Why the Knicks should trade Noah Vonleh

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.

Noah Vonleh, the Giannis stopper

Ok, so nobody stops Giannis Antetokounmpo, but Noah Vonleh has done a pretty good job of slowing him down over the four games the Knicks have played Milwaukee this season.

You might ask how this is possible considering the MVP candidate is still averaging 31.3 points on 52.9% shooting vs New York?

  • What the stats say: Giannis is shooting 52.1% on possessions he is guarded by Vonleh, who has defended him more than any other defender in the league. This is a drop from the 58.1% he shoots vs everyone else. Vonleh has also forced 7 turnovers and blocked 3 shots. He might not be shutting him down, but he is making a difference on the defensive end. [NBA.com/stats]
  • Why this could matter: Noah Vonleh is a free agent after this season and the Knicks don’t hold any Bird rights to sign him to a significant deal over the cap. If the team wants to preserve cap space to chase a star, it might be difficult to keep him in New York. However, before worrying about what happens in July, they could look to acquire extra assets from an Eastern Conference playoff team looking for someone they can put on Giannis in key situations. The Knicks could always trade him as a rental and bring him back over the summer, but with more assets to show for it.

Noah Vonleh: The Perfect Backup Plan or a Genuine Trade Asset?

Remember the Knicks 2009-10 season? That was a fun year, if your definition of fun is getting a paper cut between your fingers, turning full speed into a closed door or accidentally pouring breast milk in your morning coffee1.

That season was 82 games worth of a windy, December morning spent waiting on an LIRR platform for a train that probably wasn’t coming. We were graced with a hot cup of coffee and a doughnut in the form of New York’s two most recent draft picks still on the team, Danilo Gallinari and Wilson Chandler, but little else.

There were some other minor bright spots. David Lee was an All-Star that season, but also entering free agency. He wasn’t someone who profiled as a core piece on a winning team even before the defensive revolution his own injury helped spur years later. Nate Robinson was always good for a night now and again, and I’ll admit it was cool seeing T-Mac in a Knicks uniform at first, but that was about it.

The rest of the roster was filled with assorted basketball muppets of all shapes and sizes. Al Harrington, Larry Hughes, Eddie House, Jonathan Bender, Eddy Curry and Darko Milicic probably shouldn’t have been on any team by 2010, let alone all on the same team. How Mike D’Antoni didn’t lose his mind is a minor miracle.

Sure enough, after the Knicks first, second and third choices in free agency all kowtowed to Pat Riley’s ringz, they were left with the Avocado that was just a liiiiiittle bit too soft but surely would be fine once you opened it up. As for the rest of the roster, Donnie Walsh had to pivot into “oh, shit!” mode once he realized that Amare Stoudemire, Chandler and Gallo, by themselves, probably wouldn’t have a great shot of coming out of the East.

All in all, they did fine, inking Ray Felton and turning Landry Fields from a second round pick to an 81-game starter. But with no foundation to fall back on, D’Antoni ran STAT into the ground just to keep the team’s head above water. We know what eventually happened.

It’s the reason I cringe whenever someone laments putting serious developmental time into players on the current roster who aren’t inked past this season. Granted, there’s a real, honest to goodness young core here (with another pick on the way) plus a young star in tow, both of which make 2019 very different from 2010.

Still, the organization has made it abundantly clear they want to attain a certain amount of respectability next season. The kids will all be better a year from now, but if KD says “no way,” the young core alone won’t be enough to get them there. In such a scenario, the Knicks could feel forced into the position of having to sign a Tobias Harris or a Kemba Walker to max money just to save face.

That, in short, would be a disaster. We’re the Knicks, dammit…let’s have higher standards than becoming the Joe Johnson Hawks.

There is a perfect middle ground available though: bringing back guys like Vonleh and Mudiay on one-year overpays2, reap the continuity rewards, and either take another swing in free agency in 2020 or (more likely) wait for the next star who demands a trade to become available. That version of the Knicks would be a playoff team. More importantly, it would show Kristaps that the organization really does have the patience to “build this thing the right way” and no longer jumps at the first shinny object.

The way he’s played this season, Vonleh might be the key to such a backup plan working.

You barely need two hands to count the number of bigs in the league today who can credibly switch one through five and knock down 3-pointers at an efficient rate.

As of December 13, Vonleh was 37th in ESPN’s Real Plus Minus rankings, and while that statistic is by no means dispositive, it’s telling that he is the only Knick with a positive rating 3. We are deep enough into the season that the 3-point shooting is real, even if it’s not 45 percent-real. His defense jumps off the screen.

So yeah…he’s been more than worth the gamble on his non-guaranteed contract. The only problem now is that Vonleh’s strong play may increase his summer asking price to the point that a big one-year deal might not cut it. If the Knicks really do have their eye on the prize, they may not want to give multiple years to Vonleh and jeopardize max space for 2020 or beyond. For this simple reason, it might be time to start gauging the market.

As with any player, it comes down to what you can get in return. There are two lines of thinking here: either the Knicks can move him in exchange for an asset by itself, or use him to unload unwanted salary (read: Courtney Lee4).

Let’s take the latter first. Spencer Dinwiddie’s contract extension from Friday was further proof that Lee, on his current deal, is a net negative asset. Even assuming he gets back to being the player we saw at the beginning of last season, that’s not someone anyone would be rushing to pay $12.7 million5 in 2019-20 (for proof, just look at the deals J.J.Redick, Tyreke Evans and Wayne Ellington got this summer. All are better overall players than Lee).

New York needs to find a very particular trade partner: a) a playoff contender that b) doesn’t care about cap space this summer and c) has the requisite expiring salary to make a deal work6 and for whom d) both Lee and Vonleh would play meaningful minutes.

Memphis is the most obvious example. The Grizzlies could send back David Fizdale-favorite JaMychal Green, along with MarShon Brooks, Wayne Selden and Omri Casspi to make the money work. While Lee would take up the little bit of cap space they would’ve otherwise had come July, the trade would likely open up their full midlevel exception. That figures to be about what they would’ve had to spend anyway if they did nothing. It really comes down to how much they value Lee and Vonleh as players.

The Pelicans could also make sense, sending back Wesley Johnson, Cheick Diallo and Andrew Harrison, but they seem somewhat set in their Davis/Mirotic/Randle big man triad.

Philadelphia looms as a dark horse. They’d certainly rather maintain cap flexibility than pay Lee next year, and it’s possible no prospective deal would jeopardize that. Still, Joel Embiid is averaging nearly 35 minutes a night and the Sixers are hemorrhaging points when Amir Johnson gets in the game as his backup. Vonleh is a natural replacement for those minutes, and could even play alongside Embiid at times. They also clearly need another shooter, so it’s not like Lee would be useless.

That about does it for “attachment” trades. The other option is moving Vonleh straight up for an asset, likely a draft pick. Reading the market from the past few years, players of Vonleh’s caliber might net a low and/or heavily protected first-rounder…but only if the team getting the pick also takes back between $10 and $20 million in bad salary7. Spoiler alert: the Knicks are not going to do this.

A second rounder, on the other hand, is possible. As we’re currently seeing with Damyean Dotson and Mitchell Robinson, such picks are anything but throwaways. They could also be used to grease the skids on a separate Lee deal, if not now, then in the summer.

Philly is once again a team of note here, as they currently own not one, but two of the Knicks next three second rounders. Of course, if the Knicks were really smart, they’d think far ahead and try to snag someone’s second rounder in 2022, currently pegged to be the “double draft” when high schoolers may once again be allowed to have their names called on the big stage.

Every option should be on the table. More than anything, the Knicks should continue to be flexible and keep an open mind. Losing Vonleh (and arguably Lee) would undoubtedly make their team worse. Depending on where you lie on the “winning helps build culture” scale vs the “Zion or bust” scale8, that could be a good or a bad thing.

What can’t be argued is that Vonleh and Lee’s absences would alleviate the crunch for playing time that will once again rear its ugly head once the roster is back to full health9.

At the end of the day, if a good deal presents itself, great. If not, the current path works just fine too.