In order for Anthony Davis to don the blue and orange, it’s going to take some luck, some patience, and some navigation of the weird obstacles which may arise; hurdles like accidentally winning games, CBA quirks, salary cap restrictions, negotiations with NFL people (?!) or someone the team burned a bridge with…these are all possible challenges.
But Davis might very well be the best player in the NBA over the next four years so let’s try to figure out how likely they are to get him as of today.
Step 1: land the first pick in the draft (~14%) and prepare to negotiate with football people and potential rivals
First off, if the Knicks want AD they probably have to land the first pick in the draft. The Knicks (11-47) stink and don’t appear very interested in changing that. The chances of them winding up with the best possible odds for the top pick seem high. Nate Silver’s website, 538.com projects them to be the worst team.
Don’t be fooled. That’s great, partly because of Zion Williamson. As Kevin Durant recently said, “Zion Williamson is a once-in-a-generation athlete.” We can infer that the New Orleans Pelicans may have recently felt the same way. It was reported by Frank Isola that former Pelicans’ GM Dell Demps was interested in negotiating with the Knicks in a trade for AD, but not without knowing what pick they had.
Per The Athletic:
“According to a source familiar with the talks, Demps was not prepared to trade Davis to New York before knowing where the Knicks will select in the 2019 NBA Draft….
Demps was intrigued by the idea of selecting first and possibly drafting Duke freshman Zion Williamson.”
Now that Dell Demps has been fired this may change things, but it’s unclear exactly how. The Pelicans have a very weird power structure. Not only does the President of Football Operations for the New Orleans Saints, Mickey Loomis, the cities’ football team, have the most significant voice in the Pelicans’ front office, but the team is now looking to replace Demps.
Two names that have come up are David Griffin and Mike Zarren, and Isola speculates both could have reason to prefer working with other teams besides New York; the Knicks considered hiring Griffin once before negotiations reportedly went south, and Zarren is currently Danny Ainge’s second in command in Boston and a life long Celtics fan.
Regardless of who New Orleans settles upon to steer their ship, no other projected player in this year’s draft besides Williamson has truly separated himself from the pack. So keeping in mind that the Celtics are prepared to make an “explosive offer” likely headlined by their 20-year-old phenom Jayson Tatum, New York would need all the fire-power it can muster in order to outbid Boston.
Believe it or not, another reason why it is important to land the top pick for a potential Anthony Davis trade are salary implications. Draft picks are paid on a rookie scale amount with the first pick capable of earning about $3 million more than the 5th pick. This is important (as explained in a bit) in trying to match Davis’ salary in trade (which will be over $27m come July 1st).
Step 2: CBA and salary cap hoops to leap through
Special thanks to resident cap expert Knicks Film School (aka Jeffrey Bellone)
Winning the top pick isn’t likely. Even if the Knicks tank as hard as they can, there is an 86% chance the worst team won’t wind up with the top pick because of the league’s lottery reforms designed to curb tanking.
But even if New York gets the 1st pick, there are still more hurdles to clear. Because of the Rose Rule in the CBA, the Celtics (who have the most trade assets in the league) are not allowed to officially make an offer to New Orleans until July 1st, since they already have Kyrie Irving who signed a particular type of extension. Because of this, it does not make sense for the Pelicans to trade Davis before Boston is allowed to join the fray which would force every team to raise their offers.
The Pelicans not trading Davis this February essentially ensured they will wait until Boston can jump into the bidding waters come July.
If the Knicks want to include their 2019 draft pick in a trade, they have their own timing restriction. A draft pick cannot be traded until 30 days after that player has officially signed. Some fans will remember when the Cleveland Cavaliers won the top pick in the draft in 2014 and selected Andrew Wiggins. Because it often takes several weeks to sort out the details of a player’s contract, which it did in Wiggins’ case, the official trade which sent Kevin Love to Cleveland and Wiggins to Minnesota wasn’t consummated until late August.
Now if the Knicks have a winning bid that the Pelicans love, this logistics of when the deal becomes official might not matter. But it won’t make Steve Mills or Scott Perry feel very comfortable if they agree in principle to a deal in late June or early July but have to wait until late August for it to become official.
It simply gives folks like Danny Ainge, Magic Johnson and the rest of the league more time to increase their bids and try to convince the Pelicans to put an end to a saga that will by then have dragged on for about eight months. Think: we can finish this today on July 2nd, instead of waiting until nearly training camp for the Knicks to get their ducks in a row!
If Anthony Davis is indeed a target for the Knicks in this scenario, it would give New York an incentive to get Williamson under contract as soon as possible. They can offer the max 120% salary eligible to a top overall pick (amounting ~$9.7m in year 1) which carries appeal.
But what if Williamson’s camp happens to prefer New York? After all, he did say it “would be dope” to play with Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. He could wait to see what happens in free agency and then exercise what little leverage he has by putting off signing his contract. He could indicate to the Pelicans an unwillingness to play there.
For New Orleans, the specter of a lengthy summer-long trade process for a player who may be less than overjoyed to come could be a deterrent. Conversely, it has been rumored that Jayson Tatum, for example, would not mind being traded to the Pelicans.
Acquiring Zion should carry tremendous appeal for New Orleans. Described by many experts as the top prospect since Davis himself, signing Zion would mitigate some of the sting of losing Davis. Being able to get a player of that caliber under team control for likely 7 years (perhaps two more than Tatum, who will be a 3rd year player next season) after extension, in addition to the slew of young Knicks’ prospects (who’d need to be kicked in just to make the contracts match) should be very tempting. The Knicks could legitimately contend with the best offers from around the league in this scenario, a marvel in itself.
OK hypothetically, if the Knicks win the draft lottery, and if they wanted to trade their pick and if New Orleans prefers their offer to that of 28 other teams how might this shake out?
Just for fun, let’s assume the Knicks will have spent all of their cap-space long before a deal actually takes place. That’s likely if the Knicks win the top pick and are open to trading it. Let’s say they can get Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving to join them.
(That’s obviously what’s being discussed here at the All-Star Game right?)
The timing of signing two max players like Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving is important. The Knicks are projected to have just enough cap space to get a 10+ year veteran max and 7-9 year veteran max under contract. If they were to trade for Anthony Davis before signing these two max players, they would no longer have the requisite space to make the signings.
The reason the Knicks can entertain the idea of adding a player like Davis on top of two max players is because they can trade salary on their books to take back more salary (in this case, 125% of the outgoing salary).
So with Davis due to earn $27 million in 2019, New York would need to send out at least $21.6m in salary. Or another way to look at it: they only have to use $21.6 million in cap space instead of being required to have the full $27 million available if Davis were signing as a free agent or being absorbed into cap space in a trade.
The problem is that since the Knicks have cleared most of their roster to make space to sign two max players, the existing salary on the books available to trade is limited.
However, if they packaged Frank Ntilikina, Dennis Smith Jr., and Kevin Knox together, they would have $13.7 million in aggregate salary. This is where the lottery pick becomes important. The rookie salary for the top pick at 120% of scale is $9.7 million, or just enough to push the Knicks over the $21.6 million threshold needed to make the salaries work in acquiring Davis.
Mitchell Robinson’s salary isn’t quite high enough to swap in for any one of the other young players, although he has played well enough lately it seems likely the Pelicans would insist upon including him as well.
Future draft picks don’t count against the cap next season so you can’t substitute those in for a young player but you can include them as well. To top Boston or Los Angeles or a surprise bidder, the Knicks may also have to include a future draft asset or three, although New York could potentially enjoy more assurances they’d be able to re-sign Davis in 2020 than at least Boston, per reports of Davis’ preferences.
Then New York would be looking at minimum roster charges and a ~$5 million Room Exception to fill out the rest of the roster. They could decide to bring back Allonzo Trier using the Room Exception, and sign Damyean Dotson to a minimum deal similar to what he would be earning if the team just guarantees his contract.
The rest of the roster would be thin, although it wouldn’t be surprising if a core of Durant, Irving, and Davis attracted every cheap, savvy “ring-chasing” veteran in free agency or next winter’s buyout market to help flesh out the team’s depth.
What are the chances?
Let’s boil this down to a number.
There’s the great chance the Knicks won’t get the top pick. The slim chance they win the lottery but won’t want to trade it away (maybe Kevin Durant comes and would prefer to play with Zion and all the young guys or maybe he stays in Golden State and the Knicks refuse to part with Zion). There is the solid chance that another team simply blows the Knicks’ offer out of the water and the unknown chance that New Orleans wants a swift resolution that a deal with New York would preclude.
All in all, I’d ballpark the chances of the Knicks trading for Anthony Davis somewhere around 5 to 7 percent as of today.
The odds will probably rocket up towards 40 percent or more if they win the lottery come this May depending on things like how much the Pelicans’ future GM loves Zion, if any other college players step up, what happens in free agency, or a player potentially involved in the trade gets seriously hurt.
It really comes down to the lottery. If the Knicks don’t win the lottery, they probably don’t have the best offer to convince New Orleans to complete a deal. They also would struggle to meet the salary matching requirements if they fall out of the top 2 in the draft.
To win a title in the NBA, you need to hit on some long-shot odds more than once. Having a 14% chance at Zion Williamson, possibly landing guys like Kevin Durant, and then navigating CBA hurdles or negotiating on the phone with some folks who may be more interested in football than hoops… that could be the path to restoring the Knicks to glory.
Imagine? You get to tell your grandkids that Steve Mills made a trade with an NFL team President for Anthony Davis, future Finals MVP of the New York Knicks.
Having a six or seven percent shot at Anthony Davis is a heck of a lot better odds than fans in say, Charlotte or Detroit will ever have. New York is still a cool city players truly seem to want to play in, and even with lottery reform, it still just might pay big to avoid winning games.
Now they’ll have to keep losing, get lucky, and be patient while jumping over some weird hurdles and parting with all of their young guys to bring The Brow to Broadway by August.