It’s been nearly a week since reports emerged from the New York Knicks and Utah Jazz discussing a possible swap for three-time All-Star Donovan Mitchell. The off-season is at the point where it should come to an end. But that doesn’t happen.
The situations between Mitchell and Kevin Durant remain. On the other hand, a grueling process should have been expected all along — especially with Mitchell and the Knicks.
It makes sense that Mitchell would end up in New York. He’s from the area. The Knicks front office has made a list of encouraging young players and plenty of draft picks in hopes of one day using them to land a star. Mitchell has always been one of the supposed targets. Meanwhile, the Jazz turn to a conversion. They don’t care as much about a trade with the Knicks as they do for the New York picks. But even if these two teams seem like an ideal match, it’s no coincidence that this takes some time.
In an article last week, I compared Jazz CEO Danny Ainge to Philadelphia 76ers President Daryl Morey, as both have strong stomachs for waiting out awkward situations – a reference, of course, to how Morey has been dating Ben Simmons in recent months has held on to the season even as the uneasiness between Simmons and Philadelphia seemed to have grown more and more untenable. But in reality, Ainge’s business persona differs somewhat from Morey’s.
From time to time, when he turns his heart to a player, Morey will chase after Trades. Ainge is famous for setting a price on a man he wants to trade with, or one he is trying to acquire, and then await the situation until someone pays that exact cost.
Don’t want to trade six or seven first rounds for Mitchell? Fine. Ainge will hang up the phone and flee to the golf course with no regrets.
Toronto Raptors President Masai Ujiri is using a similar negotiating strategy. Some call it stubborn. Considering the success both Ujiri and Ainge have had, it might be more appropriate to call it principled.
So this adventure drags on (although New York seems like an intuitive next stop for Mitchell) and not just because of the characters on the jazz side.
Ainge’s mentality clashes with the Knicks’ reputation.
Leon Rose is New York’s team president, but he doesn’t do most of the day-to-day trade talks. In most cases, this is the vice president of basketball and strategic planning, Brock Aller, who oversees the administration of salary caps. Every once in a while someone else takes the reins, especially when another Knicks higher up has a solid relationship with an executive in an opposing front office with whom they are trying to strike a deal.
General Manager Scott Perry was instrumental in the draft-day trades with the Oklahoma City Thunder and Detroit Pistons due to his relationships with Thunder GM Sam Presti and Pistons GM Troy Weaver. Both Perry and Weaver worked under Presti in OKC.
However, Aller calls most frequently. Rose will often step in towards the end to close deals.
Everyone is obsessed with the limit, which should be refreshing for Knicks fans who remain traumatized by past teams unnecessarily tossing first-round picks down the chimney. He wants to keep picks and acquire others. He notoriously only squeezes teams for draft rights for an extra player, which is far more trivial for most others.
And so the Jazz and Knicks have the quintessential dynamic to make negotiations linger.
One side is famous for setting a price and sticking to it; the other is known for haggling over details so meticulously that trading partners have sometimes relented, only to end the conversation and close the deal.
Why do the design rights even matter for this 27-year-old guy who was voted 47th seven years ago?
Perhaps one side is desperate enough to trip over the other’s prize. Or maybe they both realize that meeting in the middle is best for everyone and gets something done sooner. But the Knicks aren’t the only team targeting Mitchell. If this saga goes on any longer than it already has, then the personalities involved will likely play a part in it.
Whether or not a Mitchell-to-the-Knicks deal goes through will amount to a value well beyond marginal.
For all the talk about how many draft picks the Jazz wants back for the 25-year-old, it’s become clear over the past week that the quantity of the pick isn’t as important as the quality.
The Knicks have four first-round picks from other teams (the Washington Wizards in 2023, the Dallas Mavericks in 23, the Pistons in 23, and the Milwaukee Bucks in 25) as well as all of their own. Each of the Dallas, Washington, Detroit and Milwaukee picks are protected. A lot can happen between now and 2025, and injuries can always send a team down the table, but the Bucks’ choice likely won’t be in the lottery. The Mavs’ will most likely fall into their 20s next summer. The other two picks can never get better than the ninth because of the way they are protected.
The discourse was about how many draft picks Jazz wants. But if the Knicks were to dish out six first-rounders for Mitchell, for example, there would be a key difference between sending the four from other teams, along with one unprotected in 2023 and one protected in 25, and sending four unprotected of their own as well as those from Washington and Detroit. The latter deal mortgages New York’s future in a way the former doesn’t. And the discrepancy between those two packages requires more than pawn shops.
The irony of the Knicks’ position is that in another world, they might not need to include as many picks in a deal for Mitchell.
This team has drafted well since Rose took over the front office, moving from the 2020 and ’21 drafts with Obi Toppin (No. 8 in ’20), Immanuel Quickley (No. 25 in ’20), Quentin Grimes (No. 25 in ’21), Miles McBride (No. 36 in ’21) and Jericho Sims (No. 58 in ’21). Each of these players has a chance to become a real contributor to a winning team. Some are already at this level. (It’s too early to tell about 2022 runner-up Trevor Keels.) And then there’s 22-year-old RJ Barrett.
But last season, the Knicks signed veterans to play many of the aforementioned youngsters, a strategy that can hurt trade negotiations with other teams. For example, if Toppin could play consistently in 2021-22, he could have more value. Instead, he’s been a stern backup, and when the Knicks insist he’s better in trade talks with the Jazz or anyone else, it’s easy to counter by asking, “If he’s better than a 16-minute player, then why are you playing him only 16 minutes?”
If the Knicks had played more against Toppin, if they had put Quickley on offense ahead of the last few weeks of the season, then maybe one or both could have exploded before spring (a time when production from losing teams is always in question comes ), and maybe these guys’ hypothetically higher value could have saved them a pick or two in a Mitchell trade.
Quentin Grimes, who is making strides in Las Vegas, where he just landed in the All-Summer League first-team, certainly doesn’t hurt the Knicks’ cause. Neither does Ainge’s representative for loving combo guardians. He was a big fan of Quickley, who led the 2020 draft.
But none of that matters if the Knicks and Jazz don’t find a way to meet in the middle.
Jazz knows the Knicks have been fighting for a star for years. The Knicks know their B package is better than any A package from other alleged Mitchell suitors. Both sides are diligently trying to do business.
They are perfect trading partners but imperfect negotiators. Right now it seems like each side is waiting for the other to blink.
(Photo by Danny Ainge: Jeffrey Swinger / USA Today)