ATLANTA — As news buzzed Tuesday about the increased likelihood of Zach LaVine being traded, the Knicks inevitably were thrown into the speculation pool because that’s the nature of a big-market team with assets and needs.
But there are multiple reasons a LaVine-to-Knicks deal won’t happen.
A source reiterated to The Post this week that LaVine’s camp would prefer not to go to Leon Rose’s squad.
It doesn’t completely rule out a trade (a deal can’t be stopped without a no-trade clause), but the Knicks, beyond whatever landmines they would hope to avoid by acquiring a player under those circumstances, aren’t a good fit.
The Knicks already have a ball-dominant wing in RJ Barrett, who is both younger and operating on a more affordable contract. If you slot LaVine in the backcourt with Jalen Brunson, the perimeter defense becomes an issue.
Trading Barrett for LaVine is another route, though the Knicks weren’t keen on that swap, from what I’ve heard.
LaVine, who is represented by powerhouse Klutch Sports (the rival of CAA, the agency intertwined with the Knicks front office) is owed roughly $178 million through the 2026-27 season, with the final year being a player option.
It’s a daunting contract, but LaVine, at his peak during the pandemic season, was worth the money.
As far back as last season, the Knicks kicked the tires on LaVine, but didn’t come close to anything. On Tuesday, The Athletic reported LaVine and the Bulls have become more open to a separation. That’s often a precursor to intensified negotiations — I’m sure talks have been ongoing, on some level, for a while — and the report suggested Tuesday was an important jumpoff with many of the 30 GMs together at the college basketball Champions Classic in Chicago.
It makes sense because the Bulls, an expensive team built to win yesterday, are struggling with a 4-8 record after Wednesday’s brutal loss to the Magic.
The Bulls entered the season with a belief they were close enough to contention to run it back with their high-priced veterans, buoyed by their near victory in the play-in tournament against the eventual Eastern Conference champion Heat.
Executive Arturas Karnisovas doubled down by re-signing 33-year-old Nikola Vucevic, but the absence of Lonzo Ball — who is missing a second straight entire season because of knee problems — and the team’s overall regression have Chicago on a precarious path.
Assuming the Knicks don’t deal for LaVine — who is reportedly drawing interest from the Sixers, Heat and Lakers — Rose is still on the clock with all the team’s draft assets. The team president will have as many as four first rounders in the next draft, though we’re guessing two won’t convey (Washington’s pick is top-12 protected and Detroit’s is top-18 protected).
Rose, who reportedly is under contract through next season, will have to take a risk at some point.
The former CAA agent, along with his longtime business partner and former CAA power player William Wesley, haven’t lived up to their billing of attracting superstar free agents to New York. They’ve hit singles at a high rate and a triple with Jalen Brunson, but held back the home-run swing.
Part of that is an NBA shift. Stars aren’t hitting free agency anymore, instead signing max extensions and pushing for trades when they’re ready to move on.
But they can’t rest on that strong Brunson signing for much longer. There’s a ceiling now that the front office should feel the need to raise.
Who will be the next “disgruntled star”? Joel Embiid (the Sixers have been great at the start of the season)? Karl-Anthony Towns (the T-Wolves also have impressed)? Donovan Mitchell (possible, but a deal is more likely in the offseason), Zion Williamson (he looks frustrated already) or Pascal Siakam (the Knicks are currently suing the Raptors)?
Scott Perry, the former Knicks GM, preached caution in his new gig with ESPN.
“There’s no guarantee that a disgruntled player is not going to become disgruntled when he comes to your team,” Perry said.
And that should be especially true when the player’s camp doesn’t want him there.
Eight thoughts on the opening 11 games
The Knicks improved to 6-5 with Wednesday night’s win in Atlanta, and here’s what I’ve gleaned, the good and bad thus far:
1️⃣ Enough with the schedule
I’ve been guilty as anybody in making excuses based on the Knicks’ opening schedule, which has been heavy on road games and back-to-backs.
Josh Hart was the latest to gripe when he said Monday night, “This has definitely been one of the wilder, tougher beginnings to a season I’ve seen in my seven years.”
But let’s be honest about the strength of schedule: There were two games against the loaded Celtics, and that’s difficult. No doubt. That road game against the Bucks was tough, but Adrian Griffin’s team hasn’t exactly started off as world beaters. Then you have two games against the Cavs (who were missing two of their best players, Darius Garland and Jarrett Allen, for both) and home matchups versus the Spurs (rebuilding), Hornets (don’t play defense) and Clippers (disjointed). Throw in games against the middle-of-the-road Hawks (twice) and Pelicans. Not exactly a gauntlet. Most of the NBA teams played their first 10 games in the same amount of time as the Knicks.
Enough with the schedule.
Want to catch a game? The Knicks schedule with links to buy tickets can be found here.
2️⃣ Mitchell Robinson has figured it out
And by figuring it out, I mean, in the words of Tom Thibodeau, “playing to his strengths and covering up his weaknesses.” There was always elite physical ability with Robinson, who came into the NBA as a raw 7-foot-1 pogo stick. But he didn’t have a grasp for the game. And that was expected because he skipped college and didn’t start playing ball until middle school.
Now in his sixth NBA season, Robinson is the league’s top offensive rebounder. Easily. His 5.8 offensive boards per contest is ridiculously higher than the rest of the field. Robinson learned and, most importantly, accepted that his gift was creating extra possessions. There are plenty of rebounding opportunities with these Knicks, who are missing a ton of shots (just 43.2% shot conversion rate, which ranks 28th in the league). We’re not ready to call Robinson the next Dennis Rodman, but he was also leading the NBA in contested rebounds. Please enjoy this clip of him beating the Clippers a few times on the boards.
3️⃣ The offense has been bad
We mentioned the bottom-three field-goal percentage, and misfiring shots is definitely a big issue. But we also have to call into question the lack of ball movement and creativity with Thibodeau’s offense. Brunson, a gifted scorer, is not very interested in passing as a point guard. Julius Randle tries, but oftentimes it’s too late in a possession. The Knicks, entering Wednesday, were averaging 10 shots per game with the shot clock at four seconds remaining or fewer. That led the Eastern Conference and is a telltale sign of a bad possession. The Knicks were also last in the East in assists after 10 games. Here’s a good example of an atrocious possession:
4️⃣ The defense has been good
Thibodeau’s scheme led to an average of just 44 points allowed per game in the paint (good for 5th in the NBA) and the fewest second-chance points in the league through 10 games.
It’s been a sound strategy unless they’re facing a big man such as Kristaps Porzingis, who can spread the floor and consistently nail treys. Under those circumstances, the drop coverage can backfire. But it’s tough to argue with Thibodeau’s early results on defense. They rank fifth in defensive rating, behind the Timberwolves, Celtics, Magic and Rockets.
5️⃣ Role players need to step up
Randle and Brunson struggled to start the season, but were both averaging at least 18 points. In fact, the Knicks’ top four of Brunson, Randle, Barrett and Immanuel Quickley were putting up a combined average of nearly 80 points with solid efficiency (except for Randle). That should be enough even if you’re getting nothing from the centers.
The problem is the next tier of wings — Hart, Quentin Grimes and Donte DiVincenzo — who are averaging just 22.5 points together while shooting a combined 92-for-232 (39.7%). Not good enough.
6️⃣ We’re especially worried about Hart’s offense
He hasn’t been a good shooter historically and is under 30% on 3-pointers (28.9%) through 11 games. These are wide-open treys because that’s the shot the opponent wants the Knicks to take. In fact, going into Wednesday, 33 of Hart’s 34 3-pointers were taken when a defender wasn’t within four feet. And since he’s still missing, why wouldn’t the defense sag off to concentrate on preventing a different Knicks shooter?
Here are three Bucks defenders collapsing on a drive from Brunson, who kicks it back to a wide open Hart and …miss.
7️⃣ RJ Barrett
The absences notwithstanding (Barrett has missed four games, including his second straight Wednesday), the fifth-year wing has looked as if he’s reached a next level of confidence and understanding of the game. His efficiency was way up. His 3-point shot was smooth. His passing was appropriate.
There are several potential explanations for Barrett’s improvement, but they all fall under the umbrella of real player development. It happens — as it’s simultaneously happening with Robinson — when an organization drafts a player, identifies that player as worthy of commitment, re-signs the player, then keeps him in the same system (under the same coach) for several years. Who’d have thunk it?
Here’s a video of Barrett driving right and finishing an and-1 with his right hand against the Hornets. How often have we seen that in his career?
8️⃣ Thibs doesn’t trust the end of the bench
The Knicks have long touted their depth as their strength, and there’s good reasons to believe they should have one of the league’s better reserve units. But after that nine-man rotation, Thibodeau doesn’t seem to have much faith.
In the four games Barrett has missed, Thibodeau mostly just cut his rotation to eight players. Miles McBride was “the next man up” in those situations and he combined for 13 minutes. Evan Fournier playing is apparently a nonstarter.
It isn’t a problem if the Knicks are healthy, as has mostly been the case under Thibodeau. But two or three injuries — Grimes’ status bears monitoring after his early exit Wednesday — could throw this whole thing off.