The summer of 2016 was the NBA’s version of the salad days. General managers spent as if their new found cap space had an expiration date, and some of the contracts that got signed were indefensible before the ink was dry. Others seemed like fair value at the time, but have since become far less. Enter Courtney Lee.
It’s hard to believe that we’re now a full decade removed from the housing market crash.
Thanks to some creative lending, people all over the country who had previously never been able to own a home were finally able to do so…until the bubble burst in 2008. Suddenly, the value of perfectly fine homes plummeted, mostly because the rate at which people could afford to buy them dropped precipitously. Nothing happened to the houses themselves—they were exactly the same. It was the market that changed. People who made what they previously thought were sound investments were suddenly screwed.
The New York Knicks can sympathize.
The summer of 2016 was the NBA’s version of the salad days. General managers spent as if their new found cap space had an expiration date, and some of the contracts that got signed were indefensible before the ink was dry (hi Joakim!). Others seemed like fair value at the time, but have since become far less so thanks to a salary cap that is no longer rising at exponential rates. It’s basic supply and demand: if I can get the same thing for less, why should I pay more?
Enter Courtney Lee.
Our own two-story ranch on a 40- by-80 foot plot isn’t discernibly different from the property that the Knicks got when they signed him. As Jack Huntley explored in depth last week, that player is not a bad one by any means; 40 percent three-point shooters who can credibly defend opposing wings don’t grow on trees. In a vacuum, teams looking to win now can certainly use a player like Lee, and New York should be looking for every opportunity to unload him for something of value.
Unfortunately for the Knicks, they’re not operating in a vacuum. At $25 million guaranteed over the next two years, Lee is far from a bargain. The market has changed, and Lee is now considered an overpaid player despite still being a useful rotation cog. Same house, different value.
With that in mind, we’ll take a look at six realistic Lee trades and what caveats exist that might make those deals easier…or harder.
Lee to Philadelphia for Jerryd Bayless and the 38th pick in the Draft
This framework—Lee for the expiring contract of a less useful player and a draft asset—is the most likely scenario by which the Knicks’ shooting guard finds himself on a different team. Given those parameters, the 76ers would seem to make a lot of sense, simply because they have a ton of cap space and a player they’d like to get rid of in Jerryd Bayless, who is entering the last year of a deal that will pay him $8.5 million. They could also use a wing like Lee.
Here’s the problem, however: The Sixers, by all indications, are going big game hunting this offseason. Moving Bayless and getting back no salary in return makes that plan a lot easier. With several teams in the league having no intention of winning and cap space to burn (Atlanta, Brooklyn, Chicago, and Sacramento all qualify), Philly would just as easily be able to move Bayless’ deadweight contract along with the 38th and 39th picks (or the 26th pick if that’s what it took) to one of those teams in exchange for a future protected second-rounder.
The only way Lee comes into play for Philly is if they strike out on big-name free agents like LeBron James and Paul George. Even then, taking on Lee would mean punting on some of their cap space for next summer, when Kawhi Leonard and Klay Thompson both become available. Both would be natural targets for the Sixers.
All in all, despite making some sense on paper, the Philly front office would have to be pretty desperate—and more than a little shortsighted—to make a play for Lee (to say nothing of having to tear themselves away from their burner accounts for a few minutes).
Lee and Emmanuel Mudiay to Washington for Ian Mahinmi and the 15th pick in the 2018 Draft
Don’t think I can’t see the bug eyes you just made from the other side of this screen. That’s right! What has two thumbs and is proposing the Knicks take on what might be the only contract from the summer of 2016 that’s worse than Noah’s? This guy, that’s who!
On its face, it’s a little nuts. Scott Perry recently came out and said explicitly that the team is positioning itself to be a player in the 2019 free agent market. Taking on someone who makes more than Lee in 2019-20 would seem to run counter to that plan. A deeper look reveals otherwise.
More than any move listed here, this trade would truly show that the Knicks’ brass has finally elevated from playing checkers to playing chess. It would reveal how much they understand that picks in the top half of the first round are more valuable now than ever. It is impossible to win in the NBA simply by paying fair value to a bunch of very good players (to say nothing of overpaying bad ones). You need to have some bargains on your roster as well, and rookie contracts are the best ones around.
Would the Knicks need to be in love with a player at 15 to make this sort of move? Almost certainly. But with the possibility that Lonnie Walker, Zhaire Smith or even Miles Bridges could fall to that spot, that may wind up being the case.
This move also wouldn’t take them out of the running for max cap space in 2019. Sure, it would require holding off on a KP extension, in addition to waiving and stretching both Noah and Mahinmi. Is that less than ideal? Of course. If Kawhi Leonard or Klay Thompson is willing to sign, do you do it in a heartbeat? Absolutely.
Far more likely is that this would kick the can down the road to 2020, which is when a big name could possibly come to New York anyway. Scott Perry acknowledged as much on his recent podcast appearance when he mentioned both 2019 and 2020 as their target summers for landing a big fish.
Even if they were content with swallowing the money left on Mahinmi’s deal, this trade probably isn’t happening if Enes Kanter opts in, unless Noah is bought out before the season and they let Kyle O’Quinn walk. It’s a long shot, but far from impossible (and to those wondering, yes, taking on a Mahinmi-level albatross is the going rate for a pick of this caliber in the current financial climate. The Nikola Mirotic deal which netted the Bulls what turned out to be the 22nd pick in this year’s draft and forced them to take on the remaining $14.2 million in guaranteed money owed to Omer Asik is instructive here. Asik’s contract is less onerous than Mahinmi, but Mirotic is a better player on a shorter contract and the 15th pick is considerably more valuable than the 22nd).
Lee and the 36th pick to Portland for Myers Leonard and the 24th pick
This one actually makes a lot of sense.
The Blazers are among the most capped out teams in the league for the foreseeable future (and that’s not considering what they’ll have to dole out to keep Jusuf Nurkic). For them, this would be about getting something for the money they’re going to spend anyway, as opposed to the nothing they’re currently getting from Leonard. The bonus (for the Knicks) of Portland being in cap hell is that even if a team like Atlanta or Chicago was willing to take Leonard for the 24th pick without sending back any salary, it wouldn’t make any cognizable difference to a Portland team that will be over the cap regardless.
For the Knicks, they wouldn’t make this trade unless two things were true: there was a player there at 24 who they loved that they knew wouldn’t fall to 36 (Donte DiVincenzo and Troy Brown come to mind), and the market on Lee was so tepid that simply moving him for expiring salary wasn’t an option. Don’t rule that last part out.
Lee to Detroit for Langston Galloway and Stanley Johnson
This is one that, based on his brief history here, would seem to be right up Scott Perry’s alley. In less than a full year on the job, Perry has acquired underperforming former high lottery picks Michael Beasley (2nd pick in 2008), Trey Burke (9th pick in 2013), and Emmanuel Mudiay (7th pick in 2015) in fairly low-risk moves. Johnson, taken two spots after Mudiay, would fall under the same umbrella.
Whether or not this is a trade that could ever occur depends entirely on the direction that Detroit’s yet-to-be-hired front office personnel decide to take the franchise. With no first-round draft pick, no conceivable way to unload the recently acquired Blake Griffin, and little discernable market for Andre Drummond (at least not if the Pistons want fair value), one would think that a win-now approach is in order. Lee helps that cause far more than Galloway, who was in and out of the rotation thanks to some less than scintillating 37 percent shooting on the year.
Ultimately, the likelihood of this trade comes down to how the organization views Stanley Johnson. The Pistons recently parted ways with GM Jeff Bowers, the man who, along with ex-head coach and President of Basketball Ops Stan Van Gundy, drafted the former Wildcat. Like Mudiay and Kristaps Porzingis, he’s due to be a restricted free agent next summer. If the new brain trust doesn’t see Stanley as part of the future, this wouldn’t be the worst deal to make.
Lee to Minnesota for Cole Aldrich, salary filler and the 48th pick in the draft
This is the closest thing to a straight salary dump deal, with a token asset thrown in for good measure. Aldrich’s salary is only guaranteed for $2 million next season, but the trigger date is June 20th, so this deal would need to happen at least a day before the draft. It’s no guarantee Minnesota would even pull the trigger here, as there are other teams in the league that will value cap space this summer a lot more than the Knicks (Bayless and one of Philly’s bevy of second rounders for Aldrich actually makes a ton of sense). The Wolves would really need to value what Lee brings to the table, which they very well might.
On New York’s side, this would certainly be a move of last resort. The 48th pick isn’t exactly prime hunting grounds, and it’s not like they’re benefiting from having a few extra dollars this offseason anyway based on what the front office has said. The only way this trade happens is if they’ve been playing coy and there is indeed someone they have their sights set on this July. Don’t count on it.
Lee to Denver for Kenneth Faried and the 43rd pick in the draft
The collective ears of the Knicks fanbase (and several other fanbases) perked up last week when Woj reported that the Nuggets might be willing to offer the 14th pick to the team willing to take on Kenneth Faried.
Everyone needs to slow their roll. The reason why Denver would be willing to do such a seemingly insane thing—expend a lottery pick just to dump an expiring contract—has to do with the particulars of their financial situation.
As of now, the Nuggets are merely set to be over the cap next season, assuming both Darrell Arthur ($7.4 million) and Wilson Chandler ($12.8 million) opt into the final years of their contracts. With the NBA’s nuclear winter coming, it’s a safe bet both do. The problem comes in the form of their big man, Nikola Jokic. The Nuggets need to get Jokic’s extension—almost certainly to be a max—done this summer to avoid him becoming an unrestricted free agent in 2019. Denver will be knee deep in the luxury tax by the time all is said and done.
This is not something they want to deal with. Sending over Lee in exchange for Faried only saves them a few million dollars, which won’t help much. Therefore, the only way this trade happens is if the Nuggets refuse to part ways with the 14th pick unless they get back a decent draft asset in return (Faried and 14 to Indiana for Al Jefferson’s non-guaranteed expiring contract and the 23rd pick makes a lot of sense). If that’s the case, maybe Denver bites the bullet, attempts to shed salary later in the year, and takes on Lee, who could replicate what they figure to lose after Will Barton walks.
The only way the Knicks could realistically be in the running for the 14th pick is if Enes Kanter and Kyle O’Quinn both opt out and they end up taking Faried into their cap space without sending out salary (Lee wouldn’t be involved in this case). They’d need to send some sweeteners to Denver to get them to think about doing the deal, and not ones that cost much money. Faried, Arthur, and the 14th pick in exchange for Trey Burke (who has a team option minimum contract for next season) and the 36th pick might get them to at least consider a swap. Denver would surely ask for Damyean Dotson in the trade, which could easily be a sticking point.
If nothing else, while this summer won’t be nearly as stressful as Scott Perry’s first on the job—the summer of Melo—it has the potential to be a whole lot more active. If he’s able to be creative and shed Lee’s salary for something resembling a legitimate asset, he’ll continue to make Knicks fans feel great about the direction the franchise is headed.