Schmeelk: Why Knicks Should Tread Lightly in Trading for a Star

John Schmeelk
May 13, 2020 - 12:29 pm

The Knicks have positioned themselves well with future assets: seven first-round picks and five second-round picks in the next four years. The team can use those picks to continue to add to their young core, but recent speculation has indicated the team may prefer to flip some of those assets for a more established star.

Ian Begley from SNY recently reported that the Knicks plan at the 2019-20 trade deadline was to maintain enough assets to be in position to trade for a potential star player in the future if one becomes available. Anthony Davis is the most recent example, and there are plenty more in past years, including Carmelo Anthony. Someone like Bradley Beal is considered to be a potential player that may meet that criteria in the future.

In addition to their multitude of draft picks, the Knicks have also maintained a number of short-term contracts and salary cap space to help make a trade for a high salaried player easier to execute.

With COVID-19 potentially driving down league revenue, which could result in a sharp decrease in both the salary cap and luxury tax number in future seasons, other teams might also be motivated to move high-priced stars for financial reasons. Owners with other businesses could be struggling and hoping to cut salary.

With the New York market still a draw to players demanding a trade, and the Knicks with their vast financial resources, they could be uniquely positioned to make such a trade. Despite their recent struggles, the Knicks were still one of Anthony Davis’ two preferred destinations when he demanded a trade in 2019.

But should the Knicks pull a trigger on such a trade? It depends on the player and it depends on the price. What do the Knicks consider a star? DeMar DeRozan, for example, is a four-time All-Star that averages 20 points per game, and has been the leading scorer on a good team. But is he a truly difference-making player that can catapult the Knicks where they want to go?

There is a difference between star players and superstar players. There are a group of truly transcendent players in the NBA that can turn around a team nearly single-handedly. They include but are not limited to players like LeBron James, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Steph Curry, James Harden, Kawhi Leonard and a healthy Kevin Durant. Those are your MVP candidates every year.

Then there are the frequent all-NBA performers that are not quite MVP caliber, but can be the best player on a very good team. They include players like Damian Lillard, Nikola Jokic, Paul George, Anthony Davis, Ben Simmons, Kyrie Irving and Joel Embiid. All of the players in the first two categories would be worth pursuing under most circumstances.

The next group of players is where it gets tricky and price begins to matter when discussing a trade. Players like Bradley Beal, Kemba Walker, Jimmy Butler, Donovan Mitchell, Russell Westbrook, D’Angelo Russell, Karl-Anthony Towns, Devin Booker, Pascal Siakam, CJ McCollum, Brandon Ingram all fall in this rough category when teams have to start weighing the player’s age, salary and the cost to acquire them.

Without analyzing each player individually, the Knicks need to carefully consider a few factors.

They need to keep their primary goal in their sights at all times: building a long-term sustained winner that can compete for a championship. Getting the team to 45-48 wins with no real vector to get to 55 wins is just as difficult of a trap to escape from than the 17-30 win ineptitude the franchise has languished in the past six seasons.

Paying a player that isn’t quite a superstar so much money that the team doesn’t have the cap space to acquire a true star must be avoided at all costs. Liquidating so many draft assets the team can’t find players in the draft or flip them for another player is another easy trap teams fall into. There has to be enough assets left at the team’s disposal, whether it is younger cheap players that can still improve, cap space, or future draft picks.

When the Knicks acquired Carmelo Anthony, for example, after they were already locked into Amar’e Stoudemire on a mega-contract, they only had resources to add Tyson Chandler to the duo. They were only able to do that after amnestying Chauncey Billups, which eliminated that future option for Stoudemire. The team was stuck and eventually traded a first-round pick for Andrea Bargnani to try to get over the top. They got to the second round of the playoffs only once.

A star can be an attraction for other great players to come to the Knicks, but the organization must have the resources to acquire that player. One star, unless it is an MVP-caliber player, is enough to vault a team into contention on their own. At least one other All-Star caliber player, sometimes two, are necessary to get there. The Knicks have to always remember that they need to remain in a position to add those other future players.  

It’s very difficult to add both stars via trade, given the assets needed in those moves. The trades for Paul George and Anthony Davis, for example, liquidated nearly all the future assets from the Clippers and Lakers respectively. Trading for a star means using draft picks or young players to acquire them, and then using salary cap space to pay them. You are using two sets of assets for one player.

Signing a player in free agency costs only money, but will probably need the Knicks to improve to make them a preferred destination. Drafting one only costs a draft pick. The Knicks will need to either draft a star player or sign one outright in free agency at some point if they want to become contender. I’ve discussed before why drafting one is the more preferable way.

At some point, the Knicks are going to have the opportunity to trade for a star. It needs to be considered carefully and only be completed if there is still a path available to bringing in a second, or even third star later on to make the franchise a long term contender for a NBA title. It is the only path to long term sustained winning, which is where they need to go.

You can follow John on Twitter for everything Knicks, Giants and the world of sports at @Schmeelk. You can find his Knicks podcast, The Bank Shot, on all popular podcast platforms.