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Will the OG Anunoby Trade Elevate the New York Knicks?

The Toronto Raptors swingman won’t complete the Knicks, but he could help tie them together. We examine both sides of Saturday’s surprising, potentially win-win deal.

AP Images/Ringer illustration

OG Anunoby is the NBA equivalent of a scarf. I don’t know anything about fashion, but hear me out: A scarf will not, by itself, make an outfit, just as Anunoby will not, by himself, lift a team to contention. You’d rather anchor the outfit around a pair of pants or a shirt; you’d rather build an NBA roster by drafting Nikola Jokic or trading for Damian Lillard.

But when all the basics are set, when you have everything buttoned and your shoes tied and your leading scorers in place, you might want to add a little extra zest before walking out the door or entering the playoff gauntlet. You might want to complete your ensemble with a tasteful accent around your neck, or with an archetypal 3-and-D wing.

So even though Anunoby has never made an NBA All-Star team and could never carry an outfit all on his own, the New York Knicks exclaimed on Saturday afternoon, in Anunoby’s own words: What about scarves?

In an early tipoff to trade season, the Knicks and Raptors completed what appears to be a rare win-win deal, with Anunoby, Precious Achiuwa, and Malachi Flynn headed to New York, and RJ Barrett, Immanuel Quickley, and a 2024 second-round pick going back to Toronto. Neither team enters the championship picture because of this trade—but the swap gives both rosters better balance and more upside. Congratulations to both for a Pareto optimal trade. Let’s dive into what the deal means for both sides.

For the Knicks

Anunoby is the biggest name in the trade, and finally on the move after a year-plus of rumors. He should provide the Knicks with immediate help on both ends, as essentially a better fit and two-way player than Barrett at the same position.

His calling card is defense, though, and Anunoby should become an immediate favorite of Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau, as his new version of Luol Deng. Individual defensive performance is notoriously tricky to measure, but Anunoby has traditionally excelled no matter the metric. Last season, he led the league in steals (1.9 per game) and ranked second in deflections (3.6 per game). He was named second-team All-Defense. This year, the Raptors defense is better in all four factors when Anunoby is on the floor versus when he’s off it, according to Cleaning the Glass.

Anunoby isn’t just a one-trick defender, either, but rather a multipositional menace just as comfortable chasing guards around the perimeter as he is battling bigger wings inside. In any case, he’s best deployed guarding superstars on a nightly basis. To give an idea of his range, here are the players that Anunoby has defended most often on a per-game basis this season, according to NBA Advanced Stats:

  1. Tyrese Haliburton
  2. Victor Wembanyama
  3. Donovan Mitchell
  4. Luka Doncic
  5. Dejounte Murray
  6. Jayson Tatum
  7. Jimmy Butler
  8. Anthony Edwards
  9. Franz Wagner
  10. DeMar DeRozan
  11. Cade Cunningham
  12. Kevin Durant
  13. Mikal Bridges
  14. Giannis Antetokounmpo
  15. Jaylen Brown

The Knicks rank only 15th on defense this year, and that placement was probably slated to worsen as the season progressed, with starting center Mitchell Robinson out for months due to ankle surgery. Anunoby should boost both New York’s defensive floor and ceiling, clamping down on opposing stars and aiding small-ball lineups if Thibodeau decides to experiment. Achiuwa, a backup big man with a funky skill set, could help in small-ball configurations, as well.

On offense, Anunoby is a solid supplementary scorer (15.1 points per game this season) and shooter (a career 37.5 percent mark on 3-pointers). Like many role players, he’s a limited creator, with a career assist-to-turnover ratio of just 1.24 to 1. His theoretical offensive ceiling is lower than Barrett’s.

But where Barrett runs hot and cold, Anunoby is consistent, hitting between 36 and 39 percent of his 3-pointers in each of the past five seasons. Where Barrett needs the ball (27 percent usage rate this season), Anunoby is more deferential (18.1 percent usage). And while Barrett struggled to fit next to Julius Randle—especially in terms of spacing, with Randle struggling on 3s this season—Anunoby should slot perfectly next to the two-time All-Star.

In exchange for that positional upgrade, the Knicks assume three potential downsides. The first is that Anunoby’s numbers aren’t nearly as strong this season as they’ve been in the past, either in traditional or advanced metrics. The 26-year-old’s offense has stagnated, and his defense in particular looks worse; both his steals and deflections averages have dropped precipitously. New York is hoping that that’s a small-sample fluke and that a change in environment will help Anunoby correct his wrong-way swerve.

Second, New York loses Quickley without—no offense to Malachi Flynn—a ready replacement for his juice off the bench. In a narrow context, maybe this loss is acceptable because it was clear that Quickley had fallen out of the Knicks’ long-term plans, after he didn’t sign an extension last summer. But in every season of his career, the Knicks have had a very good net rating when he’s been on the court and a negative net rating with him off, so they might end up regretting the loss of last season’s Sixth Man runner-up.

The third concern is that Anunoby has a player option after this season, which he will likely decline to become a free agent—though something tells me the Knicks and Anunoby will be able to work out an extension fairly easily. Anunoby changed representation last summer, and his new agent is Sam Rose, who also happens to be Jalen Brunson’s agent and the son of Knicks president Leon Rose.

The bigger-picture question for the Knicks is what comes next, because despite Brunson’s rise and Anunoby’s addition, the team (sitting at 17-14, seventh in the East) is still a tentpole star away from true title contention. Anunoby is a strong two-way player, but he’s not a franchise one. (Neither is a potential Quickley replacement like Utah’s Jordan Clarkson, who’s a logical fit but also not a postseason difference-maker.)

The Knicks did retain all their future first-round picks in this trade, plus their multiple protected future firsts from other teams, so they still have the ability to make another big deal (and can use Evan Fournier’s salary to match) either at this deadline or in the offseason. Perhaps the Anunoby trade is merely part one of a multi-move buying spree. Could, say, the addition of Donovan Mitchell to a Brunson-Anunoby-Randle core help the Knicks compete for a Finals berth?

For the Raptors

Toronto’s return for Anunoby points to Masai Ujiri’s preference for players rather than picks amid the franchise’s transition. Other teams reportedly offered as many as three future first-round selections for Anunoby at last season’s deadline, but the Raptors president held on to Anunoby for an extra year and netted two rotation players and a pick instead.

Ending up with just one second-round pick instead of three firsts might seem like a disastrous outcome in a pick-happy league. But in a vacuum, that decision actually works out to Toronto’s advantage. Quickley and Barrett are both better than the average first-rounder, and both players are young—Barrett’s 23 years old, Quickley’s 24—and a good match for 22-year-old Scottie Barnes’s timeline. Meanwhile, while Toronto technically didn’t end up with any future first-round selections in the trade, it came close, as the pick it acquired is Detroit’s 2024 second-rounder—which the Knicks held until Saturday—which will likely end up at no. 31 overall.

The drawback of that trade-off is mostly a matter of cost. Instead of eventually landing players on rookie salaries, the Raptors will have to pay much more for Barrett, who’s signed for three years and $83 million after this season, and Quickley, who will reach restricted free agency this summer. Those are potentially manageable deals, but if the Raptors re-sign impending free agent Pascal Siakam and extend Barnes in a year, they could find themselves cash-strapped and still stuck in the middle of the standings.

Ujiri’s hope is that Quickley and Barrett will help Toronto get unstuck. At the very least, he recognized that the positional overlap between Anunoby, Siakam, and Barnes was untenable and that an offense that faltered in the half court even when Fred VanVleet was in town was fully lost without a dynamic point guard. This season, the Raptors rank 18th in offensive rating, 16th on defense, and 22nd in net; they had no identity and no obvious strengths, aside from Barnes’s surge in his third season.

A starting lineup with Quickley, Barrett, Barnes, Siakam, and Jakob Poeltl might still lack sufficient spacing, as Poeltl is a non-shooter, and both Barrett and Siakam have slumped from distance. But it also carries much more upside and intrigue.

In particular, the Raptors should relish seeing whether Quickley can make a leap as a lead ball handler. The energetic guard has long been an advanced stats darling, and he’s an efficient scorer who is still improving. A mystifying decline in his minutes this season masked significant strides, including a jump from 18.6 to 22.5 points per 36 minutes. Could Quickley follow in Tyrese Maxey’s footsteps, given a similar increase in opportunity? He’s not on Maxey’s level as a playmaker, but that same sort of path is within reach.

Barrett also offers tantalizing potential, even if the no. 3 pick has frequently frustrated with his decision-making and inefficient scoring. The big extension he signed in September 2022 was more of a speculative bet on Barrett’s future than a confident assessment of his NBA career to date; Barrett has never, in any season of his career, rated as even an average player by player efficiency rating or box plus-minus.

Perhaps a change of scenery—back home, to Toronto!—will unlock the young wing’s upside. Barrett and his new team now both have the opportunity to embrace a new direction.