Knicks, Jazz are perfect Donovan Mitchell trade partners, but imperfect negotiation partners

It’s been nearly a week since reports of the New York Knicks and Utah Jazz discussing a possible trade for three-time All-Star Donovan Mitchell became public. The offseason is at the point when it should be winding down. Yet, that’s not happening.

The Mitchell and Kevin Durant situations persist. Then again, a strenuous process should have been the expectation all along — especially with Mitchell and the Knicks.

There is something that makes sense about Mitchell ending up in New York. He’s from the area. The Knicks front office has constructed a roster of encouraging young players and many draft picks with the hopes of using them one day to land a star. Mitchell has always been one of the supposed targets. Meanwhile, the Jazz are turning to a rebuild. They don’t care as much about a trade with the Knicks as they do about one for the New York picks. But even though these two teams seem like an ideal match, it’s no fluke this is taking time to hash out.

In an article last week, I compared Jazz CEO Danny Ainge to Philadelphia 76ers president Daryl Morey in that both have a strong enough stomach to wait out awkward situations — a reference, of course, to the way Morey held on to Ben Simmons for months last season, even as the discomfort between Simmons and Philadelphia became seemingly more and more untenable. But in reality, Ainge’s business personality deviates a bit from Morey’s.

Every so often, when he sets his heart on a player, Morey will chase trades. Ainge is famous for setting a price for a guy he’s trying to deal or for one he’s trying to acquire, then waiting out the situation until someone meets that exact cost.

Don’t want to trade six or seven first-rounders for Mitchell? Fine. Ainge will hang up the phone and flee to the golf course without any regrets.

Toronto Raptors president Masai Ujiri has a similar negotiation strategy. Some may call it stubborn. Considering the success both Ujiri and Ainge have had, it might be more appropriate to call it principled.

So, this adventure strings out (even if New York seems like an intuitive next stop for Mitchell) and not just because of the characters on the Jazz’s side.

Ainge’s mentality clashes with the Knicks’ reputation.

Leon Rose is New York’s team president, but he doesn’t do most of the day-to-day trade calls. Most commonly, those are up to vice president of basketball and strategic planning Brock Aller, who oversees salary cap management. Every once in a while, someone else will take the reins, especially when another Knicks higher-up has a solid relationship with an executive in an opposing front office they’re trying to make a deal with.

General manager Scott Perry was essential to the draft-day trades with the Oklahoma City Thunder and Detroit Pistons because of his relationships with Thunder GM Sam Presti and Pistons GM Troy Weaver. Both Perry and Weaver worked under Presti in OKC.

Most commonly, however, Aller is on the phone. Rose will often splice in near the end to wrap up deals.

Aller obsesses over marginal value, which should be refreshing for Knicks fans who remain traumatized from teams of the past needlessly tossing first-round picks into the fireplace. He wants to hold onto picks and acquire others. He notoriously squeezes teams just for the draft rights to an extra player, something that’s far more trivial to most others.

And thus, the Jazz and Knicks have the quintessential dynamic to let negotiations linger.

One side is famous for setting a price and sticking to it; the other is known for haggling over details so minute that, at times, trade partners have relented just to end the conversation and get the deal done.

Why do the draft rights to this 27-year-old dude picked 47th seven years ago matter, anyway?

Maybe one side becomes desperate enough to stumble to the other’s asking price. Or maybe they both realize it’s best for everyone if they meet in the middle, and something gets done sooner because of it. But the Knicks aren’t the only team going after Mitchell. If this saga ends up taking longer than it already has, then the personalities involved will likely play a part in that.

Whether a Mitchell-to-the-Knicks deal happens or not will come down to value that’s far more than marginal.

For all the talk about how many draft picks the Jazz want back for the 25-year-old, it’s become clear over the past week that the quantity of selections is not as important as the quality of them.

The Knicks have four first-round picks from other teams (the Washington Wizards’ in 2023, the Dallas Mavericks’ in ’23, the Pistons’ in ’23 and the Milwaukee Bucks’ in ’25) as well as all of their own. Each of the Dallas, Washington, Detroit and Milwaukee picks is protected. A lot can happen between now and 2025, and injuries can always skid a team down the standings, but the Bucks’ pick is not likely to be in the lottery. The Mavs’ one is most likely to fall in the 20s next summer. The other two selections, because of the ways they’re protected, can never be better than ninth.

Discourse has been about how many draft picks the Jazz want. But if the Knicks were to deal, say, six first-rounders for Mitchell, there would be a substantial difference between sending the four from other teams, along with an unprotected one in 2023 and a protected one in ’25 and sending out four unprotected of their own as well as the Washington and Detroit ones. The latter deal mortgages New York’s future in a way the former one does not. And the discrepancy between those two packages requires more than pawn-shop bartering.

The irony of the Knicks’ position is that in another world, they may not have to include so many picks in a deal for Mitchell.

This team has drafted well since Rose took over the front office, walking away from the 2020 and ’21 drafts with Obi Toppin (No. 8 in ’20), Immanuel Quickley (No. 25 in ’20), Quentin Grimes (No. 25 in ’21), Miles McBride (No. 36 in ’21) and Jericho Sims (No. 58 in ’21). Each one of those players has a chance to become a real contributor to a winning team. Some are already at that level. (It’s too early to tell on 2022 second-rounder Trevor Keels.) And then there’s the 22-year-old RJ Barrett, as well.

But last season, the Knicks signed veterans to play over many of those aforementioned young guys, a strategy that can hurt trade negotiations with other teams. If Toppin, for example, got to play consistently in 2021-22, he might have more value. Instead, he was a strict backup, and if the Knicks insist he’s better than that in trade talks with the Jazz or anyone else, it’s easy to counter by asking, “If he’s better than a 16-minute player, then why do you play him only 16 minutes?”

If the Knicks had played Toppin more, if they’d led Quickley head the offense before the final few weeks of the season, then maybe one or both could have blown up before the spring (a time when production on losing teams always comes into question ), and maybe the hypothetically higher value of those guys could have saved them a pick or two in a Mitchell trade.

Quentin Grimes making strides in Las Vegas, where he just landed on the all-summer league first team, certainly doesn’t hurt the Knicks’ cause. Neither does Ainge’s rep for loving combo guards. He was a big fan of Quickley leading into the 2020 draft.

But none of that matters if the Knicks and Jazz don’t find a way to meet in the middle.

The Jazz know the Knicks have jonesed for a star for years. The Knicks know their B-package is better than any A-package from other rumored Mitchell suitors. Both sides have diligent ways of trying to win deals.

They are perfect trade partners, but imperfect negotiation partners. For now, it seems each side is waiting for the other to blink.

(Photo of Danny Ainge: Jeffrey Swinger/USA Today)


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