New York Knick, center Isaiah Hartenstein Credit: Bill Moore photo

Sunday night’s game in Cleveland was a reminder and message to the Knicks. It wasn’t so much that they were defeated by the Cavaliers 121-108, it’s how they lost. It was a statement by Donovan Mitchell to the team which he desired to join before being traded to the Cavaliers in early September. 

The Knicks declined to meet the request of the Utah Jazz, Mitchell’s former team, who asked for a package of players and first round picks. Instead, the 26-year-old three-time All Star, who was born in Elmsford, New York, raised in Greenwich, Connecticut, played AAU ball for the famed Manhattan-based Riverside Church program, and grew up an avid Knick fan, was dealt to the Jazz for three players and three unprotected first-round picks.

In the Knicks’ and Cavaliers’ first meeting this season, Mitchell was spectacular, scoring 38 points with 12 rebounds, reinforcing the NBA truism that teams need stars to be championship contenders. Role players are vital but stars are a necessity.

“Games like this reveal exactly where we are and exactly what we have to do to win,” Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau said. “Cleveland is playing great basketball. That team is playing great basketball.” 

Where the Knicks were heading into last night’s (Wednesday) game at Madison Square Garden versus the Atlanta Hawks was 3-3 and 8th overall in the Eastern Conference while the Cavaliers, who faced the Boston Celtics at home, were 5-1, second in the East behind the 6-0 Milwaukee Bucks. They will be solid and by and large competitive this season. Not a contender to go deep into the postseason based on the roster configuration. 

In the past, Thibodeau has bluntly expressed why it is essential for the Knicks to have an indisputable star or multiple stars to ascend into the top tier of NBA teams. He listed drafting and developing, free-agency and trades as means to achieve that objective. This past summer, the Knicks signed a very good player in point guard Jalen Brunson and solid addition in center Isaiah Hartenstein, who has ably backed up center Mitchell Robinson, who has begun the season playing less minutes (144) than Hartenstein (160) due to his propensity to place himself in foul trouble.

This past summer the Hawks executed a trade with the San Antonio Spurs for All-Star Dejounte Murray, one of the best two-way players in the world, and paired him with Knicks nemesis Trae Young. The duo has formed one of the most dynamic back courts in the league and were averaging a combined 50 points, 17.3 assists and 9.4 rebounds before entering the Garden for the Hawks who were 4-3. 

Knicks president Leon Rose must ultimately and somehow add a transcendent talent to his roster
or risk being a perennial 7-10 seed, which is just good enough, or just marginal depending on perspective, to be little more than a Play-In Tournament team. Draft picks as assets are often accumulated and used to secure more valuable and proven assets. Mitchell would be a Knick if Rose and those who were advising him felt he was worth parting with future first round picks that are unknown quantities. 

His performance on Sunday and impact thus far on the Cavaliers emphatically shows why he was indeed a player the Knicks should have secured. 

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