A month ago the Knicks could imagine a best-case scenario with Kevin Durant signing on as a free agent, Anthony Davis arriving in a trade and Zion Williamson the prize of their draft. But reality has come in waves and the latest blow to those dreams came Saturday night when the Pelicans and Lakers reportedly agreed to a power-shifting trade.
The deal, reported by ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, would send Davis to the Lakers, his preferred destination, to team up with LeBron James. In return the Lakers are shipping out the No. 4 pick in Thursday’s NBA Draft, two more unprotected first-round picks, former lottery picks Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram, as well as Josh Hart.
The deal, which first was discussed in February with different personnel at the top of the organizational chart for both franchises and one that seemed dead after the two franchises feuded over tampering charges — the Lakers getting fined and a report surfacing last month that New Orleans owner Gayle Benson refused to deal with the Lakers, a report that was denied by the Pelicans almost immediately and this trade showed that they were willing to shop to the highest bidder.
Davis’ agent, Rich Paul, who also represents James, publicly acknowledged that Davis will go free agency next summer but that he would consider a long-term deal with only two teams — the Knicks and Lakers. Davis played just 56 games last season, a combination of injury and his uncertain status with the franchise, but he is just 26 years old and one of the best players in the league.
The Knicks were interested in Davis but were unwilling to surrender the pieces to match what the Lakers gave up. Pelicans’ general manager David Griffin reportedly was seeking an established All-Star, a potential All-Star and two first-round picks and he didn’t get that. Ball and Ingram have struggled to reach the expectations of being the No. 2 pick in successive drafts.
With the clock ticking on a window for James, who will turn 35 years old in December, the Lakers were not only willing to make the deal, but there remains a possibility that they could have the cap space to add a max contract free agent to the mix.
The Knicks do have the No. 3 pick and five more first-rounders over the next four years, but if they included the equivalent of what the Lakers gave up in young talent the roster would be barren and there is no LeBron James in place for the Knicks. Giving up the franchise’s young pieces like Kevin Knox and Mitchell Robinson would make more sense if the Knicks had Durant and Kyrie Irving coming on board, but mortgaging their future without the pieces around Davis to contend could set them back again.
While Garden chairman James Dolan put the pressure on when he went on the radio in February and said that the team had been told by players and representatives that stars were coming, team president Steve Mills and general manager Scott Perry have insisted that the cap space cleared this summer did not mean it was an all-or-nothing chase this summer.
“We feel we’re in a position that it gives us an opportunity,” Mills said in a phone call after the season ended. “We hope we get lucky and we land free agents. And if not we’ll keep building the way we’re building. The space gives us an opportunity to be flexible in terms of how we deal with trade. We can take guys into our room in the trade process. It gives us the flexibility to continue to build the team the way we’ve been building it. But it gives us an opportunity to make it better in a way with free agent or trade prospects.
“What I look at is this summer presents an opportunity for us to get better,” Perry said. “And so whether we get better through whatever the free agents signings may or may not be, whatever the drafting process yields us, whatever potential trade may come our way, our goal is to get this team better over the offseason so there’s a better product on the floor next season. And that’s what we’re committed to.”
The paths to that are getting more difficult. The No. 3 pick remains a valued commodity in what many scouts and executives consider a three-player tier atop the draft. But Davis is gone, Durant is still certainly on their radar even if he will be out next season rehabbing the injury, and the Knicks likely will grab RJ Barrett in the draft if the Pelicans and Grizzlies select Williamson and Ja Morant as expected.
“I always feel pressure to build this team and turn this team into success,” Mills said. “But that pressure doesn’t lead me to make decisions that are inconsistent with what I believe we should be doing. So I don’t feel pressure to deviate from our plan if we don’t get two big free agents. I don’t feel that kind of pressure. The pressure is for us to continue with the process and build this team the way we’re saying we’re going to build it.”