While there are few expectations for the Knicks to make a big splash at the NBA’s trade deadline, that hasn’t always been the case in the past.
It feels trivial to be writing about NBA trades during a week that has served as such a jarring reminder of what’s truly important in life.
A quick aside: Kobe Bryant was the reason I fell in love with hoops as a seven-year-old originally from L.A. The best times of my life are watching him ball, and I chose USC in part to witness his final seasons up close. I was recommended to the team making Kobe Bryant’s Muse purely for my experience as a Kobe fanatic. One of my research projects working on the doc was to estimate Kobe’s global economic impact for a segment that didn’t make the film because Kobe literally changed the entire doc after seeing the first cut. We settled on some number in the tens of billions, but it was obviously an impossible task—his true reach is incalculable.
Kobe’s NBA journey, of course, began with Jerry West’s 1996 draft day swap for Vlade Divac. West shipped out All-Star guard Eddie Jones the following year to clear the way for no. 8. The lesson? It was time to play the young guy.
After each game in which Mike Miller prioritizes the veterans over the Knicks’ younger players, anticipation and anxiety grows for next week’s trade deadline (Feb. 6th at 3 p.m. ET). The Knicks’ shuffling through interrupted rebuilds, nonsensical roster constructions, rotating front offices, illogical contracts, and lottery appearances over the years have made them frequent players around the annual deadline. As we await this year’s transactions (or lack thereof), let’s look back on the notable midseason moves throughout Knicks history.
1968: The Knicks acquire Dave DeBusschere from Detroit for Walt Bellamy and Howie Komives
This trade took place on Dec. 19th and the deadline was Feb. 1st that season, but it’s simply one of the most significant deals in Knicks history. The Knicks had spent the second-half of the 1960’s piecing together a contender to capitalize on the end of the Celtics dynasty, and many credit the DeBusschere acquisition as the final piece to the puzzle that led to 1969–70 title.
At the time of the deal, the Knicks were 18-17, coming off back-to-back playoff appearances. Bellamy was posting 15.2 points and 11.0 boards and Howard Komives was a decent lefty point guard who averaged 15.7 points and 6.2 assists in 1967 but had struggled since. Knicks GM Eddie Donovan was able to swap them for three-time All-Star DeBusschere who had such a high I.Q. that the Pistons named him player-coach at age 24. He also had shooting range, and fit next to Willis Reed better than Bellamy (also a center). The Knicks won 14 out of their first 15 with him and reached the conference finals. From 1969–74, the Knicks won more games than any team in the league.
1999: The Knicks acquire Latrell Sprewell from Golden State for Terry Cummings, Chris Mills, and John Starks
This isn’t technically a midseason deal—the trade went down in January during the lockout. Close enough. Sprewell made the All-NBA First Team in his second season (1993–94) and earned three All-Star bids in Golden State, but his reputation (and trade value) plummeted after the infamous choking incident with P.J. Carlesimo, which got him suspended for the final 68 games of the 1997–98 season. Then-Knicks GM Ernie Grunfeld shipped out some disposable vets (this will become a theme) to take a chance on the 28-year old Spree. Cummings and the oft-injured Mills were minor bench contributors who had just arrived in New York. Starks had played all 82 games the season before (12.9 points per game) and carried emotional value, but he had been relegated to a backup at age 33.
Sprewell shot the ball poorly (43.5% eFG) coming off the bench during the strike-shortened regular season, but ignited the team nonetheless with his tenacious defense, energy, and slashing. This was especially the case during the surprising 1999 Finals run, during which he led the team in scoring (20.6 points per game). Sprewell tallied 6.6 Win Shares the following season and represented the Knicks in the All-Star Game in 2001. As with many star players in New York, the relationship with the franchise soured and had an acrimonious ending, but this was overall one of the better winter trades in Knicks history.
2004: The Knicks acquire Stephon Marbury, Penny Hardaway, and Cezary Trybanksi from Phoenix for Antonio McDyess, Howard Eisley, Charlie Ward, Maciej Lampe, the draft rights to Milos Vujanic, a 2004 first-round pick (Kirk Snyder) and a 2010 first-round pick (Gordon Hayward)
Isiah Thomas is responsible for some of the more confounding trades ever, though he at least gets credit for swinging big. Amidst a middling season on Jan. 5th, the Knicks acquired Steph and Penny for a hearty package of non-talent but also had to surrender two first-round picks. The Suns were looking for salary cap relief, and McDyess and Ward were expiring deals (Ward was waived immediately). Eisley was a backup, and Vujanic never played in the Association. Trybanski appeared in three games for the Knicks before being dealt to Chicago in the Jamal Crawford trade. Phoenix would trade those picks to Utah, which resulted in Kirk Snyder (no. 16 in 2004), and—gulp—Gordon Hayward (no. 9 in 2010).
Marbury was just 26 at the time and one of the game’s most talented players, but the trade marked his fourth team in eight years, and he failed to improve the Knicks’ fortunes. His first full season in New York was his best, dropping 21.7 points and 8.1 assists per game on 50.6% eFG, but his numbers quickly declined each year after. After heavy minutes at high usage rates for the first half of his career, the wear and tear showed, and his clashes with coaches along with poor rosters and injuries mired his Knicks career. He never made an All-Star team for his hometown club, and the Knicks failed to eclipse 33 wins in any of his full seasons in orange and blue.
Penny played 83 games over two seasons in New York, with his biggest contribution coming in the 2004 first-round loss to New Jersey, when he somehow put up 16.5 points, 5.8 assists, 4.5 rebounds, and 1.5 steals per game in the series. He generally made a bigger dent in the Knicks’ cap sheet (earning $30 million over two years) than in the box score.
Thomas’ thinking here is actually understandable, and he netted far and away the most talented player in the deal. But between losing two first-round picks and the way the Marbury era ultimately played out, it’s hard to assess this trade as a win in retrospect.
2006: The Knicks acquire Steve Francis from Orlando for Trevor Ariza and Penny Hardaway
Not sure what Isiah was thinking on this one. Francis, like Marbury, was an expensive, score-first point guard, and the notion that they would form a dynamic Clyde and Pearl 2.0 backcourt worthy of their price tags was never realistic (Jamal Crawford was on the roster too!). At 29, Francis was amid a falling out with Orlando, averaging a career-low in points per game (16.2) and owed $49 million over three more seasons. The Knicks already had the highest payroll in the league after inexplicably taking on $34 million two weeks earlier by acquiring a washed Jalen Rose for a washed Antonio Davis. Francis posted 11.1 points and 3.7 assists over two injury-riddled and uninspired seasons with the Knicks.
Ariza, in his second year, found himself in Larry Brown’s doghouse (on-brand for Brown), but was a rangy, athletic 20-year-old who the team just simply should not have given away.
2011: In a three-team trade with Denver and Minnesota, the Knicks acquire Carmelo Anthony, Chauncey Billups, Corey Brewer, Renaldo Balkman, Anthony Carter, and Shelden Williams, in exchange for Danilo Gallinari, Raymond Felton, Wilson Chandler, Timofey Mozgov, a 2012 second-round pick (Quincy Miller), a 2013 second-round pick (Romero Osby), a 2014 first-round pick (Dario Saric, 12th overall), a 2016 first-round pick swap (Jamal Murray, seventh overall), Eddy Curry, and Anthony Randolph
We all have the same take about this mega-deal: While Anthony’s eagerness to play in New York is greatly appreciated, his unwillingness to wait until free agency was sabotaging. The Knicks were forced to deal away a promising young core putting together an energizing first season with Amar’e Stoudemire. At the time of the deal, Stoudemire was an MVP candidate, the Knicks were on their way to a playoff berth, Felton was having a career year (17.1 points and 9.0 assists), while recent draft picks Chandler (16.4 points and 5.9 rebounds) and Gallo (15.9 points and 4.8 rebounds) rounded out a versatile, exciting new kind of Knicks team. Mozgov had real value as a rookie.
‘Melo averaged 24.7 points over seven seasons, finished third in the 2012–13 MVP Voting and led the Knicks to 54 wins that year. He’s no doubt one of the best players to ever suit up for the Knicks. But after making the postseason in Carmelo’s first three seasons, the consequences of the trade became increasingly apparent as the roster aged and Amar’e broke down. That 2012–13 season was wonderful, but it’s tantalizing to imagine ‘Melo teaming up with the guys who were dealt away (plus, those draft picks led to Jamal Murray and Dario Saric). Billups was solid during his brief run at point (17.5 points), but it lasted just 21 games.
2019: The Knicks acquire Dennis Smith Jr., Deandre Jordan, Wes Matthews, and two conditional first-round picks (2021, 2023) for Kristaps Porzingis, Courtney Lee, Tim Hardaway Jr., and Trey Burke
Today, this trade looks much worse in retrospect than it did one year ago. Sure, it was entirely disappointing that the franchise’s best draft pick in years wanted out, but as long as he did, this seemed like a defensible-enough trade at the moment.
Porzingis hasn’t been that healthy or productive in Dallas yet, but Luka Doncic’s ascendance has the Mavs at the top of the league in offensive efficiency, nonetheless. Grabbing 2021 (unprotected) and 2023 (protected) picks were nice, but with every 40-point triple-double from Luka, those picks become less valuable. Getting out of Hardaway Jr.’s contact was a positive, but even he has played well under Rick Carlisle, shooting a career-high 39.5% from three.
The Knicks’ return on the trade has always been contingent on the development of Dennis Smith Jr., and his unfortunate struggles have only made the deal look more lopsided. After flashing some scoring ability in 18 starts to finish out last season (18.5 points per 36 minutes), he’s been stuck in a brutal funk since the preseason. His field goal percentage has plummeted to 33.6% in 24 games, despite taking nearly half as many shots (in half the minutes) as he did post-deadline in 2019. If things don’t improve for Smith, this trade will only look worse for the current front office.
A few other less important moves
1978: The Knicks trade Bob McAdoo to Boston for three first-round picks
McAdoo bounced around a lot for one of the league’s smoothest bucket-getters. He put up 26.7 points per game over his 171 games in New York, though the team failed to win more than 43 games during his time. In December of 1978, they shipped out the 27-year-old McAdoo for a package of picks that would lead to Sly Williams (a solid guard in the early ‘80s) and the third-overall pick that would become Bill Cartwright—one of the Knicks’ best players of the decade who they would end up swapping for Charles Oakley. McAdoo’s prime was behind him, though he would become an all-time great sixth man for Magic’s Lakers. Considering the Knicks weren’t contenders, either way, this ended up working out in the long-run.
1989: Knicks acquire Kiki Vandeweghe from Portland for a first-round pick (1989)
Kiki played three-plus seasons in New York (where his dad Ernie played), averaging 11.5 points per game. His best run was 1990–91, which he dropped 16.3 points per game. The pick ended up at no. 22 for Portland, who took Byron Irvin.
2005: The Knicks acquire Malik Rose and two conditional first-round picks from San Antonio for Jamison Brewer, Nazr Mohammed, and a TPE. One of these became David Lee
This was a rare case in which the Knicks directly benefited from acquiring draft picks. The Knicks were able to scoop David Lee with one of the Spurs picks (no. 30 in 2005), who ended up as far and away the best player involved in this deal.
2009: The Knicks acquire Larry Hughes and a TPE from Chicago for Jerome James, Anthony Roberson, Tim Thomas, and TPE
Once again, the Knicks traded three nonessential veterans for a player clashing with his current team. Hughes never made an impact in New York and was dealt the following winter. This was one of a handful of moves the Knicks made to clear cap space for the summer of 2010, resulting in the $100 million Stoudemire signing.
2010: The Knicks acquire Tracy McGrady, Sergio Rodriguez, and TPE for Jordan Hill, Larry Hughes, Jared Jeffries, and swap two first-round picks
This was another move to clear space for the 2010 free agent class, though trading your recent top-10 pick during his rookie season (Hill) is never ideal. This stings even more after Steph Curry’s confirmation that he was hoping to be selected by the Knicks. T-Mac played just 24 games with the Knicks, though his 26-point debut remains a randomly cool past Knicks moment.
The Knicks have repeatedly taken big—or weird—swings at the deadline, with a mixed track record of success. Fortunately, the team has gotten smarter in terms of taking on money and parting with draft picks. Let’s hope that pattern continues, and the front office will prioritize long-term roster-building over short-term job security concerns before the upcoming deadline.