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Is Russell Westbrook the Missing Piece to Knicks-Jazz Donovan Mitchell Trade?

Eric Pincus@@EricPincusFeatured Columnist IAugust 31, 2022

Katelyn Mulcahy/Getty Images

With RJ Barrett and the New York Knicks closing in on a four-year extension "worth up to $120 million," per Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN, what does that mean for New York's pursuit of Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell?

Assuming the Knicks extended Barrett to keep him, New York may need a third team to get the prized guard from the Jazz. The Los Angeles Lakers may be the most eager available partner, looking to offload Russell Westbrook mid-way through last season.

The Knicks and Jazz have the pieces to get a deal done directly. So why would they want to bring in the Lakers?

L.A. may be able to lessen the burden from New York while helping Utah get out of some unneeded salary.


Issues with a Two-Team Trade

The Knicks need to send at least $24.2 million in salary to absorb Mitchell's $30.4 million for 2022-23. But the team doesn't have many ways to get to that figure if Barrett is a keeper in New York.

Recently signed players (Jalen Brunson, Mitchell Robinson, Isaiah Hartenstein and Jericho Sims) are out of the equation until at least December. The team's five available prospects (Cam Reddish, Obi Toppin, Immanuel Quickley, Quentin Grimes and Miles McBride) aren't enough for Mithcell at a combined $17.5 million.

That means at least one of Julius Randle, Evan Fournier or Derrick Rose. None of the three holds an obvious value for the rebuilding Jazz. Randle is still owed over $106 million if he takes his player option in 2025-26. Fournier is due $18.9 million for 2023-24 (with a team option at $19 million in 2024-25). Only Rose may appeal to Utah with what can be considered an expiring contract ( $15.6 million team option before the final season).

Rose wouldn't be a significant player to the Jazz, but a necessary contract like Patrick Beverley as part of the Rudy Gobert trade from the Minnesota Timberwolves (later redirected to the Lakers). However, since the Knicks likely prefer to keep Rose, who has been a favorite of coach Tom Thibodeau dating back to their time with the Chicago Bulls, Fournier is probably the answer.

Pairing Fournier with Reddish would be enough to satisfy salary matching for the Knicks. So far, the two franchises haven't been able to hammer out the draft compensation and additional young players to make a deal. The Knicks can send up to four of its own first-round picks through 2029. The franchise also has future firsts with varying degrees of protection from the Dallas Mavericks, Detroit Pistons, Milwaukee Bucks and Washington Wizards.

The Jazz should ask for as much as they can get. It's the Knicks' job to hold on to as many of those pieces as possible. Asking Utah to take on Fournier, who is nearly 30 years old and is due $18.9 million for 2023-24, should cost New York additional compensation.

The Knicks can try to offset that burden by taking on Rudy Gay at $6.2 million this season (plus a player option at $6.5 million), but only if they send additional players to Utah (like Toppin).

The two franchises may argue over draft compensation for months. And while a multi-team trade might be more complex, it may also solve more problems than it creates.


Roping in the Lakers

The core concept gets the Knicks off the hook for some of the needed draft compensation to get the deal done, putting that burden on the Lakers, who are still hoping to find a taker for Westbrook.

The Jazz might prefer Westbrook at $47.1 million over one season over Fournier's guaranteed $36.9 million over two. If Utah can get off of additional salary, it could save money overall while adding first-round pick(s) from the Lakers.

Los Angeles may be open to parting with one of its 2027 or 2029 first-round picks to get out of Westbrook. To send both, the Lakers must believe they are gaining a reasonable chance to compete at the highest level in the Western Conference. On paper, the Lakers are a poor shooting team that would improve dramatically by adding two marksmen like Bojan Bogdanovic and Fournier.

L.A. could also land Reddish from the Knicks, who may not be on Utah's timeline since he's extension-eligible this summer. The Lakers previously tried to acquire the young wing from the Atlanta Hawks and Knicks. He's with Klutch Sports, sharing agencies with LeBron James, Anthony Davis, Lonnie Walker IV, Kendrick Nunn, Scotty Pippen Jr. and Troy Brown Jr., which could bode well for Reddish's next contract in Los Angeles.

The Jazz can send a different player to the Lakers instead of Bogdanovic, like Malik Beasley, Jordan Clarkson or Mike Conley. That's assuming Utah prefers to hold onto its younger players, including Jarred Vanderbilt, who was recently acquired from the Timberwolves.

The Lakers can make room for three players with Westbrook out (assuming the camp invites aren't retained). Any additional space might cost a player the Lakers aren't as interested in parting with, like Wenyen Gabriel.

Utah may press the Lakers on two firsts, but from L.A.'s perspective, it would be helping the Jazz get whatever bounty the Knicks are willing to pay in a cost-neutral deal. That's not worth two first-round picks.

The Jazz and Knicks can argue they don't need the Lakers, banking on L.A. being desperate enough to take a marginal deal to get out of Westbrook. But if the two franchises are truly stuck in a Mitchell negotiation, perhaps there's a three-way compromise that works for all.

Perhaps that's Mitchell and Gay to the Knicks, Fournier, Bogdanovic and Reddish to the Lakers, and Westbrook, Toppin and Grimes to the Jazz. Utah gets 3-5 first-round picks (with one from L.A.).


*Email Eric Pincus at eric.pincus@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter @EricPincus.

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