The trade deadline is a moment of truth for NBA teams. It’s the point in the season that forces front offices to take a serious look in the mirror to see what they have and where they are, to evaluate their progress in the plans they set out before the season, and to decide whether they want to stay the course or change direction. For teams flirting with playoff contention, the deadline is the point at which they have to make the ultimate judgment call and produce an honest answer to the questions: Are we going for it this year or not? If we are, do we already have what it takes to make it? If we don’t, what sacrifices are we willing to make to put us in a position to compete this year?
The New York Knicks, now 20-21 for the season, are one of those teams hovering around the fringes of playoff contention with the Feb. 18th trade deadline only a month away. They’ve been on a serious tear since the New Year began, playing their best ball of the season. They’ve gone 6-3 over a stretch that saw them make quick work of a handful of playoff teams and come within one wide-open Jose Calderon corner 3-pointer of beating the historically dominant San Antonio Spurs at home. They’re competing like a playoff team. Things are looking so positive around the Knicks that Derek Fisher felt comfortable making a statement as bold as “I think we’re getting there,” when asked about his team’s potential for playoff contention by Marc Berman of the New York Post.
In other words, the Knicks have a shot to make the playoffs, and it looks like they’re going to make the push to try and get there. While their current roster has recently looked like it can compete with any second-tier playoff team and even give some championship contenders a scare, it hasn’t been consistent through the balance of the season. There are nights when Kristaps Porzingis struggles to find himself in the flow of the offense and Arron Afflalo can’t get a shot to fall. They’ve been clicking on all cylinders since the beginning of January, but there are still moments, especially when Carmelo Anthony sits, when the offense stalls out and the Knicks look to be in over their heads. If Phil Jackson and Steve Mills believe these moments of inconsistency are indicative of larger structural issues and are set on trying to make the playoffs anyway (and there’s no reason not to try; the Knicks' pick in next year’s draft goes to Toronto, courtesy of one Andrea Bargnani), they may look to the trade market to improve the roster however they can.
The obvious place the Knicks could look to improve is at the guard position. Jose Calderon’s defensive struggles are well documented (although he’s looked better of late), and he isn’t the kind of player who can reliably create offense for himself when things break down in the waning seconds of the shot clock. The Knicks could benefit greatly in the short-term from both better defense and the addition of another shot creator at the point guard spot. Rookie Jerian Grant will surpass Calderon in both those areas eventually, but he just isn’t there yet. The free reign Fisher has given him recently to run the pick and roll has helped him to become more consistent, but he still has a lot of deer-in-the-headlights sequences and is liable to disappear for games on end. Immediate improvement at the guard position, then, would have to come from without.
Saying that the Knicks should trade for a better starting point guard is easy; figuring out how that sort of trade would happen is much harder. The essential problem here is that there may not be demand in the league for the players the Knicks may be willing to trade, and the players who are probably desired by other teams are young guys the Knicks should want to hold on to as they continue to build for the future. Players like Derrick Williams, Lance Thomas, and Langston Galloway all fall into the latter category. Obvious roster deadweight like Lou Amundson, Sasha Vujacic, and the injured Cleanthony Early almost certainly fall into the former.
Kyle O’Quinn and Kevin Seraphin are two players who may fall in between those two categories. The Knicks are overloaded in the frontcourt, and Fisher’s recent downsizing of the rotation has relegated both of those solid backup centers to the bench. O’Quinn, with his reasonable four-year deal and potential as a passer and rim-protector, may hold some appeal on the trade market, but he’s a great fit for the triangle and has had some really nice stretches this season. Although he finds himself out of the rotation for the moment, he’s a great insurance policy in the event of an injury to either Porzingis or Robin Lopez, and his skill set probably has too much potential for the Knicks to part with him just yet. Seraphin’s future with the team is much less certain, but he’s only signed with the Knicks through this season. He’s a considerable offensive force for a backup center, but there may not be a huge market out there for him. It would be hard to believe that there are teams out there that are really looking to give up a starting-caliber point guard just to lease Kevin Seraphin for a few months, and the issue of matching salary would make a trade involving Seraphin even trickier.
The other significant obstacle to the Knicks’ making a trade is the current state of the trade market as the league prepares for the impending salary cap explosion. Nobody is really sure what the market will look like as the deadline approaches, but, as teams try to horde good contracts and prepare to throw max contracts at next year’s free agent class, there’s a good chance that this trade season will be a quiet one across the league. In other words, even if the Knicks decide they want to try to make a trade, there may not be anything out there for them. Other teams might have already decided to stand pat and sit out this year’s trade season as they look to capitalize on the massive influx of cash set to come their way in the summer.
A trade for an upgrade at point guard might be hard to come by, but trades are not the only way the Knicks could try to add some talent in the short-term. They still hold one extra roster spot, and they could use that spot to sign a player from the D-League to a 10-day contract (Toure’ Murry—remember him?—of the Texas Legends is one name that has been tossed around). This isn’t a sure-thing move, but, given that the Knicks are in the awkward position of trying to compete in the short-term while working to build a sustainable system around players developed in-house, it may be the best option. Signing a player from the D-League would be a low risk/high reward investment. If things work out, you end up with a good player on a cheap contract who can help you now and grow with your young guys for the future. If they don’t, you end up with a bad player on a cheap contract who you can move on from quickly and painlessly.
Ultimately, the best bet for the Knicks might be to experiment a bit with D-League players but to otherwise hold the course with their current roster. It’s likely that whatever player they would sign or trade for wouldn’t move the needle that much on either end of the ball, and they’ll probably still have to address their most pressing guard and wing needs in the next offseason. In the meantime, what they already have has shown flashes of actual brilliance. The wisest (and, not coincidentally, least Knicks-y) move here may be to ride the season out with the players they already have, who, though they have only really played one half season together, have begun to develop a chemistry that allows them to compete at a high level. This approach may or may not take them to the playoffs, but it will set them up well for the future and show the league and all of its impending free agents that something formidable and, more importantly, sustainable is being built at Madison Square Garden.