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Breaking: Knicks should only trade for Donovan Mitchell if they don’t overpay

Sounds obvious. It is.

Utah Jazz v New York Knicks Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images

I’m teaching in-person for the first time in three years, and wouldn’t you know it: this morning I had to go to a walk-in clinic for a Covid test. I feel lousy. In that vein, I want to talk about the rumored Knicks/Donovan Mitchell trade. This was going to be a duet with Lee Escobedo, but I keep falling asleep every every few hours; I’m afraid if I committed to that project poor Lee would be stuck waiting for my bits until it was too late to run the piece (this just happened with a prospective Knicks/Thomas Bryant piece).

One of the first things you learn in journalism is that dog-bites-man isn’t a story. The audience doesn’t need you telling them things they already know, or have seen; find them a man-bites-dog angle instead. Arguing not to trade for Mitchell unless it’s a fair deal is so very dog-bites-man. Except as a fan of this franchise, I don’t think it is. And at least for me, it completely colors my back-and-forth feelings about trading for Mitchell.

Putting aside the specific player for the moment, we have this truth: the Knicks, as a franchise, have never, ever brought in a big-time player at a reasonable price. Ever. Before free agency took off in the 1980s, the Knicks made a few trades that were straight-up steals, like their acquisition of Bob McAdoo back in 1976. But trade heists, especially pre-free agency, boiled down to one front office or owner against another. The player had no say in the deal. How has New York fared since players were able to make up their own minds?

Not great. The Knicks haven’t actually signed many big-time free agents. Allan Houston wasn’t quite “Allan Houston” when they signed him; he was a young player who’d showed promise, but wasn’t an out-and-out star. Larry Johnson came via trade, as did Latrell Sprewell and Marcus Camby. Their first big move post-Patrick Ewing was the Antonio McDyess deal. This, for me, is where my agita was born.

To acquire McDyess, the Knicks overpaid, trading away an in-his-prime Camby as well as the draft rights to Nenê. McDyess lasted all of 18 games in New York; his biggest contribution was being part of the next big move, as the Knicks shipped five players and two 1sts to Phoenix for Stephon Marbury and Anfernee Hardaway’s albatross of a contract. Next came Eddy Curry, who required three players and five picks, including the picks that became Joakim Noah and LaMarcus Aldridge (one of the picks in the Marbury deal turned out to be Gordon Hayward). Seeing a pattern?

The next big move was signing Amar’e Stoudemire, which only cost money, though it was a five-year max contract with no injury protections. Less than a year later, the Knicks traded a king’s ransom for a prince in Carmelo Anthony. The team gave away so much even the acquisition of a Melo-level talent still in his 20s couldn’t off-set what’d been lost. The pattern has long been established: if the Knicks want someone good, they will overpay to get them.

I don’t wanna overpay for Donovan Mitchell. I think he’s a great player. He could be the second-best player on a contender. It doesn’t sound like the Knicks would lose Julius Randle or RJ Barrett in a trade, so Mitchell could help those two slide down a spot; the Knicks would be more talented and deeper than they have been at any point under Tom Thibodeau. But I don’t like which way the winds are blowing.

I keep hearing “The Jazz got X, Y and Z for Rudy Gobert, so natch they’ll want at least that much from the Knicks.” Good for them? They can want whatever they want, but the true value of something is always what someone’s willing to pay for it. When I was 11 or 12 a friend of mine had a Warren Moon rookie card. All the price guides listed that card as being worth between $125 and $140. The day my friend decided to sell a group of us rode our bikes into the village, elated at the thought of all that money. What would he do with it? He could load up on Super Soakers and we could have a war. He could buy us all Slushies for a week and still have money left over. He was rich; that was all we knew. We didn’t know shit.

The dude who ran the card shop offered my friend $80 for the card. Wouldn’t budge from that point. My friend learned a hard lesson that day: value always comes down to what others make of something’s worth. Mitchell isn’t worth a larger package than what we’ve seen going around if no one’s willing to pony up that much. Danny Ainge seems a smart bloke; I imagine he has a price point in mind and he’s waiting for someone to reach it. That doesn’t mean it has to be the Knicks. That doesn’t mean anybody’s going to be willing to meet it.

I keep hearing Mitchell isn’t a top-10 NBA player. He’s not. But he’s better than anyone else on the Knicks. Acquiring a player of his caliber may be what it takes to convince Superstar X in a year or two to force their way to New York, too. If the Knicks came out of their offseason having added Brunson and Mitchell without overpaying for either, it’d be cause for celebration. But what is fair value in a trade?

Depends what the Jazz are insisting on. I love Immanuel Quickley, but if the Knicks have Brunson and are trading for Mitchell, IQ’s importance diminishes, in my eyes. If Quentin Grimes has to be in the deal, then I’d like to hold on to Cam Reddish, since the Knicks will need some size if they intend to start two 6-foot-1 guards. If they think acquiring Mitchell means Randle being in a better spot to succeed, I’m more willing to hear offers regarding Obi Toppin.

I say let the Jazz have four 1sts and a pick swap, then either both Reddish and Miles McBride plus one of Obi/IQ/Grimes or the picks, Reddish or McBride and two of the others. Is that fair? I dunno. Don’t know if it’s unfair, either. I’m curious what, if anything, it says about the Knicks’ front office philosophy if they sign Brunson and then within a week or two are trading for Mitchell. If the dog that’s biting the man has a compelling reason, there’s a good story somewhere below the surface. Hopefully the Knicks are dishing good stories of their own after they successfully move for Donovan Mitchell — or, judiciously, walk away.