NEW YORK — Wherever Leon Rose, the mystery man running the Knicks front office, is sitting atop his mountain of protected draft picks, you have to wonder what he’s thinking these days about Donovan Mitchell.
Mitchell, if you recall from the summer, was supposed to be a Knick. The Westchester standout was so presumptuous of a homecoming that he told friends and family, “All right, keep this quiet, but it’s probably going to happen.”
Then the Cavs swooped in and Mitchell has played like a superstar in Cleveland. Thirty points or more in eight of the 10 games this season for the 26-year-old, the third leading scorer in the NBA. Even the most optimistic viewpoint didn’t predict Mitchell’s production as so robust.
There are different messages about why the Knicks failed in their pursuit, and Rose doesn’t field questions from independent media. But the common story is the Knicks were resistant to include the necessary pick compensation and haggled over young players like Quentin Grimes.
In the aftermath, the Knicks are roughly as projected — average. Grimes is barely available because of a lingering sore foot. Julius Randle and RJ Barrett are playing to the mean of their careers, the good and bad. Tom Thibodeau’s squad played against six superstars and, not coincidentally, carried six defeats into Friday night against the Pistons.
Mitchell. Ja Morant. Giannis Antetokounmpo. Trae Young. Jayson Tatum. Kevin Durant.
With the exception of Young, those players utterly dominated the Knicks. All six combined to average 29 points, 7.2 rebounds and nine assists, which we’re bringing up to underscore the obvious failure of Rose in Year 3 of his tenure: the Knicks still don’t have a superstar to counter.
Thibodeau was asked about that conundrum and he danced around it.
“Every team has strengths and weaknesses,” the coach said before pivoting to a long answer about Durant being difficult to guard.
The excuse-makers maintain Mitchell’s trade price was too high and he wouldn’t have elevated the Knicks to contention, regardless. The familiar sell of hope is that Leon Rose will simply jump on the next superstar available, but such a strategy, if you could call it that, is wildly unpredictable. We heard for two years about acquiring Karl-Anthony Towns and Damian Lillard. Then they both signed massive extensions.
Banking on a player of Mitchell’s caliber becoming available is a flawed approach. The idea the Knicks can automatically win a bidding war for the next superstar is even more problematic. Perhaps Sunday’s opponent at MSG, Shai-Gilgeous Alexander, forces his way out of OKC. It’s more likely he doesn’t after signing for $172 million just last year.
In the meantime, the Knicks aren’t inspiring much enthusiasm about the possibilities of this season. Rose’s decision to run it back with Jalen Brunson — while sacrificing the 11th pick to make that signing — has just created confusion about the direction.
The Knicks are neither rebuilding nor contending. Then the excuses of ‘not enough energy and effort’ are often uttered after defeats because they’re correctable problems. Brunson was the latest after Wednesday’s blowout loss in Brooklyn, when the point guard said, “It’s not OK … they played harder than us and we didn’t play as hard as we could have.”
The real issue of ‘they have a superstar and we don’t’ is harder to fix.
“We’re trying to figure ourselves out,” Derrick Rose said.
The Knicks can always pivot with trades if things get out of hand, which would be Leon Rose’s second admission of failure after his disastrous summer of 2021.
No matter where this goes, the Knicks will be hard-pressed to find a player like Mitchell available. Missing out on him is looking more and more like a disastrous mistake as the season progresses.