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Is Donovan Mitchell Really the Right Star for the Knicks?

New York has the pieces to bring Utah’s All-Star guard to Broadway, but it should be hesitant to go all in. As good as Mitchell is, questions remain about his ability to carry a team.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Coming off their first postseason appearance in seven years, the Knicks’ plan last summer was simple. Don’t overreact to a surprising playoff run and don’t chase immediate gratification. Instead, stay low and build. Keep amassing draft picks, sign short-term and movable contracts, keep your powder dry, and give yourself a chance to take a swing at a star when he becomes available.

A frustrating and disappointing 37-45 campaign last season made that slow play feel like a step back, but the Knicks may now find themselves in position to put the next phase of their rebuild into action. After a whirlwind month marked by draft-night drama, a nine-figure deal for Jalen Brunson, trade requests across the East River, and a teardown in Salt Lake City, there’s suddenly a 25-year-old three-time All-Star with a signature shoe deal and a megawatt smile on the market—and the Knicks have the pieces they need to go out and get him.

One massive question hangs over it all, though: Is Donovan Mitchell the right star to go all in for?

We can start here: Mitchell is a legit offensive monster, one of only 12 players to average at least 25 points and five assists per game over the past two years. The Jazz finished in the top 10 in offensive efficiency in each of the past three seasons, including no. 1 last season, due in large part to Mitchell’s effectiveness as one of the league’s most versatile shot creators and most potent three-level scorers. His stylistic peers are players like James Harden, Luka Doncic, Trae Young, Damian Lillard, and Ja Morant—excellent scorers and high-usage ball handlers who can serve as the dynamic engine of a high-octane offense.

Mitchell averaged 1.03 points per possession finished as the ball handler in the pick-and-roll last season, according to Synergy’s game charting; that tied for sixth out of 132 players to log at least 100 such plays. (Second on that list, by the way? Brunson.) For all the hue and cry in Utah about the value of screen assists, Mitchell’s also eminently capable of cooking without a pick, averaging 1.04 points per possession in isolation last season—tied for 11th out of 61 players to go solo at least 100 times.

He combines a lightning-quick first step to beat defenders off the bounce with the strength and touch to finish through contact in the paint, shooting a career-best 65 percent at the rim last season, according to Cleaning the Glass, and ranking sixth in the NBA in points scored per game off of drives to the basket, according to Second Spectrum tracking. Play off him to try to wall off the drive, and he’ll raise right up: Mitchell took and made more pull-up 3s last season than every player in the league save Young, Doncic, and Stephen Curry, and hit them at a 35.6 percent clip despite both the volume and degree of difficulty. He’s also proved to be a dangerous spot-up option away from the initial action, drilling 40 percent of his catch-and-shoot 3s for his career. In essence, he provides just about everything the Knicks hoped they might get from Kemba Walker last summer, only a hell of a lot more of it with seven fewer years of wear and tear on his body.

Mitchell’s more of a combo guard than a true table-setter, but he’s taken steps as a facilitator over the years. He ranked 17th in assists leading to 3-pointers over the past two seasons and 10th in teeing up corner 3s last season, according to PBP Stats, and has ratcheted up his playmaking in the past three postseasons, increasing his assist rate while turning the ball over less frequently than in the regular season—in keeping with an overall tendency to level up on offense come the playoffs, where he’s put up some absolutely monstrous performances.

The ability to shoulder a massive offensive load—only Doncic, Young, Joel Embiid, and Giannis Antetokounmpo posted a higher usage rate last season—makes Mitchell one of the most valuable weapons in the game. If you like to go beyond the counting stats in the box score and look for the alphabet soup advanced numbers, feel free to pick your preferred all-in-one metric: estimated plus minus, box plus minus, regularized adjusted plus minus, real plus minus, FiveThirtyEight’s RAPTOR, The BBall Index’s LEBRON, The Analyst’s DRIP, Kostya Medvedovsky’s DARKO. All of them mark Mitchell as one of the top 10 or so offensive players in the league.

A dude that good is worth an awful lot—especially when he hasn’t yet reached his prime and is under contract for three more years with a player option for 2025-26, and especially if you’re a team that has struggled mightily to create scoring opportunities. (Here’s where we mention that the Knicks ranked 24th in half-court offensive efficiency last season, and haven’t had a top-10 offense overall in a decade.)

And yet, as phenomenal an offensive talent as Mitchell is, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone ready to call Mitchell a top-10 player overall. That’s partly due to the somewhat mechanical nature of his work as a playmaker. Despite his advancements on the ball, he’s a score-first guard at heart—prone to tunnel vision at times, and lacking the elite processing speed and capacity for manipulating defenses of some of his All-Star peers.

A lot of it, though, is due to Mitchell’s performance on the other end. Over the past few seasons, most of those same advanced metrics have marked Mitchell as a significant net negative on defense—the kind of point-of-attack problem who requires specific roster-construction and schematic support to protect.

Stars’ 2021-22 Offensive and Defensive Rankings

Donovan Mitchell 10 161 10 315 9 268 12 551 10 250
Ja Morant 8 147 13 330 6 198 38 477 6 188
James Harden 20 108 17 212 20 229 23 361 11 176
Luka Doncic 7 22 11 232 4 107 74 383 9 189
Trae Young 4 265 2 444 2 275 3 584 2 268
Box plus minus, RAPTOR, and LEBRON rankings among players to log at least 1,000 minutes last season. Data via Stathead, Dunks and Threes, FiveThirtyEight, NBA Shot Charts, and The BBall Index.

When Mitchell was coming out of Louisville in 2017, our Kevin O’Connor lauded his “elite defensive potential” in The Ringer NBA Draft Guide, citing his athleticism, sturdy frame, and 6-foot-10 wingspan. Five springs later, Mitchell was getting flame-broiled in the opening round of the playoffs, as Brunson and Spencer Dinwiddie took turns drawing him into deep water and either blowing past or bodying him into the paint, warping Utah’s defense and getting the Mavericks just about any shot they wanted:

Of 98 players to defend at least 30 drives in the 2022 postseason, Mitchell ranked 91 in points allowed per chance, according to Second Spectrum’s tracking. Of 92 players to guard at least 25 off-ball screens, he ranked 85th. Dallas ran him through 14 dribble handoffs and scored 26 points on those plays—a small sample, for sure, but also essentially a guaranteed bucket, every time down. Whenever the Mavs really needed a basket, they targeted Mitchell. It’s a stark turnaround from how Mitchell built his postseason reputation back in 2018, picking out and torching an aging Carmelo Anthony, and an indication of the degree to which opponents have come to view Mitchell as a vulnerability to attack and exploit.

It’s certainly possible for offense-first players to tighten up defensively. Curry has done so famously. Devin Booker, somewhat infamously, earned Rudy Gobert’s public admiration for how much he’s done it. Hell, Doncic seemed to do it within a series, responding to the Suns mercilessly hunting him by locking in and holding his own to help Dallas knock off favored Phoenix. It’s also possible for smart organizations to build the right defensive infrastructure around those offense-first stars to mitigate the fallout enough for a deep playoff push: Harden’s Rockets, Lillard’s Trail Blazers, Young’s Hawks, and Doncic’s Mavericks have all made the conference finals, and Booker’s Suns made the Finals.

None have hoisted the Larry O’Brien Championship Trophy, though. It’s awfully tough to win it all if your best player is a defensive liability. The only arguable examples over the past 30 years are the 2011 Mavericks and 2015 Warriors; those iterations of Dirk Nowitzki and Curry were also both better offensive players than Mitchell, who’s yet to make an All-NBA team or advance past the second round. A version of the Knicks that replaces the 1,800-plus minutes that Walker and Alec Burks spent at the point last season with Mitchell and Brunson should be notably better. A version reliant on Mitchell to be its best player, though, likely still slots in well behind Jayson Tatum’s Celtics, Giannis’s Bucks, Embiid’s 76ers, and Jimmy Butler’s Heat—at minimum—in the Eastern pecking order for the foreseeable future.

The needle that the Knicks or any other interested team must thread, then, is bringing in Mitchell while still having a pathway to pair him with someone even better. Which is why the negotiations between Jazz CEO Danny Ainge and Knicks president Leon Rose are shaping up to be mighty tasty.

“New York is motivated,” ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski said Monday. “They’re motivated to get Donovan Mitchell. But I think they’re also motivated to not just give up everything to get him.”

Initial reports suggested that Ainge is seeking a package commensurate with, or even surpassing, what he got for Gobert: three unprotected first-round picks, one top-five-protected first, swap rights on a fifth first, several interesting young players, and several rotation-caliber veterans owed little or no long-term money. The Knicks immediately emerged as Mitchell’s most likely destination, given both the combination of trade chips at their disposal—eight tradable first-round picks over the next seven years, plus 25-and-under prospects like RJ Barrett, Immanuel Quickley, Obi Toppin, Quentin Grimes, and Cam Reddish—and the frequently highlighted connections between New York’s brain trust and a player who grew up in Westchester County and is now represented by CAA.

Whether Mitchell landing at Madison Square Garden really is “an inevitability,” though, likely depends upon whether Ainge can scare up more bidders capable of ponying up a pick-and-prospect package attractive enough to convince New York to give up the store. SNY’s Ian Begley reported last week that Utah had “asked about a package that included Mitchell Robinson, RJ Barrett, other players, and at least three first-round draft picks.” Marc Stein added that Utah “is said to want at least six of [New York’s] eight picks.” Rose, unsurprisingly, didn’t leap at that ask, knowing that the two other teams most frequently discussed as Mitchell suitors—the Heat and Nets—are tangled up in Kevin Durant’s trade request.

Miami has reportedly “prioritized pursuing Durant over Mitchell,” and might have seen its chances in the KD sweepstakes improve when the Suns matched Indiana’s offer sheet for Deandre Ayton, removing Ayton from the trade block and complicating the Suns’ path toward a Durant deal. Even if Miami pivots to focus on Mitchell, its best package at the moment looks something like Tyler Herro, Duncan Robinson, 2022 first-round pick Nikola Jovic, and two future firsts; barring additional moves to add more draft capital, that doesn’t seem like enough to beat the Knicks’ cache of picks. Brooklyn, for its part, would likely need to come away with additional draft capital from a KD or Kyrie deal to be able to satisfy Ainge’s asking price—which, again, could put the Nets behind their cross-borough rivals in the running for Mitchell.

The Knicks seem to be betting that no widespread bidding war will materialize. If not, then by standing pat, New York might be able to get Mitchell for a lower price than Minnesota paid for Gobert—ideally, one that leaves the team with some picks and young players (including Barrett, whom New York reportedly doesn’t think it’ll have to lose in the Mitchell deal) still in the cupboard.

Maybe that combination of assets will entice Utah to ship a bona fide superstar to Broadway. Maybe a Knicks franchise that already seems to be thinking about financial flexibility can make that superstar’s dollars make sense as a new broadcast rights deal sends the salary cap soaring once again. Maybe, by then, we’ll be talking about $104 million for Brunson and a handful of picks for Mitchell as just the costs of doing business—the capital investments necessary for the Knicks to go from Point A to Point B to Point C, and finally build the kind of contending team the franchise hasn’t seen in a quarter-century.

That, admittedly, is a lot of “maybes.” Given how infrequently the Knicks have seemed to reach this level of possibility and aspiration, though—and given how the Brunson pursuit came to fruition, and how New York now looks like the favorite to get its man yet again—maybe “maybes” aren’t all that bad. Maybe, in time, we’ll see that they were all just part of the plan.