Knicks wing Alec Burks has overachieved thus far in his first season with the team. Should New York look to trade or keep him?

NBA fans and media alike labeled the 2020 free agency class one of the most talent deficient in modern history. Only two legitimate stars projected to be up for bidding—DeMar DeRozan and Anthony Davis. But the former accepted his player option soon before the free agency period commenced, while the latter was coming off a title with the Los Angeles Lakers—meaning it was all but a foregone conclusion that he’d stay in La La Land.

Unlike the previous few seasons, the league’s landscape and balance of power were not fundamentally reworked via free agency. For perspective, the best player to change teams this fall was Gordon Hayward, who inked a four-year deal with the Charlotte Hornets. Hayward’s a talented wing with an impressive all-around game, but he pales in comparison to the marquee signings of recent memory, such as LeBron James to the Lakers or Kawhi Leonard to the Clippers.

From the outset, it was clear the Knicks had no shot at landing a franchise-altering talent—the free agent market was bone dry. Instead of characteristically handing out lucrative deals to mid-tier talents, New York signed several players to one-year deals to attain optimal financial flexibility for the star-studded 2021 class, headlined by the likes of Kawhi Leonard, Victor Oladipo, and Jrue Holiday.

Scott Perry nabbed three new faces over 2020 free agency in Nerlens Noel, Austin Rivers, and Alec Burks, all at bargain-bin costs. Both Noel and Rivers project to play valuable roles on this Knicks team, as they each bring skill sets that impact winning. Noel is a top-flight shot-blocker and rim runner for his position, while Rivers is an on-ball irritant who is a capable three-point shooter and orchestrator. The Knicks, under the regime of head coach Tom Thibodeau, are in the midst of a culture shift in which defensive headiness and preparedness are prioritized. Whether New York can sustain their early-season success in preventing scores will largely rest on the effort and energy of these two signees.

Rivers and Noel are ideal fits for this defensive-oriented group, but neither of them is the Knicks’ prize of free agency. That title belongs to Alec Burks, a 29-year-old journeyman who has provided efficient scoring off the bench for New York this season. Burks was the team’s leading scorer at 20.7 points per game prior to his ankle sprain, while averaging just 27.7 minutes. He’s served as the linchpin of New York’s second-unit offense, consistently hitting spot-up and off-the-bounce jumpers, and even making the occasional solid read here and there (dishing out 3.7 assists).

Burks has converted an out-of-this-world 66.7% of his three-point tries in 2020–21 on five attempts nightly, which is the highest percentage in the league to date. Is Burks’ unbelievable accuracy sustainable over the course of 72 games? Of course not. But the fact remains that he has played his way into a significant role as an offensive creator, and a career year appears to be on the horizon for him.

Burks’ stellar start to the season raises two important questions: should the Knicks capitalize on his soaring trade value and deal him before the trade deadline, or is the team better off re-signing him and keeping him around for the long haul?

Why the Knicks should deal Burks

Stop me if any of this sounds familiar. New York signs a veteran scoring wing to a one-year contract. The wing overachieves, leads the Knicks in scoring, and is subsequently dealt before the trade deadline. This describes Marcus Morris’ situation with the Knicks, who averaged 19.6 points across 43 games in orange and blue last season.

New York managed to land the 27th overall pick of the 2020 draft from the Clippers in exchange for Morris, a pick the team used to move up and select Immanuel Quickley at 25. Quickley is living proof that non-lottery first-round picks are valuable—maybe now more than ever, considering the historically deep 2021 draft is right around the corner.

Is Alec Burks worth a first-rounder? Historically, the answer is no. Back in 2019–20, Burks was traded from the Warriors to the Sixers, and Philadelphia had to relinquish three future second-round draft choices in exchange for his services (along with teammate Glenn Robinson III). However, Burks is putting up gaudier numbers with the Knicks than he did with the Warriors.

It’s simply too much to ask for Burks to retain his current efficiency. But if he can continue to hover around his 20 points average and remain a marksman from deep, it’s hard to imagine a title contender in need of a microwave scorer won’t pull the trigger. Shooting is at a premium in today’s NBA, an attribute which Burks can provide at an elite level. He’s on pace to produce at a level that is worth a top-30 pick, even in this upcoming draft. Proven three-level scorers capable of creating for themselves and others don’t grow on trees.

Make no mistake, lottery teams aren’t going to call the Knicks offering up their picks for Burks. Yet a top-tier ball club who sees Burks as the missing piece to their championship puzzle is likely to give up their pick without thinking twice, should he continue to light up the scoreboard as the Knicks’ spark plug.

Along with the probability that New York lands a respectable pick for Burks, another reason to consider dealing him is his age. It’s debatable whether or not Burks, who will turn 3o next July, fits the timeline of this current Knicks squad. New York’s building blocks in R.J. Barrett, Mitchell Robinson, Obi Toppin, and Immanuel Quickley are all in their early 20’s and have yet to even sniff their primes. By the time the core four reach their peaks, Burks will be well into his 30’s and staring retirement in the face.

Why the Knicks should retain Burks

The Knicks are a well-coached group that plays with togetherness and effort on both ends of the floor. This team could be the best iteration of the orange and blue that fans have witnessed in quite some time. New York boasts a record of 3-3 with impressive wins over conference contenders in the Milwaukee Bucks and Indiana Pacers.

There’s a lot of basketball left to be played in the season, but this squad could end up gunning for a spot in the play-in game. Postseason experience, however brief, would be invaluable to an organization that hasn’t sniffed respectability in nearly a decade. And the scoring and shot-creating chops that Burks brings to the table will no doubt be paramount to the Knicks’ chances at ending their years-long postseason drought.

New York’s team defense has been commendable, although their offense has been a different, bleaker story—particularly during the games when Burks was absent. This group is sorely lacking creators even when Burks is active, highlighted by the reality that the Knicks sit dead last in points per game at 101.7. The three games without Burks? That number drops to an abysmal 94.7 points.

Burks is the finest scoring threat New York has, plain and simple. Not just because of the variety of ways he can get buckets; the gravity he draws from the opposition both inside and outside the arc opens up scoring chances for his teammates. Burks’ presence on the court makes the game easier for the other four Knicks out there with him.

With Burks down for the count, there have been numerous unsightly possessions in which players were forced to play hero ball. For a Knicks team with no bona fide star, continuous and fluid ball movement is the key to offensive success, as opposed to iso-ball. Burks, who is an incredible spot-up shooter as well as a steady hand running the screen-and-roll, will give the struggling Knicks offense the lifeforce it so desperately needs once he returns to the floor. His skill set beautifully blends with the team’s non-ball-dominant philosophy.

Burks addresses two of New York’s glaring holes: three-point shooting and shot creation. This reason alone is enough to consider retaining his services. Not to mention the Knicks will be hard-pressed to find a shot-maker of Burks’ caliber seeking a cheaper contract. Yes, Burks will likely desire an excess of $6 million per year next offseason, but by no means will the Knicks have to hand out max money—or anything close to it.

Burks’ long-term fit is questionable at best. Even so, he’s amid his prime, torching contenders and lottery-bound teams alike in an unselfish, off-ball role. Committing long-term to Burks would be risky, but a short extension makes a lot of sense for both sides.

All in all, there are valid reasons why the Knicks should trade Burks as well as why they should hold onto him. The questions surrounding his future in New York will become clearer as the season wears on. He has the green light from Coach Thibodeau and the metaphorical keys to the Knicks’ bench, so expect his scoring outbursts to become a nightly occurrence. As such, calls from opposing general managers will pour in once the trade deadline nears. New York’s brass is faced with a conundrum they have no choice but to tackle in the coming months.

 

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