What should the Knicks be willing to trade for Donovan Mitchell?

The supposed price tag is extraordinary.

Six first rounders. Or maybe it’s seven. Add in various young players.

No matter the specifics, it’s clear the Utah Jazz want a historic, pick-filled package in exchange for Donovan Mitchell, a premium that leads to a basic question any team considering a trade for the three-time All-Star has to ask: How much is too much to give up?

The New York Knicks, however, should follow up with the inverse: If we trade for Mitchell, what would be left over?

The Knicks connected with the Jazz about Mitchell more than a week ago. The two franchises seem like trading soulmates. The Jazz want draft picks for a rebuild. The Knicks are loaded with them. The Knicks have been Mitchell’s rumored next destination for years. And the Jazz have Mitchell.

So, wrap this up. Mitchell has his next team, right?

… or not.

It’s not so easy to come to terms with unloading so many first-rounders. Maybe Utah never reduces the asking price or New York never gets to a place where it deems a Mitchell trade worth it. However, there is a middle ground. The Knicks actually can justify handing over that historic haul for Mitchell, but there’s a specific mentality they should have when they converse with the Jazz. The maximum package they should offer for Mitchell should have enough left over to where they feel like they could still bring in another headliner, specifically in the summer of 2024.

Every so often, you hear a critique of the Knicks’ pursuit of Mitchell: Would his presence alone really make them challenge for a title?

Those asking realize the answer is no. There are only a few players on the planet whose sole existence guarantees you won’t get stuck in the lottery. The Giannis Antetokounmpos of the world are special for a reason. But the thing is, the Knicks could rationalize a Mitchell trade while acknowledging this rhetorical too. Bringing the 25-year-old to New York would not have to be about the present. Instead, it could be the first step to building a viable contender down the line.

All signs point to 2024 when the Knicks could put themselves in a position to trade for another star.

The free-agency period isn’t what it used to be. The new fad is for great players to sign extensions, then ask out later if need be, instead of waiting until the final years of their contracts to demand a trade or letting them expire, then bolting elsewhere.

In the summer of 2024, Jalen Brunson will enter the final guaranteed year of his deal. He has a player option for 2025-26. Julius Randle will be in the same position. It’s two years from now, which means (because teams can’t trade away their first-round picks in consecutive seasons and can deal first-rounders only as far as seven years out) the Knicks would open up another tradeable first to include in a deal for an All-Star.

The reality is, the Knicks wouldn’t be sacrificing much by fighting to rise above the Play-In Tournament for a couple of seasons. If everything goes well, come the summer of 2024, RJ ​​Barrett won’t even be in his prime yet. Mitchell will be at the beginning part of it. He’ll be 27. Barrett will be 24.

It’s why what remains from a hypothetical Mitchell deal would matter so much. First-rounders aren’t useful only for drafting promising players. They’re also currency. And if the Knicks want to make another big splash to add to Mitchell, they need those picks.

It ties into a concept addressed in a story I wrote earlier this week. The quantity of first-rounders the Knicks give up in a hypothetical Mitchell trade is not nearly as important as the quality.

The Knicks own four first-round picks from other teams (the Washington Wizards in 2023, the Dallas Mavericks in ’23, the Detroit Pistons in ’23 and the Milwaukee Bucks in ’25). All of them are protected. The Knicks have all of their own picks as well. Parting with young players and six first-rounders sounds like it would clean out the cupboard, but it’s not as damning if it’s the four firsts from other teams as well as the Knicks’ 2023 and ’25 ones — even if the two from the Knicks themselves are both unprotected.

A Mitchell package like that would still leave New York with its 2027 and ’29 first-rounders. And come two summers from now, when the Knicks could make their next move, they would be able to flip their ’31 one as well. Three firsts, any of the young guns the Knicks can retain for two more years and a good player or two (like Brunson on a fair contract, Mitchell Robinson with two years and $27 million remaining on his deal or Randle if he bounces back to reasonable defensive effort and efficiency) is a legitimate offer for a second star. And who knows? Barrett may have made enough of a leap by then that we refer to this 2024 quest as the hunt for a third star. Certainly, the Knicks are crossing their fingers that’s the case.

The Knicks will be expensive heading into the 2024-25 season, especially if they add Mitchell to the mix. Assuming Barrett receives a max contract or anywhere near it, the salaries of just the projected starting five of Brunson, Mitchell, Barrett, Randle and Robinson will add up to darn near the entire salary cap. The roster will be in danger of going into the tax. And paying the tax is fine and dandy … but any owner wants to be more than just mildly competitive if the bills are so expensive.

If the Knicks miss out on a star trade or one doesn’t present itself in 2024, they may not have to wait long to try for another splash.

The salary cap projects to skyrocket in 2025, when the NBA’s new TV deal — which will make the current agreement look like chump change — kicks in. The last time something like this happened, back in 2016, the cap spiked so much that a 73-win team had enough room to sign Kevin Durant. The Knicks could have flexibility this time around.

Brunson and Randle could decline their player options, which could leave the Knicks without much money on their books. If so, they could sign a max guy to add to Mitchell, assuming he wants to return to New York, since he can become a free agent that summer too. If Randle and Brunson pick up player options, the Knicks could still create max space that summer. Both would be on expiring contracts, and much of the league will have lots of cap room. It wouldn’t be as difficult to dump salary then as it is in 2022, when only five teams entered July significantly below the cap.

There is one possible snafu regarding the first-round picks.

There is an excellent chance the NBA will open up a tampering investigation into the Knicks’ recruitment of Brunson, whether or not one of the other 29 teams files official tampering charges. Reports of an agreement between the Knicks and Brunson, who officially signed his four-year contract with New York this month, came out before the two sides could legally negotiate. The Knicks reported they were confidant they could sign him when they began dumping salary days before Brunson’s contract with the Mavericks would expire. There are all of the personal relationships too.

Brunson said at a fan event this week that he signed with the Knicks because they are “one big family for me.” The Athletic chronicled the connections in this story.

The league seemed to have set a previous that a penalty for tampering is the loss of your next second-round pick. Most recently, the Chicago Bulls lost their next second-rounder after violating tampering rules while negotiating a sign-and-trade to acquire former New Orleans Pelicans guard Lonzo Ball. But the league is not married to the loss of an organization’s next second-rounder as a blanket penalty. If the NBA uncovers evidence of particularly egregious tampering, which it won’t know until it completes an investigation, the discipline could be harsher.

It’s important to remember: What the league believes occurred in the Knicks’ recruitment of Brunson is irrelevant. It can penalize only based on the evidence it finds in an investigation, which means it’s impossible at the moment to calculate the likelihood of this ending with the Knicks losing a first-rounder. But it’s also not completely off the table.

It’s plausible an extra first could be essential currency for the Knicks’ future. But we’re still far out from knowing the NBA’s findings and how the league might react to them. For now, the Knicks have four of their own first-round picks they can trade. And if they complete a Mitchell deal while holding onto two of them, they can make noise again in a couple of seasons.

(Photo of Donovan Mitchell and RJ Barrett: Rob Gray/USA Today)


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