The New York Knicks are playing better basketball of late. They’re 3-3 under interim head coach Mike Miller and they’ve won three of their last four games. They also recently added former EuroLeague and Cleveland Cavaliers coach David Blatt as a basketball operations consultant. That, naturally, is an improvement on the usual state of affairs, albeit marginally.
But on the whole, the Knicks have been pretty awful this season. They’re 7-21, good for a .250 winning percentage and last season wasn’t much better. In 2018-19, New York won just 17 games and they haven’t fared much better in most of the previous 17 seasons either. Over that span, they’ve made the playoffs only five times, won a grand total of six playoff games and advanced beyond the first round once.
Clearly the organization must embrace wholesale changes before any real progress is made. Despite public support to clean house, the odds are much higher that any front office changes will wait until the offseason. There, the franchise would theoretically conduct a comprehensive search (and go through a complete courtship of Raptors’ Masai Ujiri).
So it looks like there will be at least one more trade deadline for which Knicks fans must make do with team president Steve Mills and general manager Scott Perry. If not more, knowing the typical chain of command in Manhattan. Still, the pair could easily operate out of desperation, which should scare fans a little more than usual. But the pressure is fair: After all, they are responsible for many of the current players and they hired (and fired) David Fizdale.
On the bright side: The Knicks signed six veterans this past offseason, many of whom should garner some level of interest from contenders around the league. Simply put, New York should seriously explore moving all of them. As is, the current roster is unable to leverage their skill sets and are nowhere near competing for a playoff berth – let alone a championship. And with the trade deadline and February coming quickly down the road, the Knicks should be proactively reaching out to teams around the league.
But it’s not just Marcus Morris who should interest contenders. There’s also Bobby Portis, Taj Gibson, Wayne Ellington, Elfrid Payton and Reggie Bullock — all of whom are essentially on expiring deals thanks to 2020-21 team options attached to all of their contracts. Bullock might be the most challenging to move of the bunch since he has yet to suit up in 2019-20 due to a back injury. However, even Bullock is nearly set to return and features a very team-friendly contract at $4 million guaranteed in 2019-20 and a team option for next year.
Julius Randle is an even tougher sell since his contract is also guaranteed for 2020-21, with a team option for the following year — but more on that later.
The Knicks mustn’t worry about hanging on to their veterans and winning a few extra games this year — and hopefully the front office operates with the team’s best interest in mind instead of their own. Assuming they do, what might they get in return? Let’s explore four plausible trades that would help the Knicks in the near future.
Marcus Morris to the Los Angeles Clippers for Maurice Harkless, Jerome Robinson and LAC 2020 1st rounder
This is an easy one since the framework of it was named as a jumping-off point by Zach Lowe earlier this week, essentially. Lowe suggested Morris in exchange for the Clippers’ 2020 first-round pick, Harkless and Patrick Patterson. Possibly, the Knicks could do even better.
Knicks fans are torn on the idea of parting with their leading scorer. Here’s why that’s flawed logic: While he’s publicly embraced the idea of playing in New York, who wouldn’t put on a happy face when auditioning for a longer-term deal? Remember, Morris is an unrestricted free agent following this season. He can play nice, build up his credibility around the league and sign with whichever contender has the biggest need and fits best in 2020.
Further, even if Morris were to re-resign, how much would it cost and for how long? Morris is already 30 years old and likely that the Knicks won’t be competitive until at least 2021-22 – when Morris will be 32.
But he fills a need now for the Clippers. Morris is a hard-nosed defender that is averaging 18.8 points per game and is shooting 47.7 percent on 5.9 three-point attempts per game.
However, Harkless – who is only 26 and expires after this season – and Robinson – 22 and the No, 13 overall pick in 2018 — combine for only 9.2 points over 36 minutes per game. They possess at least enough upside for the Knicks to make this deal, but Morris would help the Clippers far more than Robinson and Harkless currently do.
And to the Clippers supporters that would they’re giving up too much: Remember that Morris’ services will be highly sought after and Los Angeles’s 2020 first-round pick will be a late first-rounder.
Wayne Ellington to Philadelphia for Zhaire Smith and salary filler
Philadelphia 76ers fans probably won’t be thrilled with this idea, but it’s practical for both teams.
When open, Ellington is a guaranteed bucket. Yes, he’s shooting a career-low 30.4 percent on 3.8 attempts in 14.3 minutes per game — but much of that has to do with the fact that the Knicks rotations have been problematic and unpredictable. He’s shot better than 36.8 percent on at least six three-point attempts per game in each of the last five seasons — plus he’s a career 37 percent three-point shooter. Do you know what the 76ers need more of? You nailed it: Three-point shooting.
Giving up on the lottery-selected Zaire Smith so early in his career is definitely a gamble, but he hasn’t even appeared in an NBA game yet this season. He has appeared in eight of the Delaware Bluecoat’s 14 games (the 76ers’ G-League affiliate) in 2019-20, where he is averaging 12.4 points on an eFG% of 54.9. He’s also grabbing 4.1 rebounds and dishing 2.0 assists over 27.6 minutes per game — not bad stats, but not what you hope for from a lottery pick, and certainly not in the G League.
This one is made additionally complicated due to the fact that the 76ers are incredibly cash strapped but that works in the Knicks’ favor. Since Philadelphia will struggle with the idea of reworking their cap to offer a rookie extension to someone that hasn’t been able to crack the rotation, the Knicks can help. The 76ers are projected over the cap and the luxury tax line through at least 2022 and they must pick-up Smith’s $4.9 million team option by October 2020 for 2021-2022.
What’s more, rookie Matisse Thybulle has succeeded in the minutes that were previously thought to be Smith’s — so, everybody wins.
The 76ers’ championship window is currently open, and they should look to add players who will help them secure a championship. And unless they think they can re-add JJ Redick, Ellington fills a void for Philadelphia.
The Knicks would have to take on additional salary, but the framework of this trade is more important than a few extra bucks here or there.
Elfrid Payton and the Knicks’ 2023 second-round pick to Miami for Dion Waiters and the HEAT’s 2023 first-round pick
This one is mostly about the HEAT’s desire to get out from under Dion Waiters’ withering contract. Waiters has been suspended this season for ingesting marijuana-infused gummies and then calling out sick before posting a photo on Instagram depicting him on a boat — plus some detrimental conduct for good measure. Rumors have buzzed about Miami wanting him gone before he does any damage to a roster that has gelled more than anyone anticipated.
Yes, an unprotected first-rounder is a hefty price to pay – especially so far in the future, by which time anything could happen to the HEAT’s roster — but that’s the price they’ll probably have to pay. Teams know the HEAT are desperate. And waiving him would carry a big cost since he’s fully guaranteed this season ($12.1 million) and next season ($12.65 million). Instead, the HEAT and Knicks should swap Waiters for Miami’s 2020 first-rounder and Elfird Payton.
Somehow, Payton could actually help the HEAT. The Knicks backcourt is jam-packed with Frank Ntilikina, Dennis Smith Jr. and Payton, which has prohibited the latter from getting more minutes. But don’t be fooled, Payton still has some upside. He’s still only 25 and — despite suffering a hamstring injury earlier this season — has posted a 16.6 PER, 8.4 points, 5.2 assists and 1.5 steals over 22.3 minutes per game. Further, he’s secured 20 assists and zero turnovers in his last two games combined. He might not be a full-time starter, but he’s more than capable of contributing to a championship-caliber team.
And the Knicks can afford to waive Waiters – or maybe give him another chance at rehabilitating his image – because they aren’t going to contend before his contract expires anyway.
Julius Randle to Indiana for Myles Turner
While this could be a tough sell for Indiana, Turner has not blossomed the way many had hoped he would. He’s averaged 12.8 points per game for his career — but only 11.3 in 30 minutes per game this season. Turner, too, has also underwhelmed on the glass (5.8 rebounds per game) and in the mid-range (shooting only 46.2 percent from three to ten feet and only 14.3 from 16 feet to the three-point line) this year.
And while Randle has disappointed this season, he’s given fans hope of late. Last season, Randle set career highs in points (21.4) and three-point shooting (34.4 percent). Over the last four games, he’s recaptured his 2018-19 mojo, posting 21.7 points, 10.5 rebounds and 3.2 assists per game on shooting 36.8 percent from three-point range.
Indiana benefits because they could finally unleash Domantas Sabonis at center while adding a versatile low-post scoring threat to help buoy the Pacers as Victor Oladipo continues rehabbing his quad. Ridding themselves of an extra two years of salary — Randle’s deal has a team option following 2020-21, whereas Turner’s doesn’t expire until 2023 — is a plus too.
And for the Knicks, they return a still-highly regarded prospect who could fit nicely alongside their current center, Mitchell Robinson.
The bottom line is this: The Knicks shouldn’t worry about fit yet. As of now, New York should focus on amassing as much talent as possible. If there are overlaps at certain positions, so be it. That was the attitude toward the point guard position last February when they brought in Smith Jr — and it forces the best player to earn his spot.
The Knicks could also decide to appease ticket holders and build a makeshift “winner.” Naturally, they could mortgage their future for some combination of Chris Paul, Jrue Holiday and Kevin Love. They might even make a run at a playoff push — and they might be fairly competitive next year. But it’s not sustainable and it doesn’t answer any long-term problems.
Ultimately, with no front office moves on the horizon, the Knicks must be prudent and deliberate in every decision they make — even then, they need to make moves now before teams begin looking elsewhere.