Are the Knicks headed toward collapse or can a Donovan Mitchell trade, Russell Westbrook swap save them?

Ryan Ragan
Knicks, Donovan Mitchell
Apr 18, 2022; Dallas, Texas, USA; Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell (45) drives past Dallas Mavericks guard Jalen Brunson (13) during the second quarter in game two of the first round of the 2022 NBA playoffs at American Airlines Center. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

In the 2012-13 NBA season, the New York Knicks posted a record of 54-28. This was their most successful regular season as a franchise since the 1996-97 season. The Knicks had been slowly building a strong roster. The 2013 season marked their third consecutive playoff appearance, and the Knicks were even able to clinch the second seed in the Eastern Conference. 

Since 2013, though, it has been mostly doom and gloom for the Knicks. Things immediately collapsed following that season. Future Hall-of-Famer Carmelo Anthony led the team in win shares for the next four consecutive seasons. Despite this, the Knicks failed to post a winning record for the rest of Anthony’s tenure in New York. Throughout the remainder of the decade, the Knicks saw six different coaches take the helm in the Big Apple. The abundance of fresh faces was to no avail, as none of these six individuals could maintain a winning record during their time with the organization. In short, the latter part of the 2010s was an absolute disaster for the Knicks. They were undoubtedly the laughingstock of the NBA. 

Turning it Around

In 2021, the New York Knicks shocked the basketball world by posting a 41-31 record, good for the fourth seed in the NBA’s Eastern Conference. As they had many times over the last several years, they entered the season with a new coach. This time, things would be different under new hire Tom Thibodeau. Everything finally came together, with recent free agent signing Julius Randle putting up the best season of his career in the shape of 24 points and 10 rebounds. Randle’s stellar campaign led to him being named the NBA’s Most Improved Player. This is not to mention the performance of blossoming star RJ Barrett, who in his second season recorded 17 points, 6 rebounds, and 3 assists. To top it all off, Thibodeau was named the NBA’s Coach of the Year. 

This was a fantastic time for Knicks fans everywhere, as things finally seemed to be turning around. After nearly a decade of being the butt of every NBA-related joke, all the pieces seemed to be moving into place. As I’m sure you’re aware, though, this hope soon crumbled. 

Following the addition of All-Star Point Guard Kemba Walker, the Knicks looked to replicate the success they enjoyed the previous year and make a deeper playoff run in 2021. Everything seemed to indicate that this dream should come into fruition in the 2021-22 campaign. This was not the case. 

There are a variety of reasons why the Knicks only won 37 games and missed the playoffs the year after being the Eastern Conference’s fourth seed. For one, almost everyone underperformed. Randle’s points per game average dropped to 20. Walker was only able to manage a measly 12 points per game, the worst average of his career. In contrast, Barrett continued to develop, averaging 20 points. Despite this, the Knicks roster was unable to mesh in the way that they had in 2021, and their season was ultimately deemed a failure by many fans. 

Knick fans are all intimately familiar with this course of events. The tragedy and heartbreak of coming so close to success, only to collapse so quickly after, is something that I know I have become familiar with in recent years, and I’m sure many fans feel the same. 

Change is Coming for the Knicks

The reason that I rehash these painful details is because the Knicks need to move forward somehow. All hope is not lost. New York has already made several moves this offseason that prime them for future success. Who could forget the flurry of trades they made on Draft Night? These moves were confusing to some fans. To clear the air, Knicks president Leon Rose soon made a statement. 

“Last night, we made three trades involving draft picks, which resulted in increased financial flexibility and additional draft capital moving forward. We now have a total of 22 picks, 11 in the first round and 11 in the second round, over the next seven years. We have the ability to be active in free agency, as well as in the trade market. Our focus will remain to be strategic and thoughtful in our team building, doing it the right way, while feeding off of the momentum from the end of last season and prioritizing our player development program. Thank you to Knicks fans for your continued support.“

Essentially, the Knicks are seeking not to build for the future via the draft but rather through the trade and free agency market. This became even more apparent when New York signed former Villanova and Dallas Mavericks star Jalen Brunson to a four-year, $104 million contract. While Brunson was a good signing for the Knicks, I don’t suspect him of being the future of the franchise in New York. Rather, I believe that this move is just the beginning. 

Donavan Mitchell to the Knicks?

As a New York native, Donovan Mitchell has long been a player that fans have claimed to be a “future Knick.” Mitchell is a devout Mets fan and has even thrown out the first pitch at a game before. There is good reason for Knicks fans to want and even suspect that Mitchell could become a Knick someday. However, it was not until the Utah Jazz traded away former Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert to the Minnesota Timberwolves that it began to seem as though acquiring Mitchell could be a real possibility for New York. With a firesale underway in Utah, there is really no reason for the Jazz to hold on to Mitchell. If the Knicks are able to put together the proper package, there is a real chance that “Spida” could be headed to New York. 

A Blockbuster Swap

While this would be a franchise-altering move, things may not end there for the Knicks. A recent report from NBA Insider Marc Stein suggests that upon acquiring Mitchell, the Knicks could seek to also bring in former MVP Russell Westbrook from the Lakers. However, this report suggests that multiple stipulations must be fulfilled for this to make sense for New York. 

First, as stated, the Knicks must successfully trade for Mitchell. This would be a massive achievement for New York. They would bring in a bonafide franchise player who would boost their roster enormously. However, Mitchell would bring with him a hefty salary. Despite their best efforts to clear their finances, the Knicks may struggle to take on. Therefore, the Knicks would have to offload some of their more expensive pieces. Stein suggests that a player to look out for could be Julius Randle. Although Randle enjoyed massive success in the 2020-21 season, his recent $117 million contract extension could be a gigantic handicap towards the Knicks if they seek to accomplish a blockbuster deal. 

A trade between the Lakers and Knicks could be mutually beneficial. The Lakers seek to trade for Brooklyn’s Kyrie Irving, who himself would carry a massive price tag. Westbrook, who is currently on the Lakers, is under contract for $47 million but only for the 2022-23 season. Swapping Randle for Westbrook would fulfill the Knicks’ and Lakers’ desires. For New York, to clear cap in the long run. For Los Angeles, to clear salary in the short run.

Logistically, this trade makes sense. That leaves me wondering, does it make practical sense? I think that the short answer to this is a resounding, “No.” While this would make things easy on the Knicks as they would be able to quickly make room on their payroll, that doesn’t mean that it’s a good idea. The Knicks succeeded in 2021 because of good coaching and strong chemistry between their core group of players. To break up this core, and especially to move Randle, who was at the center of it all, is, in my mind, stupid. 

Westbrook was at one time the NBA’s MVP. That time has long since passed, and Russ has plummeted to one of the league’s least efficient players. Last season, he shot 44% from field goal and 30% from three-point range. Even his scoring averages were down, to a near-career low of 19 points a game. 

Leveraging their future by trading for Westbrook would be the wrong move on almost all counts. Randle is arguably the better player, is under contract for longer, and is being paid less. If the Knicks seek to clear more salary, they could simply just look elsewhere. Perhaps they could look to restructure a few contracts or release some overpaid veterans (looking at you, Derrick Rose).

It’s no secret that over the past decade, the Knicks have struggled awesomely to put together consistently successful rosters. Following a down year, they have so far begun to make the right moves. Signing Jalen Brunson was definitely a step in the right direction. However, if the Knicks seek to bring the Larry O’Brien trophy back to the Garden, there is still more to be done. 

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