Something about the New York Knicks is different.
No, it's not the famed triangle offense head coach Derek Fisher and team president Phil Jackson began implementing during summer league play. Nor is it a lingering sensation of shock stemming from the team's decision to trade into, as opposed to out of, an NBA draft.
It's something else. It's hope; it's confidence that, for once, the Knicks are heading in an intelligible direction.
It's the presence of trade assets.
The Zen Master has taken a cupboard barren of movable pieces and stocked it with players who have outside value. Yes, players. Plural. The Knicks have assets and, despite little financial flexibility, have the means to make trades that don't include overpaying for floor-spacing Italians who don't space the floor.
Do they even—dare we pose this—have enough resources to complete a blockbuster deal?
Are we actually asking this question?
We are, and that's a sign of change. The Knicks never hesitate to entertain noteworthy trades. Pining after impact players from other teams is sort of their thing.
Over the last few years, though, their trade-market exploits have been plagued by reality. They spent most of last season lusting after Rajon Rondo, only to realize the Boston Celtics weren't actively trying to ruin themselves.
This summer, the Knicks have stockpiled assets.
Talk of being active isn't whimsical or blissfully ignorant. They have players who can be moved and are willing to move them, per ESPN New York's Ian Begley:
Working to clear the logjam in the backcourt, the Knicks are discussing their potential trade options with guards J.R. Smith, Iman Shumpert and Shane Larkin, a league source said Sunday.
“They’re working on trying to make a move in the backcourt,” the NBA source familiar with the Knicks’ thinking said Sunday. ...
Tim Hardaway Jr. has been deemed virtually untouchable, per a source.
All of those players hold a certain level of value—even J.R. Smith (more on his Swish-ness later).
Iman Shumpert, who will become a restricted free agent next summer, and Tim Hardaway Jr. are valuable enough to grease the wheels of an Amar'e Stoudemire or Andrea Bargnani dump, according to The Knicks Blog's Moke Hamilton.
At the height of free agency, before Carmelo Anthony re-signed and LeBron James was still available, Jackson was exploring cap-clearing avenues. After trading Tyson Chandler's expensive expiring pact, he was left with STAT and Bargs, two overpaid and injury-prone vets who hold little to no value.
Though Jackson never pulled the trigger on anything, there were deals in place, per Hamilton. And if Shumpert and Hardaway—untouchable as the latter may be—are enough to get the ball rolling there, they're enough to be moved for something or someone of ample value.
Shane Larkin is in a similar boat as a former 2013 first-round pick whose rookie season was ruined by injury. He displayed worthwhile levels of aggression and, at times, profound understanding of how to pilot an offense while playing in Las Vegas.
Then there's Smith, who, especially after last season, isn't considered hot property.
"That leaves shooting guard. By now, we pretty much know the trade market for Shump (late first-round pick at the most) and J.R. (LOLZ NOPE)," Joe Flynn wrote for Poasting & Toasting. "A trade for either would likely be little more than an excuse to dump salary for next summer and free up minutes for this season."
The scope through which Smith must be viewed is different now that we're weeks into free agency. Expensive pacts were handed out to backcourt specialists such as Avery Bradley and Jodie Meeks, indicating a shift in market interest and the demand for situation-specific talent.
Jodie Meeks has agreed to a three-year, $19 million-plus contract with the Detroit Pistons, league sources tell Yahoo Sports.— Adrian Wojnarowski (@WojYahooNBA) July 1, 2014
Can confirm that the #Celtics & RFA Avery Bradley have agreed to a deal. Terms: 4-year-deal worth $32 million.— Baxter Holmes (@BaxterHolmes) July 2, 2014
Smith, a former Sixth Man of the Year, isn't the financial albatross he was last season. Not at a little more than $12 million over the next two years.
Not after averaging 19.9 points, 4.1 rebounds and 2.6 assists while shooting 47.2 percent from the floor overall and a scintillating 43.1 percent from deep in his final 14 games.
Samuel Dalembert's non-guaranteed pact also holds value. Even if STAT and Bargs aren't completely immovable entering their final seasons. They aren't trade-making assets but are useful for teams looking to unload longer contracts.
That, unequivocally, leaves New York back in the asset game, a place it hasn't been since 2010-11, when the Knicks roster was a little more ductile and a little less "Crap, we're stuck."
There is, however, a difference between run-of-the-mill trade markets and blockbuster markets.
Significant transactions are headlined by stars, by high-impact players who can serve as franchise cornerstones. Deals of that kind are rarely made. When they are, they take serious assets.
Take the Kevin Love saga.
The Minnesota Timberwolves are asking for a king's ransom in exchange for their superstar. Prospects, established talent, draft picks—the whole nine yards.
Here's Jeff Zillgitt of USA Today on their asking price:
The Timberwolves have told teams exactly what they want for Love, and they won't make a deal until they get just that — be it Klay Thompson from Golden State or No. 1 pick Andrew Wiggins from Cleveland. Right now, the Timberwolves have leverage, and are using it.
Andrew Wiggins. Klay Thompson. Those are the types of assets Minnesota is seeking. Whether the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers are prepared to meet their demands remains to be seen, but the Timberwolves have set their wish list.
Other teams are trying to eke into the conversation with different offers. The Chicago Bulls are dangling Taj Gibson and Doug McDermott, and possibly Nikola Mirotic, in front of the Timberwolves, according to the Chicago Sun-Times' Joe Cowley.
That's the going rate for superstars, for blockbuster deals: loads of talent and/or picks. When the Celtics were considering a Rondo trade, they were asking for something similar:
Jackson's Knicks cannot come close to meeting those asking prices. They aren't bogged down by a surplus of first-round draft selections. They don't have established players who can help rebuilding teams remain competitive.
What Do They Have?
What the Knicks have is developing talents.
They have Shumpert. They have Hardaway. They have Larkin. They have Cleanthony Early.
Outside of them, they have expiring contracts. They have the ability to be a dumping ground for long-term covenants, which would conflict with any sort of plan to become major free-agency players next summer.
Do the Knicks have enough assets to make a blockbuster trade?
And they have Smith, whose trade value should be higher than it is but is nowhere near what it takes to help land a Love, Rondo or another star.
What they have are the tools to help facilitate a superstar-snatching for another club while ridding themselves of someone they don't want or acquiring someone—not a star—they do.
"To do that we felt (it was) important to bring in some new personnel and start with some character guys that we feel can carry this forward," Jackson said after completing a trade with the Dallas Mavericks that landed Jose Calderon and others in New York, per Begley.
Those are moves the Knicks can make—the kind that land them new personnel, that improve their standing marginally, if at all. They do not have a blockbuster offer on their hands, unless another club is trying to sell destructively low.
Options are options, though. For the first time in a long time, they aren't pinned to one intransigent plan. They have made progress.
The Knicks have options.
Trading for a Love, a Rondo or another status-shifting player simply isn't one of them.
Salary information via ShamSports.