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Are the Knicks Better Off Without Donovan Mitchell?

Leon Rose held his ground … but then the Cavs swooped in to make the deal he wouldn’t. Will New York regret not meeting Utah’s price, or will its prudence pay off in the long run?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

OK, so maybe Leon Rose could’ve put together the best possible trade package for Donovan Mitchell. In the end, though, he didn’t.

The Knicks president reportedly set a Monday night deadline for the Jazz to at long last agree to a deal that would send Mitchell, a three-time All-Star, to New York. Reports vary about what would’ve been heading back to Utah: some combination of RJ Barrett, Immanuel Quickley, Quentin Grimes, two unprotected first-round picks, a top-five-protected future first (maybe coming via the Bucks), multiple second-round picks, and perhaps an unlimited-ride MetroCard. When that deadline came and went, Rose stepped back from the bargaining table, signed Barrett to a four-year, nine-figure contract extension, and sat tight, confident that Jazz CEO Danny Ainge wouldn’t find a more palatable deal in the weeks leading up to training camp.

But Rose’s stepback opened the door for Cleveland—recently considered out of the Mitchell sweepstakes—to step back in, make an offer, and make Mitchell a Cavalier. And what an offer it was: three unprotected first-round picks, in 2025, 2027, and 2029, plus the right to swap first-round selections with Cleveland in 2026 and 2028, along with a signed-and-traded Collin Sexton, stretch-4/jumbo-3 Lauri Markkanen, and rookie-to-be Ochai Agbaji, whom the Cavs just drafted 14th in June.

Three unprotected picks, plus everything else. That’s the price that the Cavs paid to add Mitchell—if not more than Utah got from Minnesota for Rudy Gobert, then close to it—and, ultimately, it was one the Knicks determined was too rich for their blood.

According to multiple reports, Rose ultimately wouldn’t offer more than two unprotected firsts in a deal that featured Barrett. He may have refused to include second-year shooting guard Grimes in any package. He insisted on top-five protection on a third pick as part of a larger proposal that ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski says would’ve roped in a third team to absorb the two years and $36.9 million remaining on Evan Fournier’s contract. He held a hard line, betting that the market for Mitchell was soft enough that he could get a deal done without giving up his best stuff. Ainge and Jazz GM Justin Zanik wagered they could get their preferred package of picks elsewhere.

Utah’s gamble paid off; New York’s didn’t. As a result, the Knicks start September still holding all of their chips, but left looking for a new game to play. Whether you view that as a major disaster or a mild discomfort likely depends on how highly you rate Mitchell, a soon-to-be 26-year-old shot-creation engine who can stake a credible claim to being one of the 10 best offensive players on the planet, but who also brings defensive and playmaking peccadilloes with which any would-be contender would have to, well, contend.

If you see Mitchell as the kind of scoring force who could lift the Knicks out of the bottom half of the league in offensive efficiency for the first time in nine years, giving New York the firepower to consistently compete in the postseason, then missing out on him over one measly draft pick seems like a grievous error—penny-wise but pound-foolish thinking that overrates the value of theoretical future prospects at the expense of tangible present-tense talent.

If you see Mitchell as an undersized defensive liability and sometimes mechanical playmaker whose weaknesses mark him as a second-tier All-Star—closer to the 25th-best player in the NBA than the top 10—then choosing not to give up control of your next five drafts for him isn’t indolence or a dereliction of duty. It’s exercising restraint and discipline. It’s sticking to the plan that Rose has laid out since taking the reins at Madison Square Garden in March 2020, and that he referenced after the draft-night wheeling and dealing that gave New York the financial wherewithal to sign Jalen Brunson away from the Mavericks.

“Our focus will remain to be strategic and thoughtful in our team building,” Rose wrote in a statement after the draft. “Doing it the right way, while feeding off the momentum from the end of last season and prioritizing our player development program.”

Reasonable minds can differ as to how much stock New York should put into a 12-11 record and the East’s sixth-best net rating after the All-Star break. If nothing else, though, there seems to be a consistent through-line between Rose’s messaging and his actions in the Mitchell negotiations: If you’re not one piece away, and even the next move won’t get you one piece away, then don’t make it. Stay low and build. Y’know, like the Cavs have.

Cleveland already has a core featuring bookend under-25 All-Stars in Darius Garland and Jarrett Allen, plus 21-year-old wunderkind Evan Mobley. It’s easier, comparatively, for the Cavs to look at the lay of the land in the East—a conference, by the way, that they were two games away from leading at the All-Star break before a spate of injuries—and consider themselves one big addition away from contention. You’d have to squint awfully hard to look at what would be left in New York after a blockbuster deal—a starting five of Mitchell, Brunson, Julius Randle, Mitchell Robinson, and whichever wing player was still left on the roster—and see a similar sort of contender. And if, as many projected, the point of getting Mitchell in the door at MSG was to convince the next star (whoever that might be) to join him, would a Knicks team with its draft picks encumbered for the next half-decade, with $100 million devoted to the foursome of Mitchell, Randle, Brunson, and Robinson in 2023-24, and without the young players Utah would’ve taken for Mitchell still have enough in the cupboard to get such a deal done?

Maybe the answer is yes. Maybe, as Tony Jones of The Athletic tweeted Thursday, the Knicks could have gotten the deal done without sacrificing Grimes or 2020 lottery pick Obi Toppin, while still controlling one of their future first-round picks, plus the four others that they’ve stockpiled in previous trades. Maybe that would’ve been enough to get them into the next round of conversations for a star. Maybe that, plus the Mitchell-led core still in place, would’ve been enough for the Knicks to sniff 50 wins for just the second time this millennium.

Then again, if those players and protected picks weren’t enough to get the Knicks Mitchell, then which star worth the billing would they net? How likely is it that they would snare a player better than Mitchell—ostensibly the point of the “the first star brings the second one” thought experiment? Would the resultant roster have a meaningful chance of competing for a championship—or, in a few years’ time, would the Knicks find themselves bumping up against the same good-but-not-great, second-round ceiling that Mitchell’s Jazz couldn’t break through? Given just how desperate things have been in New York for two decades, would the mere possibility of scraping that ceiling be reason enough to pull the trigger?

Rose and his lieutenants evidently didn’t think the answers to those questions were compelling enough to finalize the deal the Jazz would’ve done. And so now, after all the machinations, rumors, and innuendo, the Knicks are right back where they stood at the start of July: with a cache of draft picks, preaching patience and player development, trying to figure out how good they can be, and how they can get better, with what they’ve already got on hand. (Questions, by the way, that might draw different answers depending on whether you’re asking New York’s executives or its head coach.)

Though the Knicks finished 37-45 last season, if you subtract the minutes given to Kemba Walker in an ill-fated experiment over the first month of the season, they actually outscored opponents by three points per 100 non-garbage-time possessions, according to Cleaning the Glass, with a defensive rating that would’ve tied for fourth over the full season. That plus-3 net rating, for what it’s worth, is better than what the Knicks managed during the 2020-21 season, when they won 41 games in a surprising run to the East’s no. 4 seed. Maybe, given all that, it’s reasonable for Knicks brass to want to see whether a healthy version of the roster, with Brunson providing a playmaking jolt to help resuscitate Randle and boost Barrett, is enough to produce a team capable of vying for a top-six spot.

The problem: That’s an awful tough ask in today’s East. Barring injuries, of last season’s top six, only Chicago seems like a decent bet to fall off. (That sound you just heard was DeMar DeRozan offering a swished impossible midrange dagger as a retort.) Seventh-place Brooklyn didn’t trade Kevin Durant or Kyrie Irving after all, and might actually get Ben Simmons on the floor. Eighth-place Atlanta and ninth-place Cleveland just traded for All-Star guards.

The Knicks with Mitchell might not have cracked the East’s top six; as presently constituted, though, the Knicks might have a hard time even cracking the top 10 to make the play-in tournament. And the prospect of changing that constitution returns us to that coach-vs.-front office question.

Rose’s reluctance to part with the Knicks’ youngsters and stated focus on internal development suggests that he sees bigger roles in the offing for the likes of Barrett, Grimes, Toppin, and Quickley. Tom Thibodeau’s well-publicized preference for veterans—the lean that’s resulted in Randle playing more minutes than any other player in the NBA over the past two seasons, while Toppin has topped 24 minutes in a game just 14 times in that span—suggests that he is, at best, reticent to provide those opportunities when he’s got options with longer résumés. If the “wait and see if adding Brunson is enough” approach doesn’t bear fruit, might Rose have to … remove some of Thibs’s options, as Billy Beane once did to Art Howe?

(I’m suddenly very sad that we’ll never get to see Philip Seymour Hoffman play Tom Thibodeau.)

Rose still has the flexibility and optionality to pursue other moves—say, attaching a pick to move Randle or Fournier, thus opening up more minutes for Toppin or Grimes, and more on-ball opportunities for Brunson and Barrett; he also has a head coach who might challenge him to a Tables, Ladders, and Chairs match if he makes them. He still has the pieces to trade for a star—though if he didn’t think Mitchell was one worth going all in for, he might find himself waiting a long time for a crack at one that is. (Expect to hear the name Shai Gilgeous-Alexander discussed very loudly among Knicks fans and media types.)

Discretion may be the better part of valor; on a long enough timeline, though, it can look a lot like doing nothing. The waiting is the hardest part, especially in an East that’s getting tougher by the minute, but Rose, for better or for worse, seems content to stick to his plan. Knicks fans can only hope that it’s the right one, and that his—and their—patience will eventually be rewarded.