WASHINGTON — A 20-something point scorer is reportedly available months before the trade deadline. He’s locked into a long-term deal. Meanwhile, the New York Knicks are on the hunt for a star.
Is it time for them to make their earth-shattering move?
The Athletic’s Shams Charania and Darnell Mayberry reported earlier this week that the Chicago Bulls, who are just 4-8, are “open” to trading one of their best players, Zach LaVine. The Knicks, as they often do when a multi-time All-Star is on the market, could check in.
New York has tossed LaVine’s name around the office before. The Knicks and Bulls connected about the 28-year-old leading up to last February’s trade deadline, but the two sides never came close to a deal, according to league sources. Chicago’s asking price on LaVine was sky-high.
As the deadline passed and the summer came, the LaVine rumors were silenced.
So, let’s delve into the Knicks-related angle of what’s happening in Chicago — digging into the LaVine situation, the ramifications of the Bulls hypothetically blowing it up, what a trade could look like and whether or not New York could get into the mix:
Would LaVine on Knicks make sense?
Let’s go with the Clintonian response: It depends on the definition of “make sense.”
The Knicks are waiting for an All-Star. LaVine is a two-time one still in his 20s.
They could use more shooting. LaVine is a good long-range bomber and can chuck them up from anywhere or any angle.
LaVine is a score-first player, and he’s spent much of his time in Chicago creating shots for himself. He can get a little too sloppy running an offense. But he’s also fabulous off the ball. He cuts; he’s excellent at running around screens and draining catch-and-shoot 3s while on the move. He’s explosive and skilled at the basket. The Knicks could bust out the old Evan Fournier package for him, the one that made Fournier look like he was playing tag in the playground, and he would excel.
There is a world where LaVine fits well as New York’s second or third option, behind Jalen Brunson and alongside Julius Randle. He could handle the basketball less than he does in Chicago, pinball around the court more and create offense if the Knicks need it late in the clock. He’s averaged more than 23 points per game in five straight seasons, and despite his reputation as a chucker, he’s efficient. A fallaway, contested 3-pointer isn’t a great shot for most people, but LaVine makes them.
But is he worth what it would take to land him?
He and Brunson would be defensive liabilities in the backcourt.
There is a reason the Knicks never got involved with the Bradley Beal sweepstakes — and it’s not just because Beal had a no-trade clause. It’s the same reason they never went for Damian Lillard. They want to build a roster that makes the most sense around Brunson. Adding another defensive question mark on the perimeter, whether that’s in place of Quentin Grimes or RJ Barrett, may work well during the regular season but could cause their demise in May.
The Knicks will think about opportunity cost, too. If they land LaVine, it could mean acquiring him instead of another star down the line. And this front office isn’t saving all those draft picks and young guys just to flip them for a third option on an expensive contract (and we’ll discuss the contract more in a bit). It wants an MVP-level name — or at least someone close to it.
The world speculates about reigning MVP Joel Embiid, but the Philadelphia 76ers remain one of the Eastern Conference’s best squads and have the tools to get better, filled with tradeable draft picks and upcoming cap space. Embiid has never signaled anything but a desire to stay in Philly. But with James Harden gone, there is no discord in Philadelphia. The Sixers are rolling at 8-3 with fourth-year guard Tyrese Maxey performing like a star and with the role players they got back for Harden fitting wonderfully.
But the Knicks were never waiting on Embiid, specifically. The star is faceless. And this is the NBA, where star hunting is one big game of Whac-A-Mole. Maybe Embiid does become available. But if not, another big name surely will.
Could Donovan Mitchell become a Knicks target once again? The Cleveland Cavaliers (5-6) are off to a slow start, and Mitchell can become a free agent in 2025. What if the Cavs don’t recover to 50-win form and head into next summer coming off a disappointing season and with Mitchell on an expiring deal? All of a sudden, the phones will start ringing. And if you already have LaVine and Brunson, you probably won’t be one of the people on the other end.
Ever since team president Leon Rose took over the front office, the Knicks have intended to maintain long-term flexibility. Would LaVine be worth biting into that?
Chances are, Cleveland turns its season around and is far more competitive for the final 71 games. And to be clear, there is no indication from anyone in the NBA that Mitchell will become available this season. League sources say the Knicks have operated under the assumption that the next big star for them to chase, whoever it may be, won’t hit the trade market until next summer.
But we know how the league works. When a guy who sneaks onto MVP ballots is on an expiring contract in a small market, the scavengers will arrive. Whether that’s Mitchell or someone else, the Knicks could be best off leaving their options open and not losing out on a better player because they already acquired someone else who conflicts with his game.
Of course, there is a chance that acquiring LaVine doesn’t take much …
What’s the market?
The vibe about LaVine is odd. Call people around the league and they respond less with outright enthusiasm and more with a shrug. If I got $39 million every time someone put on a sheepish tone and said, “I mean, someone will get him,” passively removing their team from the situation, I’d be a rich man.
… but I wouldn’t be as rich as LaVine.
The contract is a massive reason why LaVine’s market could be dampened. It’s possible the return isn’t what we would expect for a top-notch, prime-aged player.
LaVine has four years, including this one, and $178 million remaining on his deal. He makes $40 million this season and has a player option for $49 million in 2026-27. All that money will turn teams more hesitant — even if LaVine would work well on the court. And make no mistake about it: Some teams should look into him.
The Los Angeles Lakers could use extra shooting and ballhandling. The offense still craters when the 38-year-old LeBron James is on the bench. That has to change.
The Miami Heat are perennially after an extra guard and just lost out on Lillard.
The 76ers have those extra draft picks now and could use next summer’s cap space to justify LaVine’s salary, though slotting him next to the smaller Maxey could present defensive issues. Offensively, however, Maxey-LaVine-Embiid would be a wrecking crew.
The Toronto Raptors desperately need shooting, have draft picks to trade and employ three consequential players on expiring deals.
The Orlando Magic could use a guard and extra spacing. If Orlando, an up-and-coming squad, were to trade for a big name, it would make sense to target someone with years remaining on his contract, such as LaVine, since he wouldn’t be a flight risk. But it might be a year too early for the Magic to consider those types of moves, even if they’re showing massive defensive potential and young forwards Franz Wagner and Paolo Banchero continue to improve.
The hypothetical market dies down quickly.
The Dallas Mavericks and LA Clippers already acquired the leftover Brooklyn Nets — Kyrie Irving and Harden — and would likely be out of the LaVine chase. The Phoenix Suns and Minnesota Timberwolves have nothing left to trade. The Oklahoma City Thunder, New Orleans Pelicans and Utah Jazz are loaded with assets but OKC and Utah are still playing the long game (and why should Oklahoma City mess with a young team that’s already contending for the top four in the West?). New Orleans doesn’t present the greatest basketball situation with CJ McCollum, another offensive-slanted guard, already present.
So maybe all it takes to land LaVine is a pick and a young player, plus the necessary salary to make the math work.
And that brings us back to the Knicks.
What Knicks offer would get the Bulls’ attention?
The Knicks own all of their first-round picks as well as four protected ones from other teams. They are loaded with promising, young players, such as Barrett, Grimes and Immanuel Quickley. But the finances complicate what an offer could look like.
LaVine makes $40.1 million this season. The Knicks are less than $3 million short of the luxury tax. And trading for LaVine wouldn’t justify bleeding a few bucks into it.
The Knicks could justify a LaVine trade as just one more step to improvement, not “the big move” we’ve anticipated for all these years. There is a world where what it takes to acquire him (maybe one unprotected first-round pick along with a solid young player) leaves enough talent and first-rounders in New York for the Knicks to trade for a super-duper star.
But again, there’s the money.
LaVine is eligible to receive a small bonus, approximately $740,000, if he gets traded, though he could waive the bonus to make the finances easier for his future team.
It means the Knicks would need to send out at least $37.3 million to acquire LaVine and avoid the tax, but some of their biggest salaries would be off the table.
They wouldn’t trade Randle or Brunson for LaVine. Their third highest-paid player, Barrett, is a 23-year-old who may be in the midst of a breakout season. Barrett has always been somewhat polarizing, even inside the Knicks organization, but he’s turning heads right now. I don’t think you could include him in a LaVine trade. Mitchell Robinson couldn’t be part of the deal, either. He’s too important to New York’s identity and defense. Josh Hart is not allowed to be traded until next summer because he signed an extension in August.
That leaves them with Evan Fournier, who makes $18.9 million this season. But there’s still more salary to go before a trade even becomes legal, let alone keeps the Knicks out of the tax. Adding in Donte DiVincenzo, who is eligible to be traded on Dec. 15, and Isaiah Hartenstein gets the Knicks just barely above $37.3 million in total money. But that package would still drive them just barely into the tax if LaVine chose to keep his trade bonus, which would mean adding another player, probably someone from the end of the bench.
They also could throw in a young guy to save themselves a pick. Grimes is extension eligible next summer. Quickley is an upcoming free agent. If the Knicks are uncomfortable about paying him in the offseason, maybe they’re looser with him in trade talks. But Quickley remains a major piece of this team, too, and however much he makes in 2024, it won’t be near LaVine’s $40 million-plus.
But the Knicks have to be careful with how much money they send back, too, considering Chicago is only $1.7 million short of the tax and wouldn’t go into it under any circumstances. Fournier, Quickley, DiVincenzo and Hartenstein going to Chicago would keep them a hair short of the tax line. But that’s a load for the Knicks to give up — three rotation players, one of whom is booming with potential — for someone with question marks. And four-for-one deals rarely occur in season.
Of course, even if LaVine is the one Chicago-related name out there, he’s not the only one to look out for.
Other Bulls players who could go
If the Bulls make changes, pieces other than LaVine will blast elsewhere. DeMar DeRozan, who is a free agent after this season, could be next — though he’s not a fit for New York. Chicago’s other All-Star, Nikola Vučević, doesn’t work for the Knicks either, considering they already have Robinson, a younger, superior center on a cheaper contract.
But what about the other guys?
Could Alex Caruso, who may have been concocted in a lab purely to play for Knicks head coach Tom Thibodeau, become gettable? Caruso, one of the game’s best defensive guards, is a free agent after next season. If the Knicks were to make renovations elsewhere, could they look at him as an option at third guard? How about Torrey Craig, a defensive-minded wing (a type the Knicks need) on a cheap contract who can become a free agent in 2024? Could they call about Patrick Williams, a young, physical defender who will be a restricted free agent this summer? Williams is off to a slow start after not earning a rookie-scale extension from the Bulls.
Chances are, Chicago would want to keep Williams. He’s only 22 years old and has massive potential. But if LaVine goes, it’s fair game to call the Bulls about anyone else.
(Photo of Tom Thibodeau and Zach LaVine: Michael Reaves / Getty Images)