The Summer of Donovan Mitchell took many detours and finally stopped at Cleveland. For better or worse, the Knicks held their negotiating posture and lost their path to an All-Star.
Mitchell, who desired a return home to New York, was dealt Thursday from the Jazz to the Cavaliers for a package that included point guard Collin Sexton and three unprotected first-round picks, a source confirmed.
The Jazz also received Lauri Markkanen, Ochai Agbaji and two pick swaps. It’s a decent bundle but not the crazy haul many expected for Mitchell, after Rudy Gobert retrieved the Jazz five first rounders.
The Knicks pursued Mitchell throughout the offseason and carried the draft capital to eclipse Cleveland’s proposal, but team president Leon Rose got cold feet at the idea of emptying his treasure chest. The Knicks, per sources, were unwilling to give up three unprotected first-round picks.
Contrary to a report, a league source said the Knicks were amenable to giving up any of their prospects, including Quentin Grimes, Immanuel Quickley and Obi Toppin.
The Knicks also had RJ Barrett as a potential trade centerpiece before extending his contract this week. Barrett’s new contract – which reaches $120 million over four years with bonuses – made him difficult to trade and reportedly opened the door for the Cavaliers’ offer. Not coincidentally, the Knicks issued a statement Thursday announcing Barrett’s extension just as news of Mitchell’s trade hit.
Fair or not, Barrett’s play in New York will now be compared to Mitchell’s impact in Cleveland.
“At only 22 years old, he has elevated his game each season, solidifying himself as a force on both ends of the court,” Rose said in a statement about Barrett.
Mitchell, 25, a three-time All-Star, is an elite athlete and scorer who would’ve realigned the Knicks’ expectations and the totem pole. But there were questions about his fit next to fellow undersized guard Jalen Brunson while incorporating another ball-dominant player alongside Julius Randle.
Although choosing Barrett over Mitchell will dominate Thursday’s headlines, the more appropriate evaluation is to Brunson’s four-year, $104 million contract from free agency. The Knicks traded their first-round pick to create the cap space to sign Brunson, then quickly pivoted to trade negotiations for a player who possesses similar strengths and weaknesses.
Without Mitchell, Brunson will run the offense and initiate pick-and-rolls. It was always part of his attraction to the Knicks, beyond the enormous payday. Still, Brunson doesn’t carry the same star qualities or cachet as Mitchell, who led the Jazz to the league’s top record just a year ago.
He’s a tier above the current crop of Knicks, and there’s a common phrase in the NBA about roster building: get one star and others will follow.
As it stands, the Knicks have one All-Star appearance over the last decade on their roster (Julius Randle’s in 2021). But they’re young enough to still tout development as the goal rather than playoff success, while waiting to see if Barrett reaches stardom and another prospect pops. The slow process continues with unanswered questions remaining.
Rose, the former agent who never held a front office job before joining the Knicks, still has 11 first-round picks over the next seven years, a collection many around the league believe he’ll eventually use to acquire a star in a trade.
Does Rose, who rarely speaks publicly, anticipate a better player than Mitchell becoming available? It’s hard to see who that might be. Other than lateral maneuvering and cap-space creating on draft night, the only first-round pick Rose traded during his tenure was to Atlanta for Cam Reddish last season.
It was a perplexing deal considering Reddish had no spot in the rotation, and a source confirmed Thursday that the 23-year-old wing desires a relocation.
“It’s clear Cam has no place (with the Knicks),” the source said.
Taking out the potential fit issues, Mitchell was the romantic choice for the Knicks – an opportunity for the organization to right the wrongs of Phil Jackson.
Though rooted in Connecticut, he played AAU for a Manhattan-based program, The City, and dunked his first ball at a Harlem court because the blacktop was slightly slanted. Despite the Knicks being stuck in misery for most of his life, Mitchell hoped Jackson would use that eighth pick on him in 2017.
Mitchell’s father, Donovan Sr., an executive with the Mets, told the Daily News he keeps a signed Frank Ntilikina jersey hanging in his home. Ntilikina was picked by the Knicks instead of Mitchell, and the assumption is the uniform is more of a motivating reminder than treasured memorabilia for Donovan Sr.
But the Cavaliers, who are clearly gunning for contention after entering the play-in tournament last season, took advantage of the Knicks’ hesitancy and won the sweepstakes. The Knicks are still the Knicks.