Buyers or sellers? A quarter into the season — with the trade season kicking off in about two weeks — the Knicks are in a unique position of needing to upgrade and downsize at the same time.
It’s a numbers game, really. Leon Rose’s contradictory roster crunch and salary setup. With over $400 million committed to five players, the Knicks are not really in a position to tank away the season and start a rebuild. They entered Tuesday night just 1 ½ games out of a playoff spot, with their core four — Julius Randle, RJ Barrett, Mitchell Robinson and Jalen Brunson — locked into contracts until at least 2026.
Still, the talent isn’t good enough to escape the team’s middling status, and the season’s compass now feels pointed to pointless.
Team president Rose, who has taken fewer risks than a possum in daylight, could always stand pat or tinker around the margins like his first two trade seasons. But there are other options that might give the roster a boost, or perhaps provide the season some purpose.
We’ll examine three:
THE NUCLEAR OPTION
Hit the reset button. Trade Randle and/or Barrett and/or Robinson and begin a rebuild in earnest. At this point, it’s hard to imagine either player returning much value on their respective contracts. It would require an admission of massive failure from Rose, who signed Randle and Barrett to nine-figure deals in the last 18 months.
But trading the pair serves a purpose of clearing the cap sheet — if not for next summer, then maybe in 2024. It also clears a path to playing time for rookies Immanuel Quickley and Obi Toppin, both of whom are eligible for extensions after the season.
The problem is selling low on massive contracts. A stock broker will warn you it’s a losing strategy. Rose already attached first-round picks to unload three players he signed in 2021 — Kemba Walker, Alec Burks and Nerlens Noel. Should Rose be trusted to shed his own mistakes again?
THE ASSET ACCUMULATION STRATEGY
We’ll hear it until it actually happens (or even if it doesn’t), but the Knicks are set up to acquire a superstar. They balked at the chance to land Donovan Mitchell, which, according to league sources, was a disappointment to Tom Thibodeau. Despite the lack of size in the backcourt, the coach felt he could make it work with Brunson and Mitchell. Perhaps Danny Ainge was asking for too much, which was the final stance taken by the Knicks front office. We’ll never know if Ainge was reluctant to deal with the Knicks, but relationships were supposed to be the specialties of Rose and William Wesley. Those Jazz negotiations demonstrated how little that matters in trades. Of course, the Knicks still have their trove of future draft picks, and they could theoretically acquire more by dealing some of their prospects – specifically Quickley, Toppin and Quentin Grimes. The more future picks available to the Knicks, the easier it is to relinquish them for the next star available. For the most part, this has been core to Rose’s strategy.
THE TINKER OPTION
This is the most likely route given the circumstances and the roster setup. The Knicks have too many guards and centers, which left a numbers crunch that can be rectified by the trade deadline. They entered Tuesday dead-last in the NBA in three-point percentage, yet benched the team’s top three-point threat — Evan Fournier — to get a better defensive presence (Grimes) in the backcourt. Shooting is always valued in the NBA, and there are teams (ahem, Lakers) who could use Fournier in the rotation. With two years and $37 million left, Fournier’s deal isn’t desirable but it’s also not an albatross. The other obvious players to send into the market are Cam Reddish and Derrick Rose, who’ll both be free agents after the season.