Here is the simplest bit of information to know — or think you know — as the Knicks head toward Thursday’s 3 p.m. trade deadline: No one has any idea how Leon Rose functions as an executive.
Since moving from his long-time career as an agent to become the Knicks' president last year, Rose has held his cards so close to the vest that he could be in danger of death by paper cuts. He almost never speaks publicly, and when he does, he reveals nothing. Off-the-record conversations with executives from other teams have indicated that they have little idea what he’s planning.
So what do we know about how the Knicks will approach the deadline?
They are in playoff race limbo, in the picture right now. They're not one of the elite contenders and they're not a bottom-of-the-standings, ping-pong-ball-counting franchise.
We know that Tom Thibodeau will be pushing to win right now. That is evident not just from his history as a coach and a former president of basketball operations (with the Timberwolves), but also from the way he has approached this season.
Although Thibodeau inherited a roster constructed of many of the pieces of last season's 21-45 team, along with low expectations, the Knicks are 21-21, placing themselves in the mix for a playoff spot.
"I think it’s important for us to go step by step and not to skip over things," Thibodeau said. "The whole goal this year was to build the foundation and establish the right type of habits. And wherever that leads us, it leads us. I like the way our players have responded.
"I think in this league you always look at player development first, that’s your team. And then you look at the draft. Then you look at free agency. Then you look at trades. And so all four ways, you never stop working in all four areas. Every day it’s about how can we make the team better. That’s where our focus lies with coaches."
He already pushed for — and got — Leon Rose to deal for Derrick Rose, whom he had in both Chicago and Minnesota, to provide a boost of veteran scoring and leadership in the backcourt.
The Knicks still have clear needs even as they attempt to build around the core of Julius Randle and RJ Barrett. The most glaring need is three-point shooting at the point guard spot.
So as rumors sift through the league that the New Orleans Pelicans might be open to moving Lonzo Ball or the Toronto Raptors could be tempted to part ways with Kyle Lowry, we may not know what Leon Rose thinks about that, but we can have a pretty good idea that it would make Thibodeau’s day.
Both players will be free agents at season’s end.
Ball likely could be had for a properly structured contract that would make it unpalatable for the Pelicans — with the team already crowded in the backcourt — to match an offer to the restricted free agent. The Knicks have the cap space to make the Pelicans consider just how much they love him when the luxury tax is kicking in.
With the Raptors struggling this season and Fred VanVleet in place, Lowry’s name has been floated. His 35th birthday comes on the same day at the March 25 trade deadline. But with the career he has had in Toronto, there is some notion of making him a lifetime Raptor — or sending him to his hometown Philadelphia 76ers.
The most likely candidate to be moved who could fit in New York is Pelicans shooting guard JJ Redick, who has made little secret of his desire to relocate closer to his New York home. But his shooting skill makes him more valuable to a team like Philadelphia, which could see him as the missing piece to a championship run.
While Thibodeau might want the Knicks to be buyers, Rose does have a number of pieces he could offload to obtain more assets for the future.
Frank Ntilikina might be the most likely candidate to be shipped out. He's playing on the final season of his rookie contract, with a $15.6 million cap hold if the team gives him a qualifying offer. It's more likely that they will search for any kind of return for him now before they are left with that offseason decision.
Alec Burks, Reggie Bullock and Elfrid Payton are all on expiring contracts and could provide veteran help to a contender. One scout from another Eastern Conference team speculated that any of the three would not be worth more than a second-round pick from another team right now.
The Knicks did find a place for Marcus Morris last season, sending him to the Los Angeles Clippers at the deadline for a late first-round pick — which turned into Immanuel Quickley.
"I think it’s that time of the year where a million things get talked about," Thibodeau said. "Oftentimes everything is talked about and nothing happens. With social media giving attention to everything that’s going on, players get used to that stuff. It’s hard on them too. You just got to stay focused. That’s why it’s so important at the beginning of the season to establish routine and stick to it. Don’t let anything creep in and distract you and control the things you can control."
Help on the way?
Mitchell Robinson (fractured hand), Quickley (ankle) and Payton (hamstring) were all upgraded to questionable for Sunday night’s game against Philadelphia. Rose and Austin Rivers remain out because of health and safety protocols.
Robinson, who has been sidelined since Feb. 12, tweeted after practice, "I feel tooooooo goooooddddd bro I’m ready."
"Mitch has done more and more," Thibodeau said. "We’ll see where he is tomorrow. Same with Elfrid and Quick, they’re making steady progress.
"[Robinson is] getting close. Been cleared. He’s done more. So we want to see how he responds after the contact. The conditioning piece is important also. But he’s been cleared from a physical standpoint."