The Kink That Wasn’t: What the Donovan Mitchell Saga Tells Us

NBA

Through Yaron Weitzman
FOX Sports NBA Writer

It was Leon Rose’s first crossroads moment since becoming the key decision maker for the New York Knicks.

Most of us — and that includes executives, coaches, and agents in the NBA — assumed Donovan Mitchell would go to training camp as a member of the Knicks. It turns out we were wrong. On Thursday, we learned that Mitchell is heading from Utah to Cleveland where he’s adjusting for the Cavaliers.

The question, of course, is why.

[Jazz trade Donovan Mitchell to Cavaliers]

The Knicks could easily have beaten the Cavs’ bid even after RJ Barrett’s extension this week. They had more tips. Their group of available young players has been better than what the Cavs gave up. Based on the details of the final deal and the various reports we’ve heard about the Knicks’ bids, it appears the negotiations boiled down to the number of unprotected first-round picks. the Knicks, according to reports, refused to record more than two; the jazz insisted on getting at least three what they got it from the Cavaliers.

All of which makes this the most intriguing decision of Rose’s tenure. And even more interesting considering how Rose got here.

Keep in mind that managing 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 picked up while working as a broadcaster. Rose never did anything like that. There were no notebooks full of team building thoughts. No powerpoint decks illustrating ideal organizational philosophies.

Rose runs the Knicks because in January 2020, he received a call from James Dolan, the chairman of Madison Square Garden, out of the blue. The Knicks fidgeted—again—and Dolan loud Report in The AthleticShe wanted to know if Rose would be interested in coming on board as team president.

Rose was at the forefront of his craft at the time, co-head of the basketball department at Creative Artists Agency and representing some of the games biggest stars. Very rich and very connected, he was as respected a leader as there was in the NBA world. Friends and colleagues in the league had never heard him mention a desire to move to the team side of the business. They expected him to stay with CAA until his retirement. And yet it was only a few weeks before Rose accepted Dolan’s offer.

We don’t know what those initial conversations between Dolan and Rose were like or what was discussed. But it has always been assumed that Dolan – who has always pushed the hunt for stars – was attracted to Rose because of Rose’s many connections to these stars and that Rose told Dolan he believed he could attract these stars and the result was Dolan promised, Paying Rose a huge sum of money to carry out this star hunting plan. Stars in the league – including Mitchell – seemed to agree.

And now, almost 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 apparently refused to pull the trigger.

No, Mitchell is not perfect. He’s a top 25 guy, not top 10. His defense leaves a lot to be desired and would have been a disaster in backcourt alongside fellow sief Jalen Brunson. The Knicks still wouldn’t have come close to matching the top teams in the east. But he’s still a star, a one-man attacker, one of only a dozen or so players in the league capable of efficiently leading an attack even against the stiffest competition, the engine of a Jazz attack, who has won 62 percent of their games in the last 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 probably would have turned them into a playoff team. The fan base would have been electrified. James Dolan would have been thrilled. At the very least, Rose would have bought a lot of political capital.

Instead, he and the Knicks must turn to plan B: Hope someone like Barrett or Quentin Grimes shows up as a sophomore, continues to accumulate fortunes, and waits for another star to become available.

The problem is that there is no guarantee that such a player will become available. Yes, recent NBA history suggests that at some point we’ll hear from a disgruntled star looking to leave his team, and the Knicks are no doubt listed as one of the teams on this player’s list of favorite targets. But who says the price of this star will be different? If we’ve learned anything in the past few NBA seasons, it’s that the common guess for pretty much anyone with multiple All-Star nods on their resume — whether it’s Rudy Gobert or Dejounte Murray — is basically “any choice, that you have”.

All of this could make for a tense year around Madison Square Garden. Keep in mind that this is a group that was on the brink of collapse last season. Tom Thibodeau was about to be fired. Julius Randle proved incapable of being a No. 1 option on court and a leader off the court. Rose traded a first-round pick for a player – Cam Reddish – who Thibodeau then refused to play.

Now the Knicks are essentially going for a Barrett jump and Brunson serves as both a catalyst and a stabilizing force. Both are possible, but anything but certain. It’s also worth noting that Rose might have had more ammo to acquire Mitchell if he hadn’t went all out to clear the Cap spot to sign Brunson.

On the other hand, there is something to be said about a leader who is willing to show conviction and make tough decisions. You might not agree with Rose’s decision, but it seems pretty clear that it was made out of conviction.

That’s something not often said by Knicks decision-makers. Knicks fans may not have a star to cheer for just yet, but at least they know now that Rose doesn’t just view his current job as a golden parachute to retirement. He put himself at risk here in a way we haven’t seen many times at MSG. Let’s see what he has planned next.

Yaron Weitzman is an NBA writer for FOX Sports. He is the author of “Refueling to the Top: The Philadelphia 76ers and the Boldest Trial in Professional Sports History.”.” Follow him on Twitter @YaronWeitzman.


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