According to Shams Charania of Stadium and The Athletic, Pelicans vice president of basketball operations David Griffin has begun to listen to trade offers for Anthony Davis. It doesn’t mean that he has given up trying to convince Davis to stay in New Orleans, but according to Charania’s league sources, “Davis’ stance regarding his desire for a trade is highly unlikely to change.” In other words, odds are that Davis’ trade demand will remain in place and he will be finding a new home this summer.
The other significant part of Charania’s story was that Davis’ agent, Rich Paul, provided Griffin with a list of teams that his client would be willing to sign an extension with after a trade: the Knicks, Lakers, Bucks or Clippers. While Davis can maximize the years and total monetary value of his contract by waiting to sign next summer, Tommy Beer of Forbes makes a strong case why renegotiating a contract extension through the 2021-2022 season makes sense for both Davis and the team acquiring him here.
In other words, it is possible for a team like the Knicks to have an actual guarantee Davis would be with the team for three years, which would make them more willing to craft an enticing package for Davis. For argument’s sake, unless otherwise stated, let’s assume moving forward that the Knicks have some level of assurance that Davis will sign with them long term.
I already did a deep dive into exactly how good Davis is (fantastic top 10 or better player), the competing offers and the potential of a Knicks trade offer for Davis after they sign two max free agents here. I won’t repeat myself or do any other direct comparisons to other offers in this story since I did it in the linked one above.
The possibility the Knicks might need to explore if the Pelicans insist on a deal on draft night is whether trading for Davis is worth it prior to the start of free agency. Any trade for Davis before July 1 would eliminate the potential for the Knicks to use their cap space to add two max-level free agents. It would allow them, however, to add Kevin Durant to Davis and still have anywhere from $15 million to $20 million left to spend on another free agent, depending on who is sent to New Orleans and whether Davis plays under his current deal or renegotiates to a bigger number.
Durant and Davis would immediately become the best duo in the NBA. No other team, including the Warriors, Raptors, Bucks, Trail Blazers or Rockets, would have two top-10 players on its roster. The question the Knicks would then have to answer is whether or not they would have enough left to put around those two stars to make a true run at a title.
Unlike a trade for Davis after signing two max free agents, which would require sending the third overall pick, Kevin Knox, Frank Ntilikina, Dennis Smith Jr. and likely Mitchell Robinson to match salary, along with future draft assets, a trade for Davis pre-free agency wouldn’t have to necessarily include so many young players.
The other benefit of completing a trade for Davis before free agency begins is that it makes the Knicks more attractive to potential free agents. Durant would find the Knicks basketball situation far more attractive if Davis was waiting for him at Madison Square Garden. It’s possible a player of Durant’s caliber wouldn’t consider the Knicks at all if Davis didn’t sign first.
The drawback is that Davis’ presence guarantees nothing. If he comes to the Knicks in a trade, but then no other top-level free agent joins him (Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard, Kyrie Irving, Kemba Walker, Klay Thompson), then the Knicks will be stuck in no-man's land. They would have traded their three best young assets in Robinson, Knox and the potential of selecting RJ Barrett for one star, with no one good enough around him to elevate the Knicks to a team with potential to make a deep playoff run.
Would a trio of Davis, Jimmy Butler and Malcolm Brogdon, along with Smith, Ntilikina, Dotson, Trier, Kornet and whomever the Knicks can sign with their remaining money, be good enough to make a run in the Eastern Conference? It is unlikely. A combination of Davis, Durant and Brogdon, along with that same group, inspires a lot more confidence. Instead of signing Brogdon, the Knicks could choose instead to spread that remaining cap space between multiple lesser free agents like Bojan Bogdanovic, Marcus Morris, Ricky Rubio or Patrick Beverly. (I am not connecting the Knicks to these players – simply giving examples of names of second-tier free agents.)
The calculation the Knicks need to make ahead of free agency is who they think they will be able to add to Davis and whether those players, along with the rest of the Knicks roster, will make them a team that can challenge for a title. There are often ways for teams to learn through back channels what some free agents are planning on doing, but it is also possible the Knicks will have to take some kind of gamble in projecting what free agency will look like for them.
Trading for Davis and then missing out on desired free agents could lead to a situation in which they can never put together a roster good enough to win with. Even worse, if Davis does not sign an extension right away and the Knicks fail to make the playoffs in his first season with the team, he could renege on whatever promise he made to re-sign and decide to leave as a free agent in the summer of 2020. It would destroy two years worth of a Knicks rebuild, with nothing to show for it.
It’s why the Knicks have to tread extremely carefully with any Davis trade before knowing what is going to happen in free agency. Including Robinson and the third overall pick only makes sense if it leads to a true chance to make a title run, since the team would be all but abandoning any chance at a slow rebuild.
There’s also an argument to be made that trading both those assets for Davis in any circumstance doesn’t make sense, and they would be better off keeping Robinson and using the third pick as the main asset in a slightly smaller deal for someone like Bradley Beal. A trade like that might actually be preferable depending on the other players who could arrive in free agency.
Whether the Knicks decide to make a trade for Davis before having another star in hand could be the most consequential decision the front office makes this offseason. It could yield a high payoff or horribly backfire, and no one will know which until after free agency plays out. Without any sort of back-channel understanding that another superstar is coming, I wouldn’t pull the trigger if it meant losing the third overall pick and Robinson. We’ll see what Knicks president Steve Mills and general manager Scott Perry think.