NEW YORK — It’s been well documented and examined, but worth rehashing in the wake of this week’s news: Back in April, the Knicks had a notable contingent at the Jazz and Mavericks playoff game. They sat front row — specifically executives William Wesley and Allan Houston, along with Julius Randle — which was widely viewed as a recruitment maneuver for offseason targets Jalen Brunson and Donovan Mitchell.
Top team employees being visible at a recruit’s game is something common in college, a world Wesley operated in frequently and comfortably for much of his career as the University of Kentucky’s behind-the-scenes power broker. But it’s neither necessary nor typical in the NBA. The Jazz and Mavericks took exception to the tactic at the time, sources said, and now I’m hearing about it again.
Members of the Knicks felt they didn’t get a fair shake from the Jazz in their trade negotiations for Donovan Mitchell, a pursuit that ended Thursday with the guard’s shocking deal to the Cavaliers.
The Knicks weren’t given an opportunity for a counterproposal after the Cavs and Jazz agreed to swap Mitchell for three players, three first-round picks and two pick swaps, according to ESPN. It was a decent bundle for Utah but something the Knicks could have eclipsed with all their draft capital. Jazz exec Danny Ainge was aware of the Knicks’ craving for Mitchell, and he had leverage to chase more after Cleveland reemerged with a serious offer.
The Knicks, according to sources, feel like their proposals with RJ Barrett as the centerpiece with multiple first-round picks were better than the Cavs’ final offer, which is up to interpretation. Only Ainge knows if he negotiated in good faith. He’d never admit it if he didn’t. People who know Ainge say he’d never jeopardize a deal over something petty, whether it was that silly front-row display at the Jazz playoff game or issues with either the Knicks or CAA (the talent agency closely associated with the Knicks). But it’s worth noting Ainge only completed one trade with the Knicks during his 18 years in the Celtics’ front office. He was much more active with Cleveland while completing eight deals, including the blockbuster involving Kyrie Irving in 2017 when current Cavs GM Koby Altman was in his first year at that position.
The other theory, or more logical one, is Ainge is neither high on Barrett nor keen on giving him a nine-figure contract, which the 22-year-old signed with the Knicks on Thursday. The Jazz got a cheaper option from the Cavs in point guard Collin Sexton, who flashed All-Star potential two seasons ago before managing only 11 games last season because of a torn meniscus. Sexton was acquired by Ainge in a sign-and-trade for four-years, $72 million. It’s about $35 million less than Barrett’s extension.
“I see RJ as the third best player on a good team,” an NBA coach said. “But you’re not going to tell me he’s going to lead a team.”
Without Mitchell, Barrett might be the best player on the Knicks. Or, it could be Brunson. Or maybe Randle. They have a cluster of middle-tier players, along with young prospects who couldn’t move Ainge’s hand to the shake position.
Now the fallout awaits, and we’ll see how Barrett handles being mentioned publicly by the Knicks as a franchise cornerstone while privately being shopped for a flashier option. The Knicks announced Barrett’s extension just seven minutes after news of the Mitchell trade broke Friday, a move that was calculated as a PR counter but also diminished the positive impact because fans were still shocked about Mitchell going elsewhere.