For a team perpetually tied to a blockbuster trade involving a rival organization’s superstar center, the Knicks feel good about their options at the five.
It’s Joel Embiid one day, Karl-Anthony Towns the next, with a wandering eye on whichever disgruntled marquee name asks for a trade. Donovan Mitchell is another star infinitely tied to the Knicks given his roots as an Elmsford, NY native and the organization’s pursuit of his services two summers ago before his trade from the Utah Jazz to the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Mitchell remains linked to New York even after the Knicks upset his Cavaliers in five games in the first round of last year’s playoff run.
“Those are never going to go away,” backup Knicks forward Josh Hart told reporters in Cleveland, discussing the Mitchell trade rumors. “He’s from New York. New York is never going to let that go away. So you’ll never know what happens. That’s for the future, that’s for Knicks Twitter to talk about, and have rumors about, and put up stats of God knows what. But everyone knows that will be an underlying thing.”
Tying the Knicks to every hypothetical trade is a treasure chest of assets, including seven tradable first-round picks, Evan Fournier’s $19 million expiring contract, and a mix of star-level veteran players and young players with high potential who can be moved to facilitate a deal.
It’s why the Knicks are considered major players for Embiid, Towns, Mitchell and every other star whose name hits the rumor mill: They have the assets and are reportedly in the market to make a deal that makes them true title contenders.
Head coach Tom Thibodeau, however, believes the team is well-positioned at the five, a belief substantiated by the way his pair of centers have played to start the season.
Starting big man Mitchell Robinson’s blend of active hands and springy bounce makes him a terror on defense whose rim-rolling pressure on the rim generates offensive opportunities for his teammates. And backing him up is Isaiah Hartenstein, who appeared in all 82 games for the Knicks last season and is valuable as a steady rebounding presence who can make plays with the pass and score at the rim.
“[Isaiah] and Mitch together, it’s a great tandem,” Thibodeau said ahead of tipoff against the Cleveland Cavaliers on Wednesday. “They compliment each other extremely well, they support each other, they’re great teammates. You throw Jericho [Sims] in there as well, that position, we feel pretty good about it.”
Robinson is averaging about six points, 10 rebounds, two steals and 1.5 blocks per game, but his value far exceeds any metric reflected on a traditional box score.
“I think to his teammates, the people in our organization, there’s a great appreciation because oftentimes, there’s not really a stat for that, and it’s so vital to the team,” Thibodeau said. “That’s what makes everything go. So the rim protection, and then offensively the screening, and then rolling to the rim, force the defense to collapse. That’s unselfishness. And when you do that, you’re making a commitment to the team. So I know his teammates appreciate him, and certainly the coaches and our entire organization, front office. He has great value.”
But will they upgrade at the five? Will the Knicks empty the cupboard if it meant acquiring a superstar player? More importantly, is one superstar player enough to bring the Knicks on par with East juggernauts Boston and Milwaukee, or will Rose’s front office need to pull off two trades?
The Knicks certainly have the assets to do so.
Their window to strike a deal also appears to be opening: Embiid’s situation is fluid now that the Philadelphia 76ers have officially traded James Harden to the Los Angeles Clippers in exchange for a haul of assets and role players that does not include a star-level player. If the Sixers fail to strike a subsequent deal that re-routes those assets elsewhere (a trade for Chicago’s Zach LaVine or Toronto’s OG Anunoby, for example), Embiid could grow frustrated with the distance between the Sixers and the East’s other true contenders.
And then there’s Towns, formerly represented by ex-CAA power agent turned Knicks president Leon Rose. It’s clear the Minnesota Timberwolves are building around superstar guard Anthony Edwards. The Wolves could shake things up if Minnesota fails to make a deep playoff run this season, and the change will likely occur in the front court with Towns and Rudy Gobert.
It’s unclear, however, if Towns is the kind of player who makes the Knicks championship contenders. The returns after nearly a decade in Minnesota suggest he is a supplementary player, but a change of scenery could work wonders for the Edison, NJ native.
Thibodeau is focused on building with the group he has in his locker room, but it’s clear the Knicks are looking for an edge over the rest. On the eve of the Knicks’ season opener against the Boston Celtics, a very specific report out of Philadelphia suggested the organization would be willing to trade three of Randle, Barrett, Robinson and Fournier as well as draft compensation to pry Embiid from Philly.
“[Trade rumors are] part of the NBA now, so it’s like, obviously we’re not dealing with any hypotheticals,” Thibodeau said after Tuesday’s practice in Tarrytown. “We love the guys we have. Leon’s [Knicks president Leon Rose] job is to survey the league, which he does. He and his staff are on top of everything.
“So if there’s something at the end of the day that can make the team better, he’ll take a look at it, but if not, just keep going forward. We love the guys we have. Just focus on our improvement and get ready to play day by day.”