National Basketball Association
By Yaron Weitzman
FOX Sports NBA Writer
It was Leon Rose’s first fork-in-the road moment since becoming the chief decision-maker for the New York Knicks.
Most of us — and, for what it’s worth, that includes executives, coaches and agents around the NBA —assumed that Donovan Mitchell would enter training camp as a member of the Knicks. It turns out we were wrong. On Thursday, we learned Mitchell is headed from Utah to Cleveland where he will be suiting up for the Cavaliers.
The question, of course, is why.
[Jazz trade Donovan Mitchell to Cavaliers]
The Knicks could have easily beat the Cavs’ offer even after extending R.J. Barrett this week. They had more picks. Their group of available young players was better than what the Cavs gave up. Based on the details of the final deal and the various reports we’ve heard about what offers the Knicks made, it seems like the negotiations came down to the amount of unprotected first-round picks. The Knicks, according to reports, refused to include more than two; the Jazz insisted on receiving at least three, which they got from the Cavaliers.
All of which makes this the most fascinating decision of Rose’s tenure. And even more interesting when you consider how Rose got here.
Remember, running a professional basketball team was never part of Rose’s plan. You know Steve Kerr, before he joined the Golden State Warriors, filled Microsoft Word files with all sorts of coaching thoughts and X’s and O’s that he’d picked up while working as a broadcaster. Rose never did any of that. There were no notebooks stuffed with team-building thoughts. No Powerpoint decks illustrating ideal organizational philosophies.
Rose is running the Knicks because in January 2020 he received an out-of-the-blue phone call from Madison Square Garden chairman James Dolan. The Knicks were — once again — floundering and Dolan, according to report in the The Athletic, wanted to know if Rose was interested in coming onboard as team president.
Rose at the time was at the top of his field, co-heading the basketball division at Creative Artists Agency and representing some of the biggest stars in the games. He was very rich and very connected and as respected a power-broker as existed in the NBA world. Friends and colleagues around the league had never heard him mention a desire to cross over to the team side of the business. They expected him to remain with CAA until he retired. And yet it took just a few weeks for Rose to accept Dolan’s offer.
We don’t know what those initial conversations between Dolan and Rose looked like, or what was discussed. But it was always assumed that Dolan — who’s always pushed the chasing of stars —was drawn to Rose because of Rose’s many connections to said stars, and that Rose told Dolan he believed he could lure in these stars and that, as a result, Dolan promised to pay Rose a massive amount of money to execute this star-chasing plan. Stars around the league — including Mitchell — seemed to approve.
And now, nearly three years later, a star was available, wanted to be in New York, and the Knicks had the pieces to acquire him, and yet Rose seemingly declined to pull the trigger.
No, Mitchell’s not perfect. He’s a top-25 guy, not top-10. His defense leaves a ton to be desired, and would have been a disaster in the backcourt alongside fellow sieve Jalen Brunson. The Knicks still would have been nowhere close to the top teams in the East. But he’s still a star, a one-man offense, one of just a dozen or so players in the league capable of efficiently carrying an attack by himself, even against the stiffest of competition, the engine of aJazz attack that has won 62 percent of its games over the past six seasons and last year boasted the league’s top offensive rating.
Mitchell would have been the best player to wear a Knicks uniform since Carmelo Anthony. He likely would have transformed them into a playoff team. The fan base would have been energized. James Dolan would have been thrilled. At the very least, Rose would have bought himself a ton of political capital.
Instead, he and the Knicks will have to pivot to Plan B: Hope someone like Barrett or second-year wing Quentin Grimes pops, continue to amass assets and wait for another star to become available.
The problem is that there’s no guarantee such a player becomes available. Yes, recent NBA history suggests that at some point we will hear about a disgruntled star itching to leave his team and the Knicks no doubt will be reported as one of the teams on this players’ list of preferred destinations. But who’s to say the price for that star will be any different? If there’s anything we’ve learned over the past couple NBA seasons, it’s that the going rate for pretty much anyone with multiple All-Star nods on their résumé —whether it’s Rudy Gobert or Dejounte Murray — is basically "every pick you have."
All of which could make for a tense year around Madison Square Garden. Remember, this is a group that last season was teetering on collapse. Tom Thibodeau was on the verge of being fired. Julius Randle proved incapable of being a No. 1 option on the court and a leader off of it. Rose traded a first-round pick for a player —Cam Reddish —who Thibodeau then refused to play.
Now the Knicks are basically banking on a Barrett leap and Brunson serving as both catalyst and stabilizing force. Both are possible, but far from sure things. It’s also worth pointing out that Rose might have had more ammo to acquire Mitchell had he not gone all-out on clearing cap space to sign Brunson.
Then again, there’s something to be said about a leader willing to show conviction and make the hard calls. You might not agree with Rose’s decision, but it seems pretty clear that it was made with conviction.
That’s something that hasn’t often been said of Knicks decision-makers. Knicks fans might not yet have a star to root for, but at least they now know that Rose isn’t just looking at his current job as a golden parachute into retirement. He put himself on the line here, in a way we haven’t often seen around MSG. Let’s see what he has planned next.
Yaron Weitzman is an NBA writer for FOX Sports. He is the author of "Tanking to the Top: The Philadelphia 76ers and the Most Audacious Process in the History of Professional Sports." Follow him on Twitter @YaronWeitzman.
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