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RJ Barrett: front and center, today and tomorrow

Cancel my loans, RJ!

Utah Jazz v New York Knicks Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

It’s been eight hours since news broke that RJ Barrett and the Knicks have agreed on a four-year extension paying him as much as $120M through 2027. Eight hours is more than enough time for some clever wag to troll Knick fans with a fake banner in the MSG rafters reading “2022 RE-SIGNED THEIR OWN 1st-ROUND PICK.” Render therefore unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s — the burn is earned, and more funny than cruel — and get thy haters behind thee. Today through however far ahead the Knicks care to look, RJ is there. That’s good.

Word around the docks is extending RJ makes it less likely the Knicks can swing a deal with Utah for Donovan Mitchell this summer. Maybe I’m too tired to think clearly, but that doesn’t make sense. There’s a poison pill provision (fun to say five times fast!) that means a Barrett-to-the-Jazz trade would clear $10M (RJ’s salary this year) for New York, but cost Utah $26M to take on (his average salary the next five years; shout-out to Knicks Twitter for teaching me this). A quick glance at Utah’s salaries next year versus the L.A. Lakers’ makes it clear why the Jazz may be better equipped than most teams to survive the poison pill.

Utah can put together all kinds of combinations to offset the extra $16M Barrett costs now versus a week ago. Whether they want to or not is another matter entirely. It’s a credit to the Leon Rose front office that it seems a sizable portion of the fanbase won’t be bothered to see New York walk away from a Mitchell trade — at least, the original two-team Mitchell trades that have been leaked. The more and more three- or four-team deals you see, the more a lotta them make a lotta sense.

I wonder if this clinches Barrett being a Knick longer than Julius Randle. Any Mitchell trade that involves RJ going away would mean a Donovan/Julius Knicks’ nexus (also fun five times). Slot Randle alongside a true top banana for the first time in his Knick career and he might relax and rise again. Maybe one day the talk around Randle would be more Third Team and less third rail. Even if Mitchell doesn’t end up a Knick, committing to Barrett now may mean the clock is ticking on Randle.

Since RJ’s first year as a Knick, I’ve thought him becoming the best player he can be and performing that role would require Randle being gone. They’re both multi-faceted physical lefties who can create off the dribble for themselves and their teammates. Neither is cut out to be the number-one option on a title contender; both would benefit enormously operating in or off of Mitchell’s gravity.

It’s not so much that Randle and Barrett can’t play together. They’re not a drag, but they don’t drive the engine, either. It’s the difference between people who can kiss and people who can’t. RJ and JR don’t spark. Their first year together, the Knicks were awful and so were they: their two-man lineup numbers showed a -7.0 point differential. A year later the Knicks were much better, and so were Randle and Barrett, to the tune of a +2.3 differential. Last year the team slipped quite a bit and so did they, this time to -3.9.

As with fellow summer re-signee Mitchell Robinson, Barrett is now flying closer to the sun than before. In 2023-24 he could be making more money than Randle and Jalen Brunson. He could be the highest-paid Knick, period . . . unless they manage to acquire a certain Western conference guard pining for the bright lights and the big city. A lot of the things that made Mitch a cult hero when he was making a million dollars are gonna hit some folks different now that he’s closer to making what he deserves. Barrett has been the golden boy since the Knicks drafted him. Will that continue?

How very 2022 of me to spend the entirety of a piece about RJ re-signing speculating about years from now. In the here and now, this is a good deal, particularly if the salary cap continues to climb. Wherever Barrett ends up as a player, any Knick renaissance is likely to involve a heavy dose of RJ. Wherever this franchise tops out this decade, Barrett’s someone you want on your side. Easy to root for, easy to dream about.

Last year Golden State paid Andrew Wiggins $31M to be their third- or fourth-most valuable player. Is Barrett’s ceiling higher than Wiggins’? Does the fact that he’s so much younger matter more? Next year, assuming Barrett earns between $25M and $30M, he’ll be somewhere in the range of the 45th-50th highest paid player in the league. That seems fair, yes? RJ’s deal seems fair, too. I don’t think it knocks the Knicks out of the Mitchell sweepstakes, but with a competent front office clearly having a plan and sticking to it, I’m gonna enjoy this news. Hope you do too.