Never forget the mission.
The New York Knicks want to trade for a star. Not sign one. Not increase their chances of drafting one. They want to trade for one and then trade for another.
Make sure to assess the front office within that context.
It’s why the Knicks flipped the No. 19 pick for a future first-rounder on NBA Draft night in 2021. It’s why they exchanged No. 11 for three future firsts the following summer. It’s why they’ve signed veterans in the hopes of being competitive enough to make it onto a headliner’s vaunted list.
Knicks leadership is a 1990s teen angst band; they just want someone to want them. It’s why they’ve held onto all of their picks and why they’ve clutched onto their young players so tightly that they wouldn’t even spin them into Donovan Mitchell. Losing too many of them along with too many draft picks would mean not having enough left over to trade for a second star — and, to paraphrase something a general manager once told me, the price of having one star is two stars.
During his few public-facing appearances with the team’s television network, Knicks president Leon Rose has discussed the organization’s long-term flexibility while alluding to that plan. Star packages consist of young talent and lots of picks. The Knicks have both, which must mean they’re in good shape.
But what happens when a team has flexibility within Plan A but opts against forming Plans B and C?
Quickley hasn’t shot well over the Knicks’ first 18 games. His efficiency has plummeted since his rookie season, but he’s vastly improved as a defender. He’s one of the squad’s best helpers and is handsy guarding dribblers. He pushes the pace and is a loose-ball fiend. Quickley has trended unexpectedly since bursting onto the scene in 2020-21: from an instant-offense bucket-getter who didn’t give the Knicks much if he wasn’t scoring, to a do-the-little-things pest whose offense is too inconsistent.
Still, the Knicks are steadily better when he plays. And yet, he rests cleanly on the trade block.
After years of the front office white-knuckling its young guys, why is Quickley all of a sudden expendable? How did this happen?
It’s difficult to muse about the Knicks’ philosophies without circling back to the grand plan.
The Knicks waited long enough in their quest for a star that the young players they hoped could form the core of a big-time trade are about to lose what makes them the most attractive: their cheapness.
Whatever the specific reasons the Knicks have for listening to offers on Quickley, remember how moves of the past have fit into Plan A. The Knicks churned the 19th selection in 2021 into a future first-rounder because, at the time, they believed the hopes and dreams that draft picks represent would be more attractive in a trade for a star than the certainty of an actual human, which is what they would have had if they’d drafted at No. 19. According to sources around the league, the Knicks have targeted a future first-round pick in a return for Quickley, who is extension-eligible this upcoming summer.
And thus, it all starts to make sense.
Maybe a hypothetical Quickley trade won’t be for a draft pick. Maybe the Knicks deal him for something that helps them today. Maybe they include him in a bigger package. Or maybe they end up holding onto him for so long that he retires years from now with New York across his chest. Who knows how this ends?
Organizations talk trades with other teams all the time. It’s not worth evaluating them until they are official. But based on where Quickley is in his contract and based on what the Knicks are telling other teams they’d like back for him, this is as good a moment as any to check in on that long-term plan and how the 23-year-old guard fits into it.
Extension eligibility is a major milestone for young players. Quickley is cheap this season and the next one, but once he earns his market value (or at least can threaten that an organization has to pay it to him) anyone considering lusting after him in a trade will think about him differently. The same concept also surrounds Obi Toppin, who is extension eligible in summer 2023.
If the Knicks lock in on a star in July or August, whichever team they’re talking to might just prefer an extra pick instead of the role player who’s about to get paid. A similar conversation surrounded the Utah Jazz and RJ Barrett this past offseason, though Utah ended up making a play for Barrett anyway.
The current front office has valued its talent highly in trade negotiations of the past, even if it hasn’t shown faith in clearing the roster so its younger members can play abundantly. The Knicks watched the team move with a different energy around Toppin last season and decided to re-sign Mitchell Robinson, add Isaiah Hartenstein, re-sign Jericho Sims and hold onto Julius Randle, blocking Toppin’s path once again. They held onto Evan Fournier and Derrick Rose and are now overloaded with guards, enough so that it took an injury to Cam Reddish over the weekend just to get Quentin Grimes back into the rotation. Trading away one rotation player without bringing one back (à la flipping a guard for a draft pick) would grease the situation. It’s how Rose ends up on the trade block, as well, according to Charania’s report.
But the Quickley case, more so than the Rose one, is what inspires ruminating about the Knicks’ swing-for-the-fences ideology.
Rose is 34 and playing 13 minutes a game. His contract expires after this season. Meanwhile, Quickley should be part of the future. Yet, holding onto him could mean locking into a middling roster.
The Knicks’ cap sheet isn’t so flexible.
In 2024-25, which would be the first season of a Quickley or Toppin extension, the salaries of just Jalen Brunson, Julius Randle, Robinson, Barrett and Grimes add up to $97 million. Let’s say the Knicks hypothetically re-signed Quickley and Toppin for approximately the midlevel exception each. That would bring them to the ballpark of $120 million to pay for less than half the roster.
The cap projects to be around $140 million that season, but it’s not like the team would have $20 million in room. It would need to fill seven-to-eight more roster spots. It would need to decide on Reddish (a free agent after this season), Hartenstein (a free agent in 2024) and Sims (who the Knicks would almost certainly bring back in this scenario since he has a cheap non-guarantee for the 2024-25 season).
All of this would be for a group that, so far, seems to cap out as a Play-In Tournament hopeful. Meanwhile, the five players still under contract make up the current starting lineup, which has been an unnatural fit together. It’s not like the Knicks could just as easily trade someone from that quintet instead of Quickley in the hopes of wiping long-term money off their books. All of those guys are either too good to cope with losing or too expensive to command as lucrative a return as Quickley hypothetically could.
The Knicks saw the modern craze of stars demanding out before they hit free agency and figured the best way to take advantage of the new norm was to set themselves up for trades. Be competitive enough to boast a desirable basketball situation in a large market and let the big name choose you, just like the Brooklyn Nets did with Kyrie Irving, Kevin Durant and James Harden or the LA Clippers did with Paul George and Kawhi Leonard or the Los Angeles Lakers did with Anthony Davis, and so on.
But all of those examples came in situations where teams were malleable enough to do more than just trade for someone. The Nets had the cap room to sign Irving and Durant, then used a glut of players and picks to deal for Harden. The Clippers traded for George but signed Leonard. The Lakers traded for Davis but only after they signed LeBron James.
The reality is that the Knicks’ supposed flexibility extends only to the first star trade. If acquiring Mitchell would have left the cupboard too bare to trade for a second star, then the next available star who is as good as or better than Mitchell and thus costs as much as or more than Mitchell will leave the front office engaged in the same conversation.
How could we trade all this great stuff for this great player if we’re left with too little to land him a co-star?
It feels like the cycle could continue in perpetuity.
The Knicks gave themselves little room to deviate from Plan A. And now they’re conversing about Quickley.
They won’t tank, which would increase their chances of drafting a star. An organization can get lucky with the 15th pick, but there’s a reason selections like Leonard and Giannis Antetokounmpo are ones we marvel over; they’re not the norm. Meanwhile, they’ve locked up their roster with enough long-term money that it would require serious cap gymnastics (and attaching first-round picks to some of the bigger contracts on their books) to sign one.
Gymnastics aren’t easy when you’re not as flexible as you claim.
(Top photo of Quickley: Al Bello / Getty Images)