Trying to figure out what the New York Knicks will do next is never an exercise for the faint of heart, but it is a special brand of unpredictable now. True to form, they have the most turbulent front office situation at a crucial moment, just days away from Thursday's NBA trade deadline.
Their decision to fire team president Steve Mills, as first reported by ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski, is a warranted move on its face. Mills and general manager Scott Perry—who remains with the Knicks—sold Madison Square Garden chairman James Dolan on playoff aspirations only to then can head coach David Fizdale and turn in a bottom-four record.
There is also something to be said for making the call now rather than waiting until after the trade deadline, draft or free agency. At the same time: Who fires their top basketball operations executive two days before the stinkin' trade deadline? The Knicks. That's who.
Expecting them to make the wrong decision(s) is fair. They have not been benefit-of-the-doubt material in roughly two decades. But in what way might they screw up? By trading a player they should keep? Acquiring someone they have no business rostering? Overpaying for a marquee name who's most likely past his prime?
Let's be kinder. Could the Knicks emerge from the deadline as low-key winners? Obvious victors? Will they do nothing at all? Everything at once? Will they ship out six first-round picks to get Masai Ujiri from the Toronto Raptors?
Last summer's transaction tumult and this year's shallow free-agency class could stunt activity at the trade deadline. The Knicks are no less intriguing within those confines. Anything and everything is always in play with them.
The Sellers Scenario
Selling is the conventional course for a team in the Knicks' situation. Squads fast-tracked to nowhere are supposed to auction off win-now players who don't fit into their big picture for picks, prospects and bad contracts attached to more picks and prospects.
Finding crummy money to swallow in exchange for draft and young-player equity won't be easy. Both cap space and star power will be scant in free agency. The Association doesn't have its usual number of desperate heavy-hitters looking to shed salary.
But the overall buy-now market is alive and well. At least 20 teams can talk themselves into making a playoff push this season. That number could increase to as many as 23 depending on how the Chicago Bulls, Washington Wizards and Detroit Pistons feel about their chances of catching up to the Eastern Conference's eighth-place Orlando Magic.
Not every postseason hopeful will be looking to buy. Many will. More fringe squads will, at the bare minimum, leave the NBA with a deficit of aggressive sellers. That ups the leverage for teams willing to emphasize their bigger picture.
The Knicks might be on the short list of enthusiastic vendors, and they have names of interest to dangle. The number of players who don't fit their timeline if they're embracing a full-tilt rebuild sits around six: Reggie Bullock, Wayne Ellington, Taj Gibson, Marcus Morris Sr., Elfrid Payton and Bobby Portis.
Soon-to-be free agent Allonzo Trier, while 24, falls under this umbrella based on New York's minutes distribution. Damyean Dotson is more of a rotation fixture, but with a potentially sizable raise looming in the summer, he's also a buh-bye candidate.
Younger players the Knicks appear to be out on could likewise reach the chopping block. Dennis Smith Jr. remains readily available, according to the New York Daily News' Stefan Bondy. New York still, for some inexplicable reason, seems minimally invested in Frank Ntilikina's development. Kevin Knox is averaging fewer minutes per game than Gibson since Jan. 1.
After signing a three-year, $62.1 million contract over the summer ($56.7 million guaranteed), Julius Randle has even meandered his way into the rumor mill, per The Ringer's Kevin O'Connor. (More on this soon.)
To nutshell it all: The Knicks' only untouchable players are RJ Barrett and Mitchell Robinson. Maybe. We think. (More on this soon, too.)
Morris' future will be the barometer for what the Knicks are planning long-term. Few possibly available players are more impactful than him. He can guard bigger wings, is shooting almost 44 percent from downtown on a high volume of attempts and has shown he can provide from-scratch scoring. He has tallied as many points on unassisted threes as Evan Fournier, according to PBP Stats.
Jettisoning him should fetch the Knicks a small ransom. His $15 million salary comes off the books after this season, but he's not much of a flight risk. His non-Bird rights—the ability to sign him to a contract worth 120 percent of his 2019-20 take-home—are an asset at his current price point.
New York is thinking along these same lines, so much so that Morris may have played his way into its big-picture vision, per ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski:
Maybe this is a negotiating ploy. It could also be genuine. Either way, it is a sign that the Knicks aren't dealing Morris just because. It will take a real offer to pry him out of New York.
They might get one. Morris fits on that many teams with immediate ambitions. The Dallas Mavericks, Denver Nuggets, Los Angeles Clippers, Los Angeles Lakers, Miami Heat, Milwaukee Bucks, Portland Trail Blazers—name the squad that won't have major issues matching his salary and he'll make a difference. That team in question may already have registered official interest.
A willingness to flip Morris would equate to open season in New York.
Gibson can help beef up a contender's frontcourt physicality. Payton's playmaking could bolster a second unit. Bullock and Ellington are better shooters than they've shown. All four have small guarantees for next season (no more than $1 million), making them low-risk acquisitions for prospective bidders.
Dotson is a good low-end three-and-D flier for suitors without much dispensable salary. Trier is a quality microwave scorer at his price. Smith can, in theory, inject some pace into bench mobs. Portis can space the floor up front and tunnel-vision his way to the basket.
In more ways than a few, the Knicks could exit the trade deadline having significantly altered the championship hierarchy.
The Buyers Scenario
Buying is typically considered unthinkable for rebuilding franchises light years away from playing for anything special. The Knicks shouldn't be any different, but they fancy themselves as such.
Wojnarowski confirmed on The Woj Pod that New York has talked to the Detroit Pistons about an Andre Drummond trade. Because, after all, when you have Robinson and a jillion other bigs, the only option you have is to look at trading for a 6'10" center who doesn't space the floor and who you can sign in free agency (player option) without giving up any actual assets.
To be fair, perhaps this is merely the Knicks doing their due diligence. To be even more fair, their reported dalliance with Drummond's availability, however preliminary, still makes zero sense:
Dan Favale @danfavale
@jacksettleman they need good players who fit into their team dynamic over the longer haul, not some moral-victory vibes (that they're unlikely to get from Drummond anyway) for a half-season. it's a different story if this is a player that fills a need. cost be damned, Drummond doesn't.
This venture is a little more sensible. Russell would immediately become the best floor general the Knicks have employed in approximately six centuries, and they can justify landing an impact 23-year old as a move for the future.
Still, those buy-for-later deals usually don't consist of digesting someone already on a max contract. And Russell, for all he's proved over the past two seasons, isn't an indisputable star. Mortgaging part of the future for him guarantees nothing, and it most definitely doesn't give them clear access to down-the-line contention.
There's also the little matter of what the Knicks can give the Golden State Warriors. The latter is the league's worst team now, but they'll be itching to win next season. Any Russell return presumably needs to include a collection of veterans who strongly complement Stephen Curry, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson.
The Knicks cannot hawk that type of package. They'll need a third—and maybe a fourth—team to make it work. That they've shown interest in a player like Russell at all, though, is telltale of their trade-deadline volatility.
The Curveball Scenario
Following the script is so not the Knicks. We have to be prepared for them to go completely off the walls.
Random scenarios are already starting to creep out of the woodwork. John Henson to New York, anyone?
Terry Rozier is also back on the Knicks' radar. He told Bleacher Report's Jonathan Abrams he nearly signed with them in free agency, and as SNY's Ian Begley noted, they've talked to the Charlotte Hornets about a Rozier-for-Randle swap in some form.
That's...not entirely absurd.
Rozier is in the first season of a three-year, $56.7 million deal. His salary is fully guaranteed in the final go-round, but he signed for the same amount of money they guaranteed Randle. And while he wouldn't completely solve the Knicks' point guard problems, he has shown he can thrive off the ball beside Devonte' Graham and scrap on the defensive end. A three-guard lineup featuring him, Barrett and Ntilikina has some potential pizzazz to it.
Beyond that, there's always the even curvier curveballs—the moves and targets we can barely fathom.
Perhaps they surprise us in a good way by acting as an intermediary for a larger deal that nets them picks or prospects. Or maybe they find a team actually looking to get off immediate money. Both the Heat and Blazers could be looking to duck the tax.
Moral of the story: The Knicks are the NBA's (not-so-)great unknown heading into the trade deadline. Don't pretend to know what they're going to do. No one does—including, most likely, the Knicks themselves.