The Knicks May Not Be Dreaming Big Enough
Imagine you own a branded business with a well-liked product. For decades, due to poor design decisions, the company has released versions of the product that customers have badly liked – think Coca-Cola Bacon. But you have put in place a new management team.
And there you have it – almost overnight – you have a surprisingly good year. No wonder, mind you, but above average. And now you have more starting money than all of your competition to get back to your prime success. One problem: Even with all the work you’ve done to raise capital, there’s not much to spend because the job market is bare. The best talent is unwilling to come to your company or work elsewhere, or both.
Congratulations, or sorry. You are the Knicks.
As the NBA’s free agency began on Monday, the Knicks shifted their strategy from the past few years. Once again, they seemingly hit the best players around, like point guard Kyle Lowry and Chris Paul. But instead of continuing to hand out short-term contracts to maintain flexibility, the Knicks have decided to come back with essentially the same roster as last season, except with longer commitments to familiar players. It’s a curious strategy, as last year’s team weren’t close to being a championship contender, but the Knicks are doubling down and giving up the flexibility of the salary cap. (There’s another discussion to be had as to why the Knicks continue to fail to sign high-profile free agents: Leon Rose, a former players’ agent, was hired to lead the basketball operations of the team in March 2020 in part because of his relationship with the star players.)
The biggest move was a deal with 28-year-old goaltender Evan Fournier, a solid but not elite point guard and shooter, who told reporters on Tuesday he picked the Knicks because “I love pressure”.
“I like the spotlight,” said Fournier, who spent last season with Orlando and Boston. “They had a very good season. They had a free seat and I thought I could really help them. And, yes, it’s creepy in New York.
The Knicks will also bring Derrick Rose back on a three-year, $ 43 million contract, according to a source close to his contract but not authorized to publicly disclose it. In addition, the team seems ready to bring back the reserve center Nerlens Noel, – who tweeted on Monday: “I am delighted to bring him back to New York !! Let’s go! ”- and Taj Gibson, according to SportsNet New York.
The Knicks entered the summer with over $ 50 million in cap space, which is expected to be the biggest in the NBA, and enough to sign at least two A-List stars. They were coming out of a campaign surprisingly resistant to the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference, led by Julius Randle and RJ Barrett. They were led by a knowledgeable veteran coach, Tom Thibodeau, who won the league’s Coach of the Year award, and a patient front office. The squad was filled with young talent and draft picks, and played in the country’s leading media market. This was where any team would want to be: booming with plenty of ways to improve.
Before Monday night, only one Knick – Randle – was not on a rookie contract, giving the team flexibility. This flexibility is now limited, with commitments to current players likely to occupy most of the ceiling space. Of course, free will isn’t the only way the Knicks add top talent. But the path forward for the Knicks to thrive is less certain than it was before Free Will.
What we know
The Knicks had two late draft picks in the first round. First, they headed to the Charlotte Hornets for a future pick. The other, they moved up to 25th place to take Quentin Grimes, a University of Houston goalie. Grimes is known for his shooting and defense, but like many late-round picks, it’s hard to project his success. It’s worth noting that the Knicks have had some recent success in trading for this draft slot: Last year, the Knicks acquired Immanuel Quickley, a Kentucky guard taken by the Oklahoma City Thunder at 25. It turned out to be one of the Draft thefts.
The Knicks will have to decide if they want to bring back one of the many key veterans who are unrestricted free agents, including Elfrid Payton. That doesn’t include Frank Ntilikina, a 2017 Knicks lottery pick, who played sparingly. The Knicks haven’t made a qualifying offer to Ntilikina, which likely means Ntilikina will be added to the Knicks’ long list of enthusiastic prospects who haven’t thrived with the franchise.
Rose, 32, almost came back because he played well last season. He and Thibodeau have a strong relationship, having been together with three different franchises. In the few moments the Knicks have played smooth basketball against the Atlanta Hawks in the playoffs, Rose led the charge offensively. But Rose probably can’t handle the starting minutes at this point in her career.
Last season, the Knicks led a solid defense until the playoffs, a staple for Thibodeau. But the team was inconsistent on the offensive end, putting too much pressure on Randle to generate offense. That made Rose a wise midseason acquisition last season from Detroit. The Knicks need another top playmaker who can help Randle execute the offense, and shooters to give him room to operate at the post. Fournier will help in that regard, although Bullock’s departure means the Knicks lose a few shots at the same time.
Part of that, in theory, will also be resolved with the improvement of young Knicks players like Quickley, Barrett and last year’s lottery pick Obi Toppin.
This free agency class is led by Paul, Lowry, Kawhi Leonard, and DeMar DeRozan. Lowry and Paul are left out, with Lowry agreeing to travel to Miami and Paul choosing to re-sign with Phoenix. And now, the Knicks are unlikely to have the space to get Leonard or DeRozan.
There are still free agents who can help the Knicks, like Danny Green, Reggie Jackson and Victor Oladipo – all still in the Knicks’ price bracket.
One problem with a depressed free agent market is that players get contractual commitments they wouldn’t have in most other free agent classes. This opens up the risk that teams will occupy maximum All-Star level space with players who are not at that level, which will then prevent them from acquiring true All-Stars. This is something to keep in mind for Fournier.
The Knicks could still trade for disgruntled stars if they became available. It’s risky to wait because it requires the player to be available and willing to come to the Knicks, and it requires the star’s team to want what the Knicks have more than what other teams offer. Obtaining all three conditions requires a perfect storm. The three stars who have been the most frequent subjects of business rumors are Damian Lillard of Portland, Bradley Beal of Washington and Ben Simmons of Philadelphia.
The Knicks will also have decisions to make on Randle and Mitchell Robinson. Both could enter unrestricted free agency next summer and are eligible for extensions for large amounts. Are the Knicks ready to dedicate a big spot to Randle, 26, who only made his first all-team all-star last year? And what about Robinson, a 23-year-old who suffered injuries and has only improved slightly in his three NBA seasons?
The Knicks have gone from rebuilding to retooling, and it’s treacherous terrain without top stars. A few reckless long-term contracts, or cutting the bait on the bad young player, and the world will be discussing a version of Knicks Bacon.
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