to part with assets. Most of New York’s best assets are draft picks, yet the picks worth the most occur throughout the next two drafts. Here’s a visual representation of the Knicks’ future draft assets, courtesy of Early Bird Rights:

Assuming the Mavericks’ protected pick conveys in 2023, the Knicks will only have their own picks from 2024 onwards. If the Knicks want to wait until Antetokounmpo is a free agent and then try to pair him with a star acquired via trade like Towns in 2021, the team’s most valuable draft picks will have already been conveyed. I say that because the hope/belief is that the Knicks are not a bottom-five team after the 2020-21 season concludes, with or without Antetokounmpo or Towns.

That means New York would need to deal from the players that the team is developing or recently drafted. Teams tend to prefer picks over players because picks can be anything and their rookie clocks haven’t started ticking yet, whereas specific players already drafted are, well, not interchangeable. New York must hope that the acquiring team is comfortable with mostly taking players over picks. That is, of course, assuming the Knicks aren’t acquiring additional future assets this season that they would then flip.

Rumor has it that the Knicks front office is adamant about keeping Robinson and Barrett. I would imagine that could change if Towns is not only available but if the Knicks make a competitive offer for him. Any offer for Towns likely starts and ends with one (if not both) of Robinson and Barrett, so it appears unlikely the Knicks make that move this year or next anyway.

The front office could also receive more assets in the trade market by taking on bad salary. Your best players are on their rookie scale contracts. Instead of signing free agents who don’t fit cohesively and then trading them if all else fails, the team could take on bad salary, keep the player(s) if they want, and embrace the asset(s). 

A few rhetorical questions though: 

  1. Does this front office even want to take on salary that doesn’t expire?
  2. Does James Dolan allow the front office to trade for non-expiring salary, knowing the front office could be gone and the next executive might not want to operate with salary that’s effectively dead?
  3. Would teams be willing to give up very much since the 2020 free agent market sucks? 

What’s more, is there really that much of an incentive for the Timberwolves to trade assets to rid themselves of Gorgui Dieng? How about Steven Adams and the Oklahoma City Thunder? Or Dion Waiters, James Johnson, and the Heat? Then you look at the more onerous contracts to evaluate this summer, like those of Chris Paul (two years, $85,569,960 remaining), Eric Bledsoe (three years, $54,375,000 remaining), and John Wall (three years, $132,932,520 remaining). If you’re the Knicks, and there’s a high likelihood you strike out in free agency in 2020, 2021, and have no one worth signing in 2022, there’s little harm in taking on salary dumps for future picks… right? Well, no, there is potential harm. Yet judging by how scarce the market is over the next few seasons, the risk is somewhat mitigated.

So where do the Knicks go from here?

As things stand, the Knicks lack a true superstar to build around. The positives are a young core looking to develop with time, another possible top-five draft pick this year, a surplus of first round picks over the next four drafts, and more than enough cap space to operate efficiently. Yet without that key player, the Knicks’ ceiling is currently quite low.

It seems that the Knicks have to give up assets to acquire stars because they have had trouble developing their own talent while they’re on affordable contracts. Free agency did not go as fans may have planned and it’s also hard to gauge the trade market in advance. After all, who among us would have thought this time last year that Porzingis would be traded in a few weeks?

The Detroit Pistons are a blueprint for a team the Knicks don’t want to become. Since 2010, the Pistons have picked seventh, eighth, ninth, eighth, ninth (traded), eighth, 18th, 12th, 12th (traded), and 15th. Detroit lowered its ceiling by locking itself into long term contracts with a limited young talent pool.

I say the Pistons are a blueprint on what to avoid but the reality is the team the Knicks should not want to emulate is themselves. Since 2010, the Knicks have drafted ninth (traded), 17th, 16th (traded), 24th, 12th (traded), fourth, ninth (traded), eighth, ninth, and third. New York, of course, later traded the player they drafted fourth overall. And for years, New York also lowered its ceiling by signing players to long term contracts with a limited young talent pool.

We’ve established that New York’s best tradable assets, the first round picks, have a more unfortunate expiration date than desired. The best way to help this is by acquiring more picks for further down the road. Therefore, the next logical step would be dealing players of win-now value before the trade deadline. If the front office feels a change could come sooner rather than later, they may try to secure picks that convey closer to the present (2020, 2021) than down the road (2022 and beyond). Why? Because if Mills and Perry feel they could be there for this year’s draft but not one two to three years down the line, they’d prefer to make the picks than have someone else capitalize on their achievements.

This is why trading win-now players for picks is a must, preferably with the date of conveyance being 2022 and beyond. Anything earlier is still a success but those 2020 or 2021 assets could be a bit harder to flip, seeing as how a star is more likely to be traded towards the end of his deal. As we know, with the more attainable stars having their contracts end in 2023 or beyond, teams have time to try and get their acts together before trading away their franchise players. 

New York can’t depend on the draft, because while the enigma and potential of prospects and projects can inspire hope, the last four players the Knicks have drafted in the first round all have a field goal percentage of 40% or worse this season3. The Knicks cannot rely on finding a savior in free agency because history tells us that’s highly unlikely for this franchise and the projected talent pool is more limited than one may think. And lastly, this front office does not have a great track record when it comes to trades, which is discouraging to say the least.

The Knicks, therefore, must collect future assets and use them, mainly once the opportunity arises for them to trade up in the draft or trade for an established star. The cost of trading assets to move up in the draft is less than what it costs to acquire a star because the risk is higher. The Knicks should take risks, albeit calculated ones. Asset accumulation should be the plan to get an elite player down the line, especially if the Knicks look to make a playoff push next year in the hope of attracting Antetokounmpo, as futile as that may feel. And if/when that doesn’t work out, the team has more assets to fall back on than it did this past summer.

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