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By losing out on Donovan Mitchell, Leon Rose won

Ya heard me.

New York Knicks v Toronto Raptors Photo by Mark Blinch/Getty Images

When news broke that the Knicks had traded Kristaps Porziņģis to Dallas, I remember precisely where I was: driving into a plaza to get my fiancee a London Fog, a tea drink we both adored. I heard the trade news on Sirius NBA radio and was whipped into a fury as the hosts lambasted New York for their obvious mistake. I was glad they’d traded KP rather than re-sign him. History came to the same conclusion.

When news broke that the Knicks had passed on trading for Utah’s Donovan Mitchell, I have no idea where I was. I spent much of yesterday enjoying time with my daughter for the first time in a week. My fiancee is no longer my fiancee. I cannot recall what’s in a London Fog. I learned the non-trade news when I went on Twitter later to find a DM from Joe Flynn asking if I wanted to write a reaction piece. “Reaction to what?” I wondered. What drove my ignorance also fuels my hope: I scrolled through Twitter waiting for something to show up regarding the Knicks.

For a while, it was the usual fare: climate change is drowning Pakistan, a non-white country, so it doesn’t get the same attention England does on a hot summer’s day; Ted Cruz is trying to make people’s lives worse; the Sauron behind January 6th is not only walking around free, but freely foreshadowing his plans to legally pardon racists for treason (mind you, I’m not against treason in general; just if you’re gonna pull the ol’ switcheroo, make it an upgrade, not a descent). Then there was a tweet by someone implying Mitchell had been traded, but not to the Knicks. Then, finally, I saw what had happened. Or, to some, what hadn’t happened.

I’d wondered all summer what my actual feeling would be once a Mitchell deal went down, either how I’d feel about what the Knicks gave up or how I’d feel about someone else swooping in to pay the ransom. I saw the package the Cavs surrendered, read reports of the Knicks offering RJ Barrett and Immanuel Quickley, plus another young player, plus swaps and the unprotected picks. I looked to my heart to find how I felt. Quoth my heart:

When I was fresh out of college, I was arrested for possession of a controlled substance. Weed. I was very, very much the kind of 21-year-old who’d join his family for dinner and let them know why ethically speaking they shouldn’t drink Pepsi products or eat meat or shop at Wal-Mart. So when my father learned I’d been charged and he asked how I was going to to plea, I was adamant: “Not guilty.” I wasn’t going to take the knee in front of some judge and say I’d done something wrong, all for enjoying a naturally occurring plant. They could say or do whatever they wanted, but no way in hell was I going to give an inch as far as guilt. I was itching for this fight.

My dad had another idea. He got a friend who was a lawyer to come with me to court, the lawyer said some things to the judge about my character, I pled no contest, and the judge gave me an ACD, meaning if I didn’t get in trouble for a certain amount of time the whole thing would be removed from my record. I was furious. I was also stupid.

If I’d had it my way, I would have been convicted of a drug-related offense. Even though it was low-level, it’d be enough to make me ineligible for student loans the rest of my life. I never would have gone to the grad schools I did, never had the chance to develop my writing. I was a switch-hitting switch with a Women’s Studies minor in a cishet farm town with more cows than people. I wonder if Mitchell felt similar to that while in Utah. I wonder if he will in Cleveland.

You might be furious that the Knicks never bit the bullet and ponied up a package that’d land Mitchell. That’s fair. I certainly wouldn’t call that stupid. Fans don’t root for teams for the same reasons. Some of you stick with this team because you believe someday it will turn around and win another title, and you wanna be there when it happens, want to have your faith rewarded. Some fans’ goals are less penthouse than peephole: they just want their team to compete and be fun while doing so. I think passing on a Mitchell trade is good for both camps.

Imagine the Knicks traded RJ, IQ, Cam Reddish and Evan Fournier to land Mitchell. Here’s what they’d head into camp with:

C: Mitchell Robinson, Isaiah Hartenstein, Jericho Sims
PF: Julius Randle, Obi Toppin, Rudy Gay
SF: Quentin Grimes
SG: Donovan Mitchell
PG: Jalen Brunson, Derrick Rose, Miles McBride

Forget about draft picks and the future. Just for 2022-23, what’s the objective for this roster? What’s a fair ask? Does that group have a higher ceiling than the group the Knicks are left with? By the way, if somewhere your brain thought “He forgot Trevor Keels,” you’re making my point even better than I could.

There’s practically no depth; with Mitch Rob, Julius, Donovan and Jalen combining to make about $100M next year, what you see is mostly what you’ll get. Grimes is the only guard taller than 6-foot-3. Maybe he becomes the default 3 and Tom Thibodeau explores the wacky world of small ball? If Grimes were injured, who slots into the 3? If When Rose has to miss time due to injury, is McBride the backup point guard? Is he anywhere near ready to be?

In 2011-12 the Knicks faced a similar situation. They’d traded the farm for Carmelo Anthony and soon locked themselves into a Melo/Amar’e Stoudemire/Tyson Chandler Big 3. They opened that season with Toney Douglas at point guard; they ended with Primordial Mike Bibby; in the playoffs, the timeworn Baron Davis got run. Top heavy is not a good look.

So we look further into the future. At least with Mitchell in the fold, the Knicks would have an essential piece for a true contender: a legit running mate. Pair Mitchell with whatever Superstar X doesn’t have a redundant skill set and we’re off and running toward a parade, yes? Not so fast.

If the Knicks gave Utah what they wanted for Mitchell, what would be left to trade for Superstar X? Go back to that depth chart. Could the Knicks even swing such a trade with what’s left to work with? And even if they could, even if let’s say Zion Williamson thanks the Pels for the money but insists on coming to The Mecca, even if New Orleans was willing to trade him here, even if they did . . . what would be left? Zion, Mitchell and bupkus.

I’m proud of the Knick front office for not making this trade. Whatever wagon the Knicks are riding toward respectability, keeping their hands in their pockets this time around keeps them firmly on the wagon. Time passes. Loves linger, flare and fade. We forget what in the moment feels unforgettable.

In a vacuum, adding an offensive wiz like Donovan Mitchell feels like drifting down a dopamine lazy river. But the Knicks don’t exist in a vacuum. They exist in a division where all four other teams could win 50+ games, where three are legit bets to reach the NBA Finals. They exist in a conference where two-third of the teams are more than respectably good.

Overpaying for Mitchell makes sense for the Cavaliers. They aren’t a free agent draw; their best chance at sustaining their terrific young team is to win as much as they can as soon as possible, hoping that builds bonds between the franchise, the fan base and a half-dozen young men, none of whom have Cleveland on their top-25 NBA destinations.

Overpaying for Mitchell wouldn’t get the Knicks closer to a title. It’d get them closer to 2012. I trust this front office, this Knick franchise, to have higher goals than that. In the meantime, I welcome 2022-23 with excitement and with the future still an open road. I’d rather remain on the journey at this stage than stop off for bells, whistles and a 46-win max capacity the next four years.