Rumors will be plentiful in the coming weeks with the NBA trade deadline less than a month away, but a new report saying the Dallas Mavericks and New York Knicks have discussed a deal that would include respective 2017 lottery picks Dennis Smith Jr. and Frank Ntilikina is suspect, and the Knicks shouldn’t consider such a swap anyway.
Knicks fans scrolling Twitter earlier this week were treated to a report from verified Tweeter Brandon Robinson, claiming the Knicks and Mavericks have talked about a trade that would see the Knicks saying farewell to Ntilikina and Tim Hardaway Jr. while bringing back Smith Jr. and Wes Matthews.
Dennis Smith Jr. trade rumors: Knicks and Mavs have discussed a Smith Jr. and Wes Matthews swap in exchange for Tim Hardaway, Jr. & Frank Ntilikina. pic.twitter.com/SgVUzpsk3y— Brandon Robinson (@ScoopB) January 15, 2019
Although Twitter was abuzz in the wake of the report and a few outlets aggregated the rumor, Robinson, whose report was posted on Heavy.com, has previous experience putting out a splashy bit of supposed news that turned out to have no legs. Over the summer, he reported that Kobe Bryant would play in The Big 3 — the 3-on-3 basketball league that was founded by Ice Cube and features former pro ballers — only to be rebuked by the likes of ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne and the Associated Press’s Brian Mahoney, the latter of which reported that the chief marketing officer of Kobe Inc. said Bryant “definitely is not playing next year.”
Forget that Kobe to the #BIG3 idea. Molly Carter, chief marketing officer of Kobe Inc., says he definitely is not playing next year.— Brian Mahoney (@briancmahoney) August 21, 2018
It’s no secret that the Mavericks are interested in offloading Smith Jr., who was drafted 9th overall in 2017 but has struggled to find his way in an offense being spectacularly run by rookie Luka Doncic. ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski and Tim MacMahon recently co-penned a story stating that the Mavericks are “escalating talks” to deal the 21-year-old, 6’3” guard, and cited league sources as saying the Phoenix Suns and Orlando Magic “have been active in talks with the Mavericks” about a trade. The report also said the Mavs have been seeking deals that would include Matthews, a 10-year NBA veteran who is in the last year of his contract but is due $18.6 million this season.
The Dallas Mavericks are escalating discussions to find a trade for point guard Dennis Smith Jr., league sources tell ESPN. Phoenix and Orlando have engaged in ongoing talks with Mavs. Smith Jr., has sat out three straight games with what team has termed a sore back.— Adrian Wojnarowski (@wojespn) January 15, 2019
Curiously, while the Knicks have been linked to the Mavs as possible trading partners, ESPN and other well-known outlets have not suggested that Ntilikina is necessarily on the chopping block, although it’s easy to see why the idea of a deal involving Ntilikina and Smith Jr. makes for a juicy story. Ntilikina was drafted one spot ahead of Smith Jr. in 2017, and LeBron James once caused a slight dustup when he clumsily attempted to take a shot at former Knickerbockers team president Phil Jackson by saying the Knicks “passed on a really good one” and noting that Smith Jr. “should be a Knick.”
Regardless of whether there’s any truth to the as-of-now unverified rumor, the deal being bandied about is not a trade the Knicks should make. Smith Jr. has showed some promise in his one-and-a-half seasons as a pro, and his ability to explode towards the hoop for dunks is something to behold, but Ntilikina has already proven that he pairs perfectly with Kristaps Porzingis, and his ridiculous length, defensive prowess and overall team-first mindset is what the Knicks of the future need.
There’s no question that Ntilikina has struggled to score consistently during a sophomore season that has been cause for frustration, but as FiveThirtyEight’s Chris Herring wrote in October, “[Ntilikina] may be the pro basketball version of Benjamin Button, a player whose skills age and develop in reverse, with defensive mastery coming before offensive.”
Ntilikina, 20-years-old, is three inches taller than Smith Jr., and his 7’1” wingspan reaches far further than the 6’3” that Smith Jr.’s arms can reach. Further, the Knicks knew they were getting a project when they drafted Ntilikina, and once again, there is already evidence that Ntilikina plus Porzingis is a match made in basketball heaven. Heck, the New York Daily News reported about a month ago that Porzingis was “among a small group of players last season who asked Jeff Hornacek to start Ntilikina at point guard,” which doesn’t definitively prove that Porzingis thinks Ntilikina should be off-limits but does suggest that he is fond of Frank.
As for the question of whether trading Ntilikina might be worth it in order to get Hardaway Jr.’s contract off the books, shedding the shooting guard is simply not a necessary enough task to justify giving up on Frank. Hardaway Jr. has two years left on his contract after this year, and he gets paid a hefty sum (almost $19 million in the final year of his deal), so the argument is that the Knicks would have an easier time finding room to sign superstars without him.
It would be nice to sign a superstar in free agency, but it’s more important that the Knicks continue to focus on building a team in the proper way. The Knicks already have one superstar in recovery in Porzingis. At 19-years-old, Kevin Knox just became the sixth youngest player in NBA history to score at least 30 points in a single game. And the team is so bad this season that they are guaranteed a high pick in the upcoming NBA draft. Now is not the time to panic and trade Ntilikina just to free up some cap space.
Meanwhile, at the moment the Knicks only have eight players under contract for next season, meaning there are ways to carve out space beyond trading a 26-year-old who has averaged almost 20 points per game this season while handling more of the offensive load than he should have to.
There are scenarios where trading Hardaway Jr. could be a positive, but this rumored trade isn’t one of them. The Knicks need guys that, around Porzingis, can coalesce into a great team. Frank fits the mold.