Knicks get first look at Donovan Mitchell and the Cavs after failed pursuit of 3-time All-Star
CLEVELAND — The questions can’t be answered by the buzzer Sunday night. Those could’ve-beens and should’ve-beens.
We’ll have to wait a couple years, if not longer.
But they’ll be asked and analyzed when the Knicks face the Cavaliers because of Donovan Mitchell, the star who’d be wearing the other uniform if fate didn’t veer off its presumed path. Mitchell, 26, is either the one who got away from the Knicks or their fortunate fumble. Very early into this season, it looks like the former. Mitchell has been spectacular for the Cavaliers (4-1), displaying his athletic prowess while averaging an efficient 31 points with 6.4 assists.
He dropped 41 points in Friday’s overtime victory over the Celtics, a performance that left Mitchell declaring the Cavs “are further along than I expected” and “this is the hardest I’ve worked on defense in my career.”
The Knicks (3-2) are doing well enough without him. Jalen Brunson has instantly provided structure and purpose at point guard. Julius Randle has shown a willingness to defer and adapt.
But if something was missing in Tom Thibodeau’s two defeats this season, it was star power. The Knicks had no rebuttal for Memphis’ Ja Morant and Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo.
Mitchell’s category of excellence is more debatable than those two, but he’d easily be the most gifted scorer on New York’s roster.
“He’s obviously very athletic,” Knicks guard Evan Fournier said. “And the one thing he does extremely well is he stops on a dime. When he drives hard to the basket and he stops, with the speed and agility he has, he always creates separation. He’s really hard to guard. He’s very streaky. He can be not efficient at times. But when he gets it going, it feels like he can’t miss. So it’s going to be a challenge, obviously.”
Fournier was among the many Knicks shopped for Mitchell. Leon Rose was willing and seemingly able to consummate a deal, but it sputtered by September and the Jazz pivoted to Cleveland.
According to multiple sources, the major hangup was over future unprotected draft picks. Knicks executive Brock Aller, a noted draft-pick hoarder, and team consultant Gersson Rosas served as negotiators at different points during the long process. Some in the organization felt the Knicks’ offer was better than the Cavs, leaving them with a feeling that Jazz president Danny Ainge didn’t give them a fair chance.
Even Mitchell, a Westchester product and NYC AAU alumnus, was convinced of a homecoming, revealing recently that he told “everybody” he was going to the Knicks and began plotting living arrangements.
“On Sept. 1, I went to sleep like, ‘I’m on the Knicks. I’m going to New York.,’” Mitchell said on the “Old Man & The Three” podcast. “I’m building a house back home. I was already doing that anyway. So I got to expedite that. We got to get all this stuff figured out.
“That was the moment where I was pretty certain that was going to be the case. Literally, I told everybody, ‘Alright keep this quiet, but this is probably going to happen.’”
In many ways, Cleveland was a better fit for Mitchell. The Cavs are closer to contention than the Knicks, who couldn’t make the play-in tournament last season.
A Brunson/Mitchell backcourt would’ve been undersized and underwhelming defensively. If RJ Barrett was included in the deal, the Knicks wouldn’t have a reliable wing defender.
At one point or another, it seemed every Knick player was rumored as part of the trade. Now they have no choice but to move on.
“Who cares? I’m here. I’m here. He’s there,” Barrett said. “We just have to go in there and try to get a win.”
Fournier, who guarded Mitchell in the 2019 FIBA World Cup when France beat the U.S., carried a similar attitude about facing the player that nearly had him shipped to Utah.
“No [extra motivation] at all,” Fournier said. “There’s a lot of trade rumors about everyone. You don’t even know if it’s true or not. It doesn’t really matter. We’re just here to win the game and go home with a win and that’s it. I don’t know about the other guys but I don’t care.”
That’s the right approach. Leave the could’ves and should’ves to us.