RJ Barrett defending Donovan Mitchell
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The Utah Jazz accepting the Cleveland Cavaliers’ offer for Donovan Mitchell was a blessing in disguise for the New York Knicks.
Picture the Knicks locked into a core of Mitchell, Julius Randle and Jalen Brunson. According to The Athletic’s Shams Charania, RJ Barrett, Immanuel Quickley and two unprotected first-round picks weren’t enough. A time machine taking us into the future shows us a world with pundits and fans laughing at the Knicks for “Knicks-ing” in 2022, when they traded a chest full of assets for a single player who barely moved the needle and limited the front office’s flexibility to improve the roster.
Even a core of Mitchell, Brunson, Barrett and Randle has a capped ceiling. And given what they’d be paying each cornerstone, forget about landing another difference-making free agent.
Looking back, the Knicks may have actually caught a break when Utah initially declined an offer of Barrett, Obi Toppin, Mitchell Robinson and three unprotected first-rounders, per ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski. Given what Cleveland eventually gave up for Mitchell, a time machine taking us back to early July might show Jazz CEO Danny Ainge accepting New York’s initial offer (before Robinson and Barrett re-signed) or Knicks president Leon Rose proposing a weaker deal to initiate negotiations.
Regardless of whoever the Knicks would have had to give up to get the 6’1″ scoring guard, the roster’s upside wouldn’t have been close to Cleveland’s with Mitchell. The Cavaliers went all in on a core of Mitchell, All-Star Darius Garland, All-Star Jarrett Allen and (likely) eventual All-Star Evan Mobley. That group’s ceiling feels like it reaches the Eastern Conference Finals.
The Knicks’ ceiling with Mitchell—minus the departures—might not have even been higher than a roster with Barrett, Quickley, Toppin and Grimes if each continue to develop on their current trajectory.
From a fit perspective, the biggest question worth asking was whether a frontcourt of Barrett, Randle and Mitchell Robinson could offset the defensive issues likely to surface once the Knicks paired Mitchell and Brunson. While Robinson is a shot-blocking machine and Barrett is an improved two-way player, it’s difficult to picture a team defense that can rank in the tier with most contenders or serious playoff threats.
The other worry about Mitchell in New York concerned Barrett’s and Randle’s roles with more off-ball reps. Barrett graded in the 36th percentile as a spot-up player. Randle was in the 22nd. Mitchell finished No. 7 in the NBA in usage last year. Brunson and Mitchell dominating ball-handling touches would have meant too much of the team’s core forwards (who’ll together make over $50 million a year) uncomfortably standing around the arc, playing to their weaknesses.
Still, one of the biggest talking points of the entire trade discussion didn’t even include Mitchell, Barrett or draft picks. It was Grimes’ perceived value and potential.
According to the New York Post’s Marc Berman, the Knicks withheld Grimes from all offers. That may seem wild for a 22-year-old who averaged 6.0 points as a rookie. The Knicks clearly value last year’s flashes, his tremendous summer-league breakout and Grimes’ character, something scouts and executives were high on before the 2021 NBA draft.
There isn’t much debate over his shooting, based on his 40.3 three-point percentage at Houston, his 38.1 percent mark last year and an eye test that detects no flukiness. But if the flashes of creation from Las Vegas were real—and the former McDonald’s All-American and U-18 FIBA MVP definitely showed more off-the-dribble skill and playmaking than he did early in college—the Knicks may have a real steal and quality starter.
Throw Grimes into a mix with Quickley, who averaged 16.4 points, 5.4 boards and 5.0 assists over his last 22 games, and Toppin, who averaged 17.2 points in the 19 games he played at least 20 minutes, and the Knicks could have three very valuable prospects who keep getting better on rookie contracts.
Instead of Rose throwing all the teams’ eggs into a basket that includes Mitchell, Randle and Brunson, the Knicks will be better off betting on the development of their last three-first round picks while keeping Barrett and those unprotected picks Utah coveted.
And maybe another star becomes available over the next season or two. If the Knicks’ young players keep making new strides each season, their trade values will also increase.
After an aggressive first offer, Rose ultimately demonstrated some restraint, and it could wind up saving the team from being locked into a mismatched, expensive roster with fewer, valued draft assets. He could have easily given in to the pressure and fan expectations created by media narratives that suggested New York acquiring Mitchell was only a matter of time. Caving to Utah’s demands and acquiring Mitchell may have earned Rose short-term love and approval as his first major move to convert previous draft decisions into a star.
But not grabbing the shiny object was a disciplined, executive decision, at least in this case for this particular roster.