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Should the Knicks trade for Zach LaVine?

P&T writers Lee Escobedo and Kento Kato discuss

New York Knicks v Chicago Bulls
Old pals.
Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

Another week, another hypothetical Knicks trade target. This time it’s Zach LaVine, the best player on an under-performing Chicago Bulls team that the New York Knicks beat in back-to-back games this week. The Knicks have shortened the roster to a nine-man rotation, tightening up the perimeter defense and leading to a six-game win streak, There are clear players on the outside looking in, namely Derrick Rose, Evan Fournier, and Cam Reddish. Even Immanuel Quickley has been mentioned in recent trade rumors. LaVine would certainly be considered a star acquisition if the Knicks went after him, but should they?

I am excited to jump into this conversation, as I have admired Kento Kato’s work from afar and have not yet had a chance to discuss much with him in a tête-à-tête scenario. Here we get into the nitty gritty of a potential LaVine scenario.

Escobedo: Kento, thanks for joining me on this discussion. I was inspired by your recent piece on why the Knicks should not consider a trade for LaVine and wanted to go in deeper, as I disagreed 100% with your stance. I’ll state off simply: LaVine would be the best player on this Knicks team if he were acquired. I know he is only averaging 21 ppg this season, but the last four seasons prior show what he has become as a scorer. While I do not categorize him as a superstar, nor do I have him on the same level as Donovan Mitchell, I think he possesses that electric factor needed to thrive at the Garden. The Jazz wanted three Knicks first-round picks plus two swaps, which would have equaled five straight years of draft capital. Plus, Danny Ainge wanted RJ Barrett, Immanuel Quickly, and Obi Toppin. That was way too steep in my mind.

Concerning LaVine, he has the game and the attitude to make MSG his home and duel with any superstar who comes in thinking otherwise. In the end, it would depend on the package, but he is someone for whom I would absolutely consider giving up a fair portion of our asset capital, while also not wanting to give up what was offered for Mitchell. Two Knicks first-round picks, a swap, RJ Barrett, Quickley, and a Rose/Chicago return is a fair package I would be willing to give up for LaVine. I know there are major concerns around his knees, but to me, it’s worth the payoff as long as the outgoing package doesn’t handicap us completely.

Kento: Thanks for bringing me in on this discussion Lee! I agree 100% with the sentiment that he’d be the best player on the Knicks, and that he has the confidence and mentality to shoulder the pressure and expectations that come with being a Knick and playing in New York. I think the Knicks would instantly turn into a consistent playoff team, something we haven’t been able to say for a long time, and that’d be incredibly fun to see.

That said, I can’t see a situation where the Knicks get any further than the second round at best. As good as LaVine has been over the last four seasons, he’s never been a part of a team that has gone far, let alone been the go-to player on one. So it may ultimately come down to what fans and this front office are ultimately aiming for. Do they want a team that could win 50 games and win a playoff series? Because if that’s the case, then yes, you can justify giving up a few of the kids and multiple picks. But, if this franchise and the fans want that elusive championship, or even the chance to compete for one, then I just can’t convince myself that this would get the Knicks that much closer. Because, as is the case with any other trade, you’re looking at not just adding LaVine, but also giving pieces up. The Knicks would be left with a solid but far-from-elite Big 3 of LaVine, Randle, and Brunson and little depth. Not to mention that, with their package going out and the contract situation with the aforementioned Big 3, they would have very few ways to get better in the years following the trade. Keeping Barrett, Quickley, Toppin, Grimes and the picks doesn’t guarantee that they’d ever win a ring or compete for one, either. But, I’d rather the team keep their options open for a player that is better and hopefully healthier.

Again, the trade would make this team better overnight. But, having a team with multiple long-term contracts and a second-round exit as a likely ceiling just doesn’t seem worth it. As stated in my article, if the Knicks already had multiple stars or were just one piece away, then I understand risking the future to have a shot to win now. But, I personally just don’t believe much in a team where LaVine is the best player. And that’s when he is healthy.

Escobedo: Any criticism around LaVine being unable to carry a team into playoffs is valid. However, until last season, he played in a talent desert in Chicago. When Lonzo Ball was healthy and the primary on-ball guard, LaVine thrived off-ball on the wing. Arriving in New York next to Jalen Brunson would be an even better scenario. He would be a deadly catch-and-shoot perimeter threat and explosive in transition. He’s also a very solid defender and would work in Thibodeau’s switching defense as someone capable of guarding the point of attack.

If we gave up Barrett, Quickley, Rose, and two picks plus a swap, that would leave Brunson, Toppin, Julius Randle, Evan Fournier, Quentin Grimes, Cam Reddish, Mitchell Robinson, Jericho Sims, Isaiah Hartenstein, and Deuce McBride left as trade assets. Grouping three or four of them while keeping Brunson and LaVine, plus trading two or three picks, could certainly net us the third star. Keeping Brunson, LaVine, Grimes (?), and two out of our three centers would be enough to get us to the Finals.

Kento: You do make a very good point about LaVine next to Brunson. It would make for a very entertaining and deadly backcourt. And I do get your point about his time playing next to Ball. LaVine and the Bulls as a whole looked like they were headed for an incredibly successful season. Unfortunately, it wasn’t the largest sample size, as they only played together until January 14th. And when investing this big, I would just feel more comfortable with a bit bigger sample size. Not to mention that he only played 67 games last season and 58 the season before. In fact, over the last five seasons, LaVine is averaging just 54.4 games a season, which is a hard pill to swallow when remembering that he is owed over $215 million over the next five seasons. That comes out to $43 million a year for 54 games.

To your point about what the Knicks would give up and keep, it is admittedly a difficult conversation because, at this point, it’s all hypothetical. I’m under the assumption that unless things with the Bulls go tragically wrong, even more so than it already has, they won’t be looking to trade LaVine, making it difficult to get him. But, even if they were to make him available, I think the Knicks would still have to add more than Barrett, Quickley, Rose, and two picks. One, I think that despite my being against trading for LaVine, there will be at least a couple of other teams interested, leading to a bidding war of sorts.

Two, as much as I love Barrett, we have to figure that his value has dipped somewhat after signing a huge extension and starting the year pretty slowly. So, it may unfortunately end up taking a bit more to get a deal done depending on how the Bulls view Barrett and the contract that he is attached to. And even if the Knicks manage to keep Grimes, who the Bulls will certainly covet, they’d likely be without Reddish as he is already on the trading block. I also think that while I, along with many Knicks fans, love Sims and McBride, their trade value isn’t necessarily too high either. With some of the picks going to the Bulls and RJ and either Quickley or Grimes headed to Chicago, I find it hard to believe that the Knicks could get an elite star, leaving them with another Brunson or LaVine-level star. Which is, again, a much better team than they currently have, but I still can’t see a team led by Brunson, LaVine, and a top 20-30 player really beating Boston or Milwaukee in a 7-game series.

Escobedo: We are indeed dealing in hypotheticals, which makes this so fun. Let’s say you’re right, and the Bulls want more. I would be open to adding one or two of the protected firsts we have from Milwaukee and Detroit, giving the Bulls a total of four FRPs and two Knicks swaps. That’s a hefty pick package which most teams wouldn’t pass up. I would also be okay with keeping one or both of those picks and sweetening the pot with Hartenstein or Mitch’s contract while taking on Nikola Vucevic. A starting five of Brunson, LaVine, Grimes, Randle, and Vucevic/Mitch could upset a lot of teams, perhaps even get lucky and get to the ECF.

That’s not including the Mavs pick, our treasure trove of second-round picks, Toppin, Reddish, McBride, Sims, Fournier, and Rose, we would have to bundle for another star. I think acquiring LaVine makes us a very good FA and trade destination for disgruntled stars. However, it would also require us to hold firm on maintaining enough assets for another trade. Otherwise, I agree. We are not a true championship-level team. LaVine is worth the risk as an initial trade option, but all this is for naught if the Bulls turn their season around. They would have to continue trending downwards for a LaVine trade to even be considered. Yet, as a team that tried to buy a championship in free agency, they might be willing to take a swing to get younger, shed Vucevic, and take on picks. I’ll let you follow up and finish us out.

Kento: I’ve got to say that your inclusion of Vucevic makes this even more fun and interesting. Vucevic, his impact, playstyle, fit, and contract could warrant his own article, but I digress. I think that the Bulls would think very hard about the possibility of including Vucevic in an attempt to admit that their project went wrong and to pivot into a rebuild/retool ASAP. The only thing that may hold them back is ego. Financially and business-wise if they were to start over, going for the Knicks’ younger pieces and picks while shedding an injury-prone LaVine, then throwing in an aging and expensive Vucevic makes plenty of sense. That said, plenty of front offices have unfortunately made decisions because they couldn’t admit that they were wrong, or because they didn’t want to be perceived by the public in a certain way. The consensus around the league is that the Magic came out pretty good, if not ahead, of the Bulls after the Vecevic trade. So trading him now would be admitting a loss. Again, it makes sense but there’s a slight chance that their front office holds on to him in hopes that they somehow find a way to flip our assets into something else and compete sooner than later with Vucevic still there.

Now Vucevic’s fit with the Knicks is an interesting one. He could be great on offense. With Brunson and LaVine running two-man games with him, it could be very hard to stop. Not to mention (and I doubt Thibodeau would have the creativity or the open-mindedness to try this) a potential two-man game with Vucevic and Randle or Toppin. The problem with this team, if they could stay healthy, would be their defense. LaVine has the athleticism and size to be a good defender, but everywhere else, it could get really ugly. Brunson, as much as I love him, currently has a defensive rating of 114.2, Randle is someone we’ve all seen struggle with giving consistent defensive effort, and Vucevic, despite being a good rebounder, has never been great either. Outside of LaVine, and whoever the Knicks could potentially deploy at the small forward position, it’s a lineup that lacks size at the point guard position, and quickness and athleticism down low defensively. Last but not least, regardless of what roster the team runs out there, Thibodeau may hold them back. He’s definitely had his ups with the franchise, but he’s also had a lot of downs. I think it would be hard for him to maximize a talent like LaVine and even Vucevic, who both have many skills and strengths.

I do also agree that with or without Vucevic, the Knicks could become an intriguing free agent or trade destination. It’s a big IF, but if LaVine were to come and stay healthy and the Knicks found a way to somehow keep a couple of draft picks and young pieces, they’d be in a solid position going forward. Again, I think it ultimately comes down to what they would have to give up, which is something we both agree on, and how good LaVine can be, alongside Brunson and either Randle or another second or third-tier star. We can agree to disagree but having been a fan through some of the worst front-office decisions, I will admit that it’s nice to at least be in a position where these kinds of trades and opportunities are even possible. Hopefully the Knicks, whatever they end up doing or not doing, continue to be patient and smart and aim for not just mediocrity, but sustained long-term success. Thanks again for having me on! Til next time.