CLEVELAND, Ohio — Donovan Mitchell was tired of talking about New York two months ago.
Moments after Mitchell’s Cavs lost a playoff series to a Knicks team that — you may have heard — nearly acquired him last summer, the star guard said he had moved on from that potential destination. The story was manufactured by the media in Mitchell’s view and he was ready to kill it.
“I didn’t go there,” Mitchell said after Cleveland’s Game 5 loss in Round 1. “I’m here. They beat us. It’s over. You know what I mean?”
Not quite. Mitchell can bemoan the comparisons all he likes, but they’re more relevant than ever now that New York is standing in his path to a title. Put bluntly: The Knicks dutifully entertained Mitchell’s new team, and they did so in part because of the pieces they enjoyed by not trading for him.
What happens if New York widens the gap? The Cavs expect to improve internally and add impact role players this summer. But the Knicks can still move four protected first-round picks of their own, potentially four more protected first-rounders they acquired from other teams, plus some of their non-Brunson in pursuit of another star.
That makes New York’s offseason (along with Boston’s, Milwaukee’s and Philadelphia’s) worth monitoring and discussing this summer, whether Mitchell likes it or not.
The Knicks enter this offseason riding high on Brunson’s coattails (or braids), but exceeding expectations only raises the bar in New York. And as successful as last season was, the ending showed just how badly the Knicks need more juice.
New York finished 13th among playoff teams in offensive rating and last among teams that won their first-round series. Brunson proved he was ready for the moment, averaging 27.8 points per game. game on 47.4% shooting. But Josh Hart was the only other Knick to average double figures (10.4 points per game) on at least 45% shooting (47.9%).
RJ Barrett had moments – six 20-point games in 11 – but ended on a sour note with his 1-of-10 performance in Game 6 against the Heat. Immanuel Quickley played strong defense, but he scored in single figures as often (four times) as he did in double figures last postseason. And Julius Randle played through the injury, but in two postseason runs (15 playoff games) with the Knicks, he has shot 34.4% from the field. He has shot 50% or better twice.
That’s three of New York’s top five scorers from a year ago (Brunson and Hart. Quickley and Barrett are still young enough — 24 and 23, respectively — to make another leap. And maybe we’d consider Randle differently if he wanted stayed healthy last offseason.
But Brunson needs a partner. And if the Knicks don’t think they have one on the roster, it’s time to look elsewhere.
Cross Bradley Beal, who was traded to the Suns over the weekend, off the Knicks’ roster. But the offseason is still young. Who knows, New York could do better.
Damian Lillard is a difficult fit, especially on defense, with Brunson, but the Portland star could be on the way if the Trailblazers don’t trade picks for veterans during this week’s NBA Draft. And if you’re looking for offense, Lillard has scored at least 24 points per game. game of at least 55% true shooting in eight straight seasons.
What about Zion Williamson? Athletics reported Tuesday that Williamson is “pretty unlikely” to be traded before Thursday’s draft, but what about after? Williamson played college ball with Barrett and has previously spoken glowingly of Madison Square Garden. He has only played 28.5 games per season during his four-year career, but he has made two all-star teams despite that distinction.
Trading Williamson would be a risky health bet, but he would be a perfect fit for New York’s bully ball ethos. Think Randle, but stronger, more efficient and more selfless.
Given that Leon Rose, New York’s president of basketball operations, is a former agent at Creative Artists Agency, those relationships should also be monitored. Williamson is represented by CAA, as is Karl-Anthony Towns, whose name also appears semi-frequently in trade rumors. If the Clippers decide to reshuffle their roster, don’t sleep on Paul George.
The roster could evolve significantly between now and training camp. NBA stars seem less content than ever to stay home. Given New York’s assets and mended hoops brand, it deserves a mention every time a prominent player expresses displeasure with his organization.
Consider this possibility: The Knicks beat Cleveland soundly last postseason, and they have significantly more room for improvement this summer.
It is not a perspective based solely on a one-year curve. If Evan Mobley makes the jump this offseason, Cleveland could rise to another level even if the Knicks trade someone like Towns or Lillard.
But New York’s opportunity at hand could revive a dormant NBA man if managed properly. From 1966-1975, the Knicks made nine consecutive playoff appearances, four conference finals and won two championships. From 1988-2001, New York made 13 straight playoff appearances, four conference finals, and lost in the finals twice.
The Knicks don’t hang banners like the Celtics or Lakers, but they’re still an iconic franchise in an iconic city. When they get good, they tend to stay good.
We’ve mocked them for most of this century as potential star-makers, but the joke isn’t so funny anymore. The Knicks might have regained their mojo. And a star signing this summer might be all it takes to land more down the road.
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