Knicks reportedly preferred to wait on RJ Barrett extension, perhaps until restricted free agency

After a month of looking like the favorite to land Donovan Mitchell, the New York Knicks were outbid by the Cleveland Cavaliers, who sent three unprotected first-round picks, the right to two pick swaps, Collin Sexton (sign and trade), Lauri Markkanen and 2022 No. 14 overall pick Ochai Agbaji to the Utah Jazz in exchange for Mitchell. 

Three days earlier, the Knicks had signed RJ Barrett, whom they had been offering to Utah as part of their Mitchell package, to a four-year, $120 million extension, as announced in this glowing statement. 

“We are thrilled to announce a well-deserved extension for RJ Barrett, a core piece of our team’s foundation,” said Knicks president Leon Rose. “At only 22 years old, he has elevated his game each season, solidifying himself as a force on both ends of the court. We believe he will continue to improve because of his passion for the game and dedication to his craft. We want to continue to build our team and culture around players like RJ who possess these values and qualities.”

Steve Berman of the New York Post paints a different picture, one that reflects not a team “thrilled” to commit to Barrett long term, but a team almost forced into doing so. From Berman:

“According to an NBA source, the Knicks’ would have preferred not to sign Barrett to a hefty contract extension at this moment. They wanted to at least wait until the mid-October deadline to see him at training camp — or even until July 1, when he would have hit restricted free agency. 

“They didn’t want to pay RJ now, they like RJ, but he’s not one of their guys,” the NBA source said. “The preference was to trade him in a Donovan deal. … If they got Donovan without Barrett in the deal, they weren’t going to pay RJ now.”

The source said once the Knicks caught wind the Cavaliers were in the lead for Mitchell, they made a move toward agreeing to terms with Barrett. 

“They had to do something,” the source said. 

Let’s be clear about one thing here: This is an “NBA” source. That could be anyone. Some low-level scout for the Pacers, for all we know. It’s not listed as a source close to the team, or to Rose, or to anyone else that would seemingly have a direct line to the New York decision makers. 

That said, we don’t know that this source doesn’t know what he or she is talking about, either. It’s a report. Make of it what you will. What we do know, or at least what has been more concretely reported, is that the Knicks were indeed ready to trade Barrett to get Mitchell. 

ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported that Barrett was part of New York’s offer in July for Mitchell. There have been reports that New York became unwilling to add Quentin Grimes or more unprotected picks to its offer for Mitchell, but Barrett was almost surely going to be a central part of any outgoing package. 

Also, the extension New York gave Barrett isn’t a max. It’s a ton of money, no question, but if you don’t extend your No. 3 overall pick on a max deal, let alone if you’re actively trying to trade him, you aren’t that thrilled about what you’ve seen from the guy. For Barrett, $120 million feels about right. He could be an All-Star. But he’s not yet. 

It’s a believable and frankly logical stance that New York wanted to wait and see how Barrett’s season plays out before committing to him long term. The flip side of that, of course, is they might have gotten him on the cheap if he turns into an All-Star this season. As a restricted free agent next summer, Barrett could have forced New York to pay a lot more than $120 million over four to keep him with just one other team furnishing a higher offer. 

Cutting out all the details, this does feel like a bit of a consolation prize for New York. Hey, we didn’t get Mitchell, let’s at least lock up our own guy so it looks like we did something on our own terms. To me, whether it’s what New York wanted or not, keeping Barrett and the future flexibility of eight trade-eligible draft picks is a better result than trading the farm for Mitchell. 

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