End of an Error: Did the Knicks and Raptors Solve their Problems with the Big Trade?

For years, Knicks Nation has pined for OG Anunoby. Like a Canadian girlfriend that existed only in the stammered fibs of a virginal teen, the 26-year old Raptors forward was inserted into imaginary lineups as an idealized mate: a versatile lockdown stopper with the shooting chops to keep opposing defenses spread thin. With Toronto on the brink of a franchise reboot and Anunoby headed for unrestricted free agency next summer, his name swirled for months in the NBA tradewinds—we were told there were several prospective suitors and that dowries could be as steep as four first-round picks. But, as famous Knicks fan and romantic Woody Allen once said, “The heart wants what it wants.”

At last, all that gooning from afar has paid off. In what qualifies as a minor blockbuster, Anunoby was traded to the Knicks (along with throw-ins Precious Achiuwa and Malachi Flynn) in exchange for backcourt cohabitors Immanuel Quickley and RJ Barrett, plus a 2024 second-round draft pick. The NBA trade deadline is over a month away, but the first sizable domino has toppled.

For fans of both teams, this was a sensible but emotionally taxing swap.

Anunoby was one of the last remaining components from the Raptors’ 2019 championship, although he was injured for the entirety of that postseason run. His departure seemingly indicates that the final holdout from that stacked team, All-Star forward Pascal Siakam, is not long for the land of Tim Horton’s and OVO Fest.

Toronto has motion, but it is hard to tell which direction. They did not raffle off talent at last year's trade deadline and subsequently lost Fred VanVleet to Houston as a free agent. The conceptual art project of putting five 6-foot-9 guys on the court had its finissage. The Raptors owe the Spurs their first round pick in 2024, but it is top-six protected. They currently have the seventh-worst record in the NBA.

Viewed from the other side of the border, the deportation of Quickley and Barrett represents the shattering of an era in which the Knicks patiently cultivated homegrown talent instead of flinging it out the window. In quarters where the enjoyment of watching embryonic hoopers develop into useful professional basketball players is interpreted as organizational virtue, the Knicks’ approach was celebrated—not only with those two, but also Kevin Knox and Frank Ntilikina, both of whom stayed on the Penn Plaza shelf past their expiration date. 

If one squints hard enough, even this trade can be seen as oriented towards True North on the team’s moral compass. “Thats one thing you can say about The Knicks [front office],” wrote X user @travbryanmusic, “They don’t destroy young kids careers…They put Quickley on a team that needs a point guard. They put RJ in his hometown team. Perfect situations for them.” God bless the ethical Knicks for trading players to the very teams that wanted to acquire them.

For New York, this move was mostly about contractual obligations, finite resources, and timing. Anunoby needs a new deal. Quickley is in line for a raise this offseason as a restricted free agent. And Barrett is in the first season of a four-year extension worth $107 million. 

Had the Knicks kept the two guards aside Jalen Brunson, Josh Hart, and Donte DiVincenzo, the team would have needed to dedicate upwards of $100 million to five guys who are all 6-foot-4 or shorter. That’s fine for a Basketball City rec league squad, not for an aspiring contender in a league where every team is trying to wedge as many 7-footers on the court as possible. As it looks now, the Knicks plan to redirect a nice chunk of the money that would have gone to Barrett and Quickley over to Anunoby on a long-term deal. Without even delving into any conspiratorial agency connections, it is a reasonable solution.

A couple weeks back, Las Vegas Aces coach Becky Hammon suggested that it would be challenging to win a championship with Brunson as the “1A” because of his short king status. Knicks fans erupted in righteous indignation, choking the streets of their city with acrid smoke from burning pyres of salmon chopped cheeses and Uncle Murda mixtapes. 

As fantastic as Brunson has been since arriving in New York—he currently leads the Knicks in both scoring and assists—there is no denying that small guards present complications in fleshing out the roster of a winner. This is evidenced by the fact that it has really only happened a couple times in the last 34 years, and only with Stephen Curry. If a star can not provide defense, rebounding on either side of the ball, rim protection, or interior scoring, those tasks are added to the collective burden of other players on the team. Petite dribblers like Dame Lillard, Donovan Mitchell, and Trae Young are cute, but they are not able to eat at the same table as LeBron James, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and Nikola Jokic without a booster seat. 

Whatever the difficulty of winning with a pipsqueak who can take an icebath in a thimble, Brunson is not operating alone. The Knicks have Julius Randle, the bruising and fidgety power forward who is averaging 24 points, 9.6 boards, and 4.7 dimes. He is the team’s two-time All Star and two-time All-NBA honoree—not Brunson. On any given night, Randle might be the so-called “1A” anyway. Of course, there is a pessimistic take here too: maybe neither of them are tent poles for a titleist.

In any case, Anunoby is an easier plug-and-play fit for the contours of that pair than Quickley (another small guard) and Barrett (a bad player). He is a physical, rangy defender who knocks down 37.5% of his three-balls, led the NBA in steals per game last season, and was named to the 2023 All-Defensive second team. While other fan bases fixate on shiny, impractical baubles like Zach LaVine or Buddy Hield, Knicks faithful were enamored by the right guy (if only because they are culturally attracted to players with the whimsical joie de vivre of a Hart Island embalmer). However he got here, Anunoby is what the Knicks needed.

The nagging concern for New York is that Quickley may turn into a star in Toronto. He is a slippery guard with a pipe-cleaner physique who cunningly meshes contemporary step-back 3s and horizontal footwork with “lost art” floaters and pull-ups—although he has not taken a long 2-pointer all season. At a wiry 6-foot-3, Quickley is an unlikely defensive keystone, but his instincts, effort, controlled freneticism, and ability to evade screens make him much better on that side of the ball than his slender build suggests. This would not be the first time GM Masai Ujiri has extracted value from the Knicks in return for a player who was going to sign with the team anyway.

There is a long track record of talented youngsters—particularly ball-dominant perimeter players—who bloom after relocation, whether attributable to changes in coaching, minutes, role, or pecking order in the depth chart. Quickley may not be the next James Harden, Steve Nash, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Gilbert Arenas, or even Jalen Brunson. He has been in the league for over three years, is already 24 years old, and has yet to prove he can assume the job of primary facilitator. Still, it is not delusional to believe he will benefit from increased opportunities with the Raptors in the same way Anfernee Simons’ output exploded after Lillard was shipped from the rebuilding Blazers to the #fraudwatch Bucks.

Quickley’s numbers with the Knicks were very good but not eye-popping. Even when extrapolated to 36 minutes, his 22 points, 4 rebounds and 4 assists come in an era of cresting offensive inflation. Yet his “impact” stats are intriguing. For virtually four seasons in a row, Quickley had the best plus-minus and on-off numbers on the Knicks. When he was on the court with Brunson, Hart, Randle, and Mitchell Robinson, New York was all but invincible, posting a net rating of around +27 in several hundred minutes dating back to last season. Whether due to a lack of curiosity or being wedded to his ideas from 2021, Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau neglected to find out if that lineup’s spectacular numbers were real. We will never know.

At any rate, the Knicks have only themselves to blame for lingering elements of uncertainty and the salary cap entanglements that led to this deal. New York stubbornly bungled the Quickley/Barrett dynamic for years, lavishing minutes, touches, a starting position, and a princely contract extension on the wrong prospect. Without indulging in nasty screeds about Barrett’s lack of object permanence, it is impossible to believe the team’s patronage system was based on anything other than one guy being the third pick in the draft and the other going 25th. 

Enough old news. This is a marvelous trade. It was not a disgruntled superstar joining a superteam in exchange for half of a decade’s cache of picks. The Knicks found their person and the Raptors may have added a defining piece for a new generation of the franchise. Maple Mamba goes back to Mississauga. We get to watch revenge games between these conference rivals—in fact, they play in the Garden on January 20th. For now, at least, everybody wins. 


 If you enjoyed this essay and the artwork, you will surely be interested in The Joy of Basketball, by Ben Detrick and Andrew Kuo. Find it where you buy books.