With the 11th pick in the 2022 Draft, the New York Knicks select… Cap Space
The Knicks are sprinting full speed towards no-man's land. They won't be good enough to make the playoffs (or make any noise if they get in) and won't be bad enough to land a top lottery pick...
The Knicks weren't officially eliminated from playoff contention last season until April, but when New York lost eight of their final nine games before the All-Star break and fell 11 games under .500 in late February, it was clear to all rational observers that the 'Bockers weren't advancing to the postseason. At that point, a lot of fans checked out, but the die-hard supporters began to look forward, searching for reasons to be optimistic about the future of the franchise.
Well, the Knicks would surely play their young guys heavy minutes over the second half of the season, right? As we know, that didn't happen until injuries forced Thibs' hand. Inexplicably, 30-year-old shooting guard Alec Burks started at point guard in each of the Knicks' first 22 games after the All-Star break, and Obi Toppin continued to see limited playing time until a quad issue sidelined Randle. (We learned this week that Burks, who finished in the top-10 in minutes played over the season's second half, underwent foot surgery shortly after the season finale.)
The other beacon of hope that buoys a fanbase is the anticipation and promise of a lottery pick. The Knicks ended up with the 11th overall pick in the 2022 draft, and a handful of enticing prospects were projected to land in that range. Fans spent weeks watching highlight packages and reading about the pros and cons of each prospective player. Which young stud would New York add to their core? Could they steal a star? Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Domantas Sabonis, Myles Turner, and Klay Thompson were all drafted at No. 11 in recent years.
Ultimately, the Knicks didn't add anybody.
With New York on the clock, it was announced that the Knicks traded their pick to the OKC Thunder. Chaos ensued over the next hour as confused fans scrolled through Twitter, searching for clarity as to who (or what) the Knicks might end up with.
When the dust settled, we learned that team president Leon Rose had traded away the 11th pick, Kemba Walker and four future second-round selections in exchange for increased cap space and three future, conditional first-round selections.
Here are the three picks the Knicks now own:
* The Detroit Pistons' first-round pick (via Houston to Oklahoma City), which is protected for selections 1-18 in 2023, 1-18 in 2024, 1-13 in 2025, 1-11 in 2026 and 1-9 in 2027. If Detroit has not conveyed a first-round pick to New York by 2027, then Detroit will instead convey its 2027 2nd round pick to New York.
* The Washington Wizards' first-round pick (via Houston to Oklahoma City), which is protected for selections 1-14 in 2023, 1-12 in 2024, 1-10 in 2025 and 1-8 in 2026. If Washington has not conveyed a first-round pick to New York by 2026, then Washington will instead convey its 2026 second-round pick and 2027 second-round pick to New York.
* The Milwaukee Bucks 2025 first-round pick, which is protected for selections 1-4. Milwaukee's obligation will extinguish if they land in the top 4 in 2025.
On the surface, turning a late lottery pick into three future firsts seems like a very respectable return. However, the protections on each pick are crucial to assessing their value. Moreover, it is what these moves by the Knicks signal that should be considered distressing.
If it wasn't already, the Knicks' desperate pursuit of Dallas Mavericks guard Jalen Brunson is now the league's worst-kept secret. (If not Brunson, the other likely option with excess cap space is Kyrie Irving, which would be beyond asinine.)
The New York front office attaching a first-round pick and four (!!) second-rounders to the expiring contract of Kemba Walker, who is owed $9.1 million next season, drops the Knicks down to $104 in committed salaries for the 2022-23 campaign.
Assuming they waive Taj Gibson and retain Mitchell Robinson's cap hold, New York will be looking at around $18 million in cap space. However, this won't be enough to pry Brunson away from the Mavs. Speaking with reporters after last night's draft, Mavs GM Nico Harrison said it was "expected" that the Knicks would make moves to create cap space. When asked about Dallas' chances of re-signing Brunson, Harrison replied: "Until he tells us that he doesn't want to be here, we're optimistic."
The Knicks will have to rid themselves of another contract to clear the cap room necessary to make a legitimate run at Brunson. The most likely candidates are either Alec Burks (owed $10 million in 2022-23) or Nerlens Noel (owed $9.2 million). Based on what New York sacrificed to shed Kemba's salary, we have to assume the Knicks will have to attach significant additional draft capital or a young player to get rid of Burks or Noel. The Knicks would be roughly $28 million under the cap by trading either player and not taking any salary back.
At that point, the Knicks could offer Brunson something in the neighborhood of $120 million over four years.
Now, before I get into why this is an appalling plan, let me first point out that I'm higher on Brunson than most. I'm a believer in his ability as a connector on the court. Although he's a bit undersized for a combo guard and doesn't possess the quickness or athleticism you hope for in an impact player, he finds ways to contribute and helps his team win basketball games. Back in January, I wrote a long post on why I thought the Knicks should trade for Brunson at the deadline. However, Brunson's value has skyrocketed over the past few months. He excelled when Luka Doncic was injured during the regular season and was the Mavs' second-leading scorer in their playoff run to the Western Conference Finals.
If you want to build a competitive NBA roster, signing players to value-based, team-friendly contracts is critical. That often means avoiding overpaying for players coming off career years. Keep in mind, Brunson would have happily signed the four-year, $56 million extension he was eligible to ink last summer or before the All-Star break, but Dallas decided they weren't willing to commit that type of guaranteed money. It certainly paid off for Brunson, who proved he could excel next to Doncic.
But how would Brunson handle the pressure of being a near-max player in NYC? Going from making less than $2 million and being a sidekick alongside a ball-dominant guard in Dallas, to a player New York fans are going to demand max production from is a precarious jump. If Brunson's dad wasn't employed by the Knicks and his former agent wasn't running the Knicks, might those close to Brunson advise him that staying in Dallas was the best decision career-wise?
Again, I'm pro-Brunson, but at the right price. At $16 million per season, that's probably solid value. At $20 million per, I'm probably passing. At $28 million annually… c'mon, bro. That would make Brunson one of the 50 highest-paid players in the NBA. He'd be earning the same salary as Chris Paul and $7 million more than All-Star Fred VanVleet.
In that scenario, the Knicks would owe Randle and Brunson a combined total of more than $235 million over the next four seasons.
It's evident that Leon Rose's grand plan is to trade for a star, but how many elite players would demand a trade to a Knicks squad where the combo of Randle and Brunson account for 50% of the team's cap space through 2026?
And that's not even factoring in the concurrent cost of clearing out the contracts required to sign Brunson this summer. Even if New York had more than $30 million to play with, I'd strongly advise against committing near-max money to Brunson. But the fact that New York will likely have to part with two first-round picks and four second-rounders for the right to buy high on Brunson is organizational malpractice.
And I haven't yet mentioned that Kemba, Burks and Noel are all players that this same front office signed less than 12 months ago! The mess they are cleaning up is of their own making.
And what's the grand plan here? What's the ultimate upside of a team featuring Randle and Brunson as the two highest-paid players on the roster?
Earlier this week, ESPN's Tim Tim MacMahon authored a story about the Rockets' rebuild, in which he explained how Houston feared being stuck in NBA purgatory when James Harden forced a trade. "The NBA punishes the middle," said GM Rafael Stone. "That's just the way the system is set up." So the Rockets loaded up on picks, projects and patience, MacMahon wrote.
The team that drafted Knicks' target Jaden Ivey last night was the Pistons. They now have a backcourt featuring Ivey, last year's No. overall pick Cade Cunningham, and also added stud big man Jalen Duren via the three-way deal with the Knicks.
The Knicks are sprinting full speed towards no-man's land. They won't be good enough to make the playoffs (or make any noise if they get in) and won't be bad enough to land a top lottery pick anytime soon. That's the NBA's version of death valley.
Next year's draft features a handful of potentially franchise-changing talent. Victor Wembanyama, the presumptive No. 1 overall pick, is regarded as arguably the most promising prospect since LeBron James. Guard Scoot Henderson is special.
Alas, we've seen this show before. Incredibly, the Knicks have lost more games than any other NBA team this century yet have never landed the top pick in the draft. Or even a No. 2. That's what happens when you don't fully commit to a rebuild and perpetually kick the can down the road.
As I wrote on Wednesday, why not turn over the reins to Immanuel Quickley? Let him run the point for an entire season. If IQ (who is set to make just $2.3 million) flops, the Knicks increase their chances of jumping up in the 2023 lottery while also entering next summer with plenty of cap space.
Choosing not to give a promising player like IQ an opportunity to start at PG next season is one thing… but for a team that should be rebuilding to trade away five draft picks just to clear cap space to overpay a point guard that will maybe push the Knicks towards the 8th seed is ludicrous.