The NBA trade deadline is two weeks away as of Thursday morning, and it feels like things will be relatively subdued this year. There’s just too much at stake this summer for anyone to get too crazy this winter. Marc Gasol and Mike Conley could move, and maybe some middle-tier team like the Pistons will try something crazy, but beyond that, it feels like we’ll get more Justin Holiday deals and less Jimmy Butler deals. Teams like the Lakers and Celtics are in a holding pattern until they see what happens with Anthony Davis in New Orleans. Their patience makes sense. And all of that brings us to the one team that has a chance to be aggressive in the middle of all this responsible behavior.
Here are three trade deadline questions for the Knicks.
1. How real are the Kevin Durant rumors? The Knicks have been linked to Durant since July. They will enter this summer with nearly enough cap space to sign KD, who’s eligible for a 10-year max contract at 35% of the salary cap. The Knicks could clear enough space to sign him by waiving and stretching Courtney Lee (due to make $12.8 million next season). But if the Knicks really think Durant is coming, or they really think they have a chance, maybe they should be more aggressive. Lee and Tim Hardaway Jr. (due $18.2 million in ’19-’20, with a $19 million player-option in ’20-’21) should be movable. Move one or both, and suddenly New York has plenty of room for KD and they could potentially maneuver their way into another star alongside him.
But how confident are the Knicks, really? If there has been any back-channel talks with Durant, what kind of help is he looking for? We’ll learn a lot more about what the Knicks are thinking—and how ambitious their summer dreams are—by how they handle the next few weeks. Teams may be willing to trade for Lee or Hardaway Jr., but it seems like a longshot that anyone would trade for either one without New York attaching an asset. The rest of the league knows New York needs to move these guys, and it’s unlikely that either attractive enough to contenders to justify the long-term salary they’d incur. Creating opportunities in July will require sacrifices. In that case…
2. Would the Knicks attach a first round draft pick to Hardaway Jr.? If they trade Hardaway Jr., this summer’s possibilities instantly become twice as interesting. On Twitter Wednesday, I came across a reminder of the haul in 2011’s Carmelo Anthony trade. As Tommy Beer tweeted, New York sent the following assets to Denver: Danilo Gallinari, Wilson Chandler, Raymond Felton, Timofey Mozgov, a 2014 first-round pick, and a 2016 first-round draft pick, and a 2012 second-round pick, and a 2013 second-round pick, and cash. And as Beer added shortly thereafter, those first-round draft picks became Dario Saric (the 2012 first) and Jamal Murray (2016). Also: the mid-2000s Eddy Curry trade was built with first-round picks that became Joakim Noah and Lamarcus Aldridge.
The point is, this a team that has committed genuine offseason atrocities. Reckless disregard for the future in service of an inevitably disappointing present has sort of been the core organizing principle for 25 years. Fans understandably have PTSD. The team has all of its future first-round picks for the next seven years, and while that would be normal for almost any other franchise, it feels like a miracle in New York.
Nobody is suggesting the Knicks trade the 2019 pick. New York is currently 10-36 after seven straight losses; the tank is going well; this June’s pick is untouchable. But if the Knicks are confident about this summer’s chances at one more superstars, attaching future picks could make it easier to move the Hardaway Jr. money. Teams like Memphis and Orlando will be rebuilding for the next few seasons anyway; taking on bad contracts in exchange for picks is a good business move for them. Or there’s Sacramento, a team that will have massive amounts of cap space next summer, but likely no stars to spend it on. What if they add Hardaway Jr. and a future Knicks first in exchange for Enes Kanter and Zach Randolph’s expiring deal?
There are some obvious risks to this strategy for New York. The Knicks are like the Lakers, but without any of the success of the past 40 years. It would be incredibly on-brand for this team to follow L.A.’s LeBron blueprint with Durant and then strike out in embarrassing fashion, but only after also sending out a 2021 pick that eventually turns into a 10-time All-Star. The worst case scenario can never be discounted with this team. Any Knicks fan who wants to hedge their free agency bets and keep every first-round pick has a good argument. And in that case…
3. What if the Knicks traded Kevin Knox and Frank Ntlikina? If refusing to mortgage the future is ultimately a welcome sign of progress for the Knicks, that doesn’t mean the team can’t also be honest about the present. The Lakers, for instance, cleared space to sign LeBron James by trading D’Angelo Russell. That move has obviously become more complicated now that Russell’s having a career-year in Brooklyn, but even now, the Russell trade was the right call. Because what are the odds Russell ever plays for a title team? Trading him allowed the Lakers to chase players that could get them closer to what really matters. The same blueprint is possible in New York.
Ntilikina has had one-and-a-half uneven seasons for the Knicks, but he’s had his moments, and he projects as (at worst) a very useful perimeter defender. There may still be enough intrigue around the league to convince teams to gamble on his upside. Could Ntilikina sweeten a Courtney Lee deal for a team like Orlando or Phoenix? And then there’s a Knox trade: if the Knicks want to move Hardaway Jr. without attaching a pick, this is how you do it. Knox has a ton of upside, he looked like a star at summer league, and he’s exactly the sort of player who would make sense as a high-upside gamble for teams like Memphis, Orlando, or Sacramento. As for the Knicks side of the deal … it’s early, but Knox is averaging less than one assist per-game as a passer on the wing, his shooting is still streaky, and he’s a mess on defense. Shouldn’t New York (very quietly) think about selling high while the rest of the league can still buy into Knox as a star?
Knicks fans have spent the past nine months talking themselves into Knox as the prototypical two-way wing to pair with Porzingis, and they will probably hate this idea. But if the Knicks think they have a chance to be good sometime soon, they should think hard about what Knox can actually become over the next four years. It’s one thing to hedge against KD dreams and hold onto 2020s draft picks who could turn into superstars, but New York has seen enough of Knox and Ntilikina to make an educated guess on whether they can ever have that kind of impact.
We’ll see. Whatever happens, Knicks transactions have higher stakes than those of almost any team in the NBA over the next six months, and some of that fun begins with the next two weeks.