Say it this time with feeling: The Knicks have lots to look forward to this coming season — a stable management structure, talented young players to build around and a respected coach.
OK, we said that last year, too. And the Knicks ended up among the worst teams in the league again. They cleaned house with most of management and fired their respected coach.
So is there good reason to actually be bullish on the Knicks? Yes, with Patrick Ewing-size caveats.
The Knicks’ basketball leadership, led by team President Leon Rose, General Manager Scott Perry (a holdover from last year) and Coach Tom Thibodeau, has crucial decisions to make this off-season. The team pretty much has a blank slate, with lots of cap flexibility, few contracts beyond 2021 and some intriguing trade pieces.
Of course, every team has important considerations. But for the Knicks, a poor trade, draft pick or free agent signing will hamper the team’s credibility at a time when impatient fans are already tuning out. (Knicks attendance has declined steadily since 2016.) The team has not made the playoffs since 2013 and hasn’t won a championship since “All In The Family” was in its prime.
Free agency officially begins on Nov. 20, two days after the draft, where the Knicks, as a result of an unlucky lottery, will draft eighth.
Right now, the Knicks do not have a single player who can be considered a surefire contributor to a championship team. This isn’t ideal, but it’s not terrible, either. It means the Knicks aren’t closely tied to anyone, allowing for greater flexibility when it comes to trades. The closest to a cornerstone is RJ Barrett, who was drafted third in 2019. His rookie year was inconsistent, as he averaged 14.3 points, 5 rebounds and 2.6 assists while shooting about 40 percent. He did not make either of the two All N.B.A. rookie teams, but showed flashes of star potential.
Here is a look at what the Knicks might be able to accomplish this off-season.
How much cap space do the Knicks have?
A lot, and maybe even more than they expect. The N.B.A. announced this week that the league salary cap would be $109.1 million and the luxury tax level would be $132.6 million. The Knicks have approximately $82 million tied up in salary right now, not including their first-round draft picks, leaving them as one of the few teams with substantial cap space (roughly between $20 million and $30 million). This is enough to acquire a player who commands a maximum level contract, either through trade or free agency. And that $82 million number is flexible, depending on what contracts the Knicks choose to guarantee next year.
Surely some of that cap space will be used on the Knicks’ current players.
The Knicks have several players who are either under a team option or non-guaranteed contracts for next season. They have team options on Bobby Portis’s $15 million contract and on Theo Pinson’s, which is slightly less than $2 million. Maurice Harkless and Damyean Dotson are both unrestricted free agents.
Other players, like Elfrid Payton, Reggie Bullock, Wayne Ellington and Taj Gibson, have only a small portion of their contracts — about $1 million — guaranteed for next season.
Bet on few, if any, of these players returning next season. (Gibson might return at a lesser salary, given his history with Thibodeau with the Bulls.)
What’s the deal with draft picks?
Aside from the eighth pick, the Knicks will pick again in the first round at No. 27, and again at No. 38 over all in the second round. They also have a bevy of future picks to offer in trade talks.
This sounds promising. What do the Knicks need?
Um, everything? The team needs more consistent playmaking, shooting and defense.
That’s mean. Surely, they have some reason for optimism beyond players they might get.
The 22-year-old Mitchell Robinson made some strides last season. He led the league in field goal percentage (74.2 percent) and remained an excellent defensive presence around the rim. The knock on him is he gets into foul trouble, which actually improved last year. He’s also not much of an offensive threat beyond dunking. Robinson is entering the last year of his rookie contract, so don’t be surprised if extension talks heat up soon.
Other young players like Kevin Knox, Frank Ntilikina and Dennis Smith Jr. have just not shown any sort of meaningful consistency.
So what should the Knicks do?
Relax and enjoy the ride.
That isn’t something that owner James Dolan wants to hear, but this season will almost assuredly be a bridge year without a trip to the playoffs. In theory, this campaign will be more about installing good habits on the floor than wins and losses. It’ll be about development and seeing whether any of the Knicks’ young players are worth keeping long-term.
And that’s OK.
Do the Knicks have enough flexibility to sign a maximum contract superstar? Yes. Maybe even two. Should they? Absolutely not. This is a much different off-season than last year, when stars like Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant were on the market.
The best unrestricted free agents that will be available are Montrezl Harrell and Fred VanVleet. They’ll want long-term deals. Both have been bench players for the majority of their careers and are not going to make a team into a championship contender. Using cap space for the sake of using it is not sound team-building.
There are players with optouts, like Gordon Hayward and DeMar DeRozan, who might become available, both quality players on the wrong side of 30.
What the Knicks do have is cap space, draft picks and young players with potential. Those three things combined make the Knicks an attractive trade partner for when a disgruntled star (or stars) makes his feelings known.
Next year’s free agent class is far more interesting, with names like Paul George, Kawhi Leonard and Giannis Antetokounmpo all potentially targets for the Knicks.
They should do nothing then?
Not quite. Signing a bunch of players to one- or two-year deals, like before the 2019-2020 season, actually was very smart. That’s the way to go and see if someone sticks. Maybe Goran Dragic, Davis Bertans and Serge Ibaka (all unrestricted free agents) all can be had for pricey one- or two-year deals, allowing the team to keep its cap flexibility while also improving the team immediately. (This would complicate midseason trades, but that is probably fine.)
Another possible use of cap space: Trading for players with bloated contracts that other teams don’t want, provided they attach draft picks to add to the Knicks’ bank.
The Knicks are not going to win the championship in 2021. They are building for something beyond that. So being careful and measured with their moves — as opposed to pulling panic moves to win now — is the right path to take. Now it’s on the team’s fans (and its owner) to see that plan through and wait for the right time to cash in all the chips.