February 24, 2024

Knicks, Cavaliers opt for different trade deadline approaches. Will either pay off?

NEW YORK — Post trade-deadline columns are filled with dirty little secrets, wider angles, surprises and predictions. This one begins with a mistake.

Weeks ago, while making plans for the 2024 trade deadline, I thought I should be around the Cleveland Cavaliers. They were scheduled to be on the road this week, in Washington, New York (it’s a big city; keep that in mind) and then Toronto for the first game after the deadline. My thinking at the time was that the Cavs seemed volatile. They’d won a few games in a row, but Darius Garland and Evan Mobley were still out after surgeries. There’d been persistent whispers from league sources about the pressure everyone was under in Cleveland, about J.B. Bickerstaff’s tenuous hold on his job and the unlikelihood that Donovan Mitchell would agree to a contract extension this summer. This was a fitting description of an active team at the deadline if there ever was one.

So, I booked the trip. Start Monday in New York to check in on the Golden State Warriors and Brooklyn Nets. Meet the Cavs on Wednesday in Washington and accompany them back to New York — where they had another game Thursday — for deadline day. I made my credential requests — at Barclays Center for Monday, Capital One Arena for Wednesday and, of course, Madison Square Garden for Thursday’s game.

There was only one problem: The Cavs weren’t playing the Knicks. They were playing the Nets, in Brooklyn.

There was a game Thursday at MSG, involving the Knicks and, get this, the Mavs. I don’t know how I screwed this up. But from a trade deadline perspective, it turned out that MSG was, in fact, the right place to be. 

The Cavs sat tight at the deadline. They are a prime example of calm, stability and positivity for the whole NBA right now. The Knicks, meanwhile, finished a makeover of their team with a huge trade. Which team — the Knicks or Cavs — is closer to where it needs to be, to catch and ultimately take down the East-leading Boston Celtics? That is less certain.

The Knicks’ acquisitions of Bojan Bogdanović and Alec Burks on Thursday should have been a euphoric moment for this historic franchise and its passionate fanbase. Neither is an All-Star, but Bogdanović is a stretch four who shoots 41 percent from 3-point range. Burks was a Knick as late as last season and can handle the ball off the bench. New York already has two All-Stars in Jalen Brunson and Julius Randle, went 14-2 in January and previously made a huge trade in late December, bringing OG Anunoby to town from Toronto. It’s as deep and complete of a team as the Knicks have been able to put on the floor in years, easily since Carmelo Anthony was here, and it’s a team that is almost an identical match to the grind-it-out, defense-first style coach Tom Thibodeau likes to play.

“I never want to put a ceiling on what our team is,” Thibodeau said Thursday. “We can’t look ahead and think, ‘because you do something,’ … we have to understand that the work has to go into it. There’s still 30 games to go, so just approach it day by day and at the end be playing your best. We like the balance that we have.”

It should have been a big day for the Knicks, and perhaps if the playoffs unfold a certain way, we’ll all look back to the trade deadline as the day the finishing touches were put on a masterpiece. But two hours after the deadline passed, the Knicks announced that Anunoby had surgery to remove bone spurs from his elbow and will be out at least three weeks. (In a weird moment, Thibodeau couldn’t even say when Anunoby underwent the surgery — as in, he didn’t know if it happened Thursday or Wednesday.) Randle is still out with a dislocated shoulder. Even Brunson missed the game Thursday against Dallas with an ankle sprain — something Thibodeau said is a “day-to-day” injury. Between the trade and the injuries, the Knicks only had eight players available against the Mavs.

“We have more than enough,” Thibodeau cracked, because eight is three more than the five required for the start of an NBA game.

Do they, though? Brunson gets serenaded at home with MVP cheers. When I appeared on local TV in New York on Thursday, I was asked almost immediately if I think they are a contender — and this is before the Bogdanović-Burks trade. It’s hard to know for sure how much closer they are now to that ultimate goal, because it’s going to be a while before all of the pieces the Knicks have collected can play together. But Bogdanović and Burks, who is shooting 40 percent from 3-point range, give the Knicks some things they haven’t had enough of this season, namely depth and floor spacing.

“Now there’s tougher decisions to make,” Thibodeau said. “The shooting piece is so important. I just think the more we can open up the floor, particularly as we go forward, that’s the key ingredient.”

Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau has a couple new faces in the mix, but New York won’t be at full strength for a while. (Brad Penner / USA Today)

As of this writing, the Cavs were a full game up on the Knicks and Milwaukee Bucks for second in the East and five games behind Boston for the top spot. Cleveland had won seven straight and 15 of the last 16 dating to Dec. 16, the best out of 30 NBA teams in that stretch. Mitchell is again an All-Star. Jarrett Allen certainly could have been. Garland and Mobley are back, and the Cavs have a deep, clearly defined bench with Caris LeVert, Isaac Okoro, Georges Niang, Dean Wade and Sam Merrillthe Kyle Korver lookalike and last pick of the 2020 draft who emerged as the franchise’s top 3-point shooter while Garland and Mobley were out.

In a conference call Thursday, Cavs president Koby Altman said the Cavs were “philosophically nowhere close” to making any trades, which meant they were of the firm belief that any deal available to them (and there were a couple, he said) wouldn’t make them any better than they are now.

“We do think we have the talent level to compete with the best,” Altman said. “I think we have shown that, this year and last year, we were able to compete with the best teams in the league, and we’re doing that now. We’re still young. Playoff experience is something we need to add to this group and go … past the first round or rounds in the playoffs. Those are really hard. The NBA is really difficult, the parity is difficult, but we feel we’re in the mix with some of the best teams in the world right now.”

Speaking of the Knicks and Cavs, the two met in the playoffs last spring, and New York dominated. The domination was such that it seemingly had a deep, psychological effect on the Cleveland organization. Some of that impact was acknowledged by players. But it brought into focus the urgency of the moment, with Mitchell’s decision on a contract extension likely tied to how good he thinks the Cavs can be. At the same time, numerous league sources, beginning last summer and extending into the first part of the season, strongly suggested Bickerstaff was in trouble and pointed to the Mitchell contract (and the urgency to win) as the reason. Multiple Cavs front-office officials denied this, and, team sources said, Bickerstaff and Altman had held several reassuring discussions while Cleveland’s record was a shaky 1-3, then 4-6, then 8-8 and then 13-12 before it all turned positive. But team sources also said the pressure to make the case to Mitchell to stay long term had been affecting every corner of the organization.

A franchise under all that pressure could have, perhaps should have, buckled when, on the same day (Dec. 15), it was discovered that two of its top players (Garland and Mobley) would be out for extended periods of time. Instead, the opposite happened. Playing without them forced the Cavs to adopt a different style, with only one big (Allen) on the court, surrounded by shooters who were charged with passing quickly and hoisting as many 3s as possible. The result was what you see now — since Dec. 16, Cleveland is first in the league in 3-point attempts per game (40.8) — and it’s something they’re trying to stick to with Mobley and Allen on the floor together.

“I really want to give J.B. a ton of credit, and his coaching staff a ton of credit,” Altman said Thursday. “Navigating the early adversity of the season, certainly with the injuries, figuring out the way to play really successful basketball and really sort of changing how we play. We had the personnel to do it. And so figuring out a way to get up those 3s and play at a faster pace, a lot more spacing out there.”

The Mitchell contract situation is still there,. He still has a decision to make this summer, and it still has huge ramifications for the future of the franchise. But it also clearly has shifted to the background as the Cavs continue to play inspired basketball.

“I think we’re in good shape,” Mitchell said Wednesday night in Washington, a line that couldn’t be met with enough heart emojis by Cavs fans.

Caris LeVert and the Cavs aren’t afraid to fire away from 3. (David Richard / USA Today)

• The Knicks were the best team to make themselves better on Thursday. The Cavs were playing the best of anyone and stood pat. The Celtics, already the East’s deepest team, with the most talent around Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown ever assembled, added more depth Wednesday by acquiring veteran big Xavier Tillman from Memphis. He provides excellent depth for Krisptaps Porziņģis, a 7-footer who stretches the floor and changes the Celtics for the better but has a troubled injury history, and for Al Horford, who is in his 17th season. Derrick White is enjoying a career year, and Jrue Holiday gives the Celtics a combination of steady, heady offensive play and brilliant defense on the perimeter that they haven’t had in a point guard since Tatum and Brown began routinely getting to the East finals in 2017. They deserve immense credit for the way they’ve built this team and for the NBA-best record they’d compiled heading into the deadline.

• The Thunder’s acquisition of Gordon Hayward has serious low risk, high reward potential. Tied with Minnesota and the Clippers atop the West, the Thunder sent out two players not getting many minutes in return for Hayward, who’s averaging 14.5 points in 25 games. If he stays healthy, Oklahoma City gets a capable scorer and rebounder for its bench without giving up too much from the treasure trove of assets it has at its disposal. Hayward is also on an expiring contract, so if the injury bug bites him again, the Thunder aren’t on the hook for millions upon millions of dollars to him in future years. History says that bug will indeed bite — he’s been hurt and missed extended periods from every season dating to the 2019-20 campaign with Boston.

• The Warriors, one of the league’s great disappointments this season, did not add to their team at the deadline (they traded reserve guard Cory Joseph and cash to Indiana for a second-round pick). But they have won three straight, and they noticed last year when two teams (Miami in the East; Lakers in the West) came through the Play-In Tournament to make very deep playoff runs. Also, the Warriors are among the NBA leaders in close games, like the Heat were last season. Each season is different, and the Warriors have an entirely different roster from the 2023 Heat, but if there is a franchise out there “drafting” as if the NBA is a NASCAR race, idling behind the leaders and waiting for the moment to blow past, perhaps it’s Steph Curry’s team with its foot waiting to punch the gas.

“It’s been such a tease, because you feel it,” Curry said earlier this week after the Warriors reeled off their first of what is now three consecutive wins. “We’ve talked about that opportunity, even with Boston a couple years ago when they were like .500 for a long part of the season, and then they hit their stride. You can think about that, and you can allow that to be motivating, but you still have to go out and perform.”

• Thursday’s deadline was full of trades, and frankly, none of them took our  breath away. The 76ers’ deals can’t be judged until we see when Joel Embiid returns. The Bucks reunited Doc Rivers with Patrick Beverley; their fortunes lay with whether Rivers can get the most out of Giannis Antetokounmpo and Damian Lillard. Maybe next year will be more exciting. Maybe I will check the schedule and not book credentials for the wrong buildings. But doing so this year led me to this priceless little nugget from Jason Kidd.

Kidd, unlike Thibodeau, said he couldn’t talk about the two trades the Mavericks agreed to. They acquired defensive help and depth in the middle — where it was sorely, sorely lacking — by trading for Washington’s Daniel Gafford and added some extra scoring with Charlotte’s P.J. Washington. Kidd, the Mavericks’ coach, said the Mavericks needed to improve defensively to be a contender (they’re ranked 22nd on defense), but also, their identity was the prolific scoring provided by Luka Dončić and, when he is healthy, Kyrie Irving.

Could the Mavericks simply score their way to a title?

“Yeah, why not us?” Kidd said. “Nobody plays defense anymore. So why can’t it be us? … I’m joking.”

(Top photo of Donovan Mitchell: Jason Miller / Getty Images)