The New York Knicks headed into Free Agency this summer with about as high of hopes as a franchise can have. In case you haven’t caught wind of any Knicks fans (including the slowly unraveling Stephen A. Smith), the team, as per tradition at this point, under-delivered yet again.
It was bad enough that Steve Mills felt the need to issue this statement:
Statement from Knicks president Steve Mills: pic.twitter.com/2GnBHHmvT6
— Marc Stein (@TheSteinLine) July 1, 2019
New York swinging and missing at elite free agents isn’t anything new, so what makes this so different?
One aspect that makes the hurt strike a little deeper for fans was the dealing of young franchise cornerstone Kristaps Porzingis earlier in the season. This was the move that allowed the Knicks, who were certain they could land Kevin Durant and possibly Kyrie Irving, to clear the cap space needed for two max contracts.
The team now has none of those three star level players- but to be fair, the Porzingis trade was likely imminent regardless.
What makes this most different from their free agency disasters in the past is what should actually give Knicks fans hope. After not even coming close to closing the deal with their target players, the team avoided the classic Knicks implosion and made smart moves that will actually help put them in better position for the fruitful free agent class of 2021.
The Knicks had plenty of options after missing out on Durant and Irving, who went to the in-state rival Brooklyn Nets. They could have thrown serious money at DeMarcus Cousins, despite it still being unclear how much of his pre-injury game he still has. They could have offered up max money to players like Khris Middleton or Tobias Harris, because then they would at least have something to show for all that cap space they cleared out for this summer.
Instead, they went on to hand out short deals to more middle range rotation players. New York locked in Bobby Portis for two years and $31 million, Taj Gibson for two years and $20 million, Reggie Bullock for two years and $21 million, Wayne Ellington for two years and $16 million, and Elfrid Payton for two years and $16. Each of these contracts features a team option on the second year.
The only deal longer than two years they penned so far this offseason was to Julius Randle, who signed up for three years and $63 million. The final year of that contract will also be a team option.
Many of those numbers next to those names may feel like an overpay, and that feeling could actually be right. But what New York at least managed to do was maintain flexibility in two summers. The only player signed that will still be on the books will be Randle- perhaps the most appropriately paid (or closest to it)- heading into the 2021 free agency.
With all these new Knicks players, if they don’t fit, they can at least chalk it up to the game and just wait for them to come off the books in a season or two. If they end up performing up to their contracts, then the team has two routes. They can try to retain these players into the future and get creative with their next deals. However, they could now also look to flip these players to contending teams around the league.
The hesitance to let go of first round picks in the last few seasons has made it tougher to get good value for midseason deals unless you are trading a bonafide star. For instance, the trade deadline deal where the New Orleans Pelicans handed out Nikola Mirotic to the Milwaukee Bucks came at a price tag of four second round picks.
However, with the growing parity in the league and many teams not far off from feeling they are just one player away from contending, there could certainly be a market for many, if not all, of the players the Knicks signed.
What will make a difference for the Knicks in 2021 compared to this offseason will be their progression, as well. This summer, New York was looking to ask established stars in the prime of their career to come play with a few second and third year players and a rookie less than a month older than 19. The pitch could be a little different in a few years, though.
This was evident with the Brooklyn Nets. They were able to showcase a core of young, but established players. Names like Spencer Dinwiddie and Joe Harris have clear, reliable games, and this core is coming off a playoff appearance. This makes it that much easier to pitch your franchise to a player looking to win a title right away.
During the summer of 2021, the New York Knicks will now be able to offer other stars like Bradley Beal, Rudy Gobert, and possibly Giannis Antetokounmpo, a chance to come play with guys like Mitchell Robinson and Kevin Knox, who will both have three NBA seasons under their belt, and a third-year R.J. Barrett, who could be on the verge of blossoming as a really good player in the league. Combine this with the cap space to make it happen, and the potential is there.
For the sake of honesty, it is worth nothing that the potential of signing big names doesn’t necessarily mean it will happen with any team, let alone the New York Knicks. This franchise has a made a history of coming up short, and at least part of the reason why isn’t a mystery.
The top of the organization is often synonymous with dysfunction, and that will have to change if they want to be taken seriously.
If James Dolan can learn to get out of his own way at times, all the remaining pieces are in place for this team to be a big player in two offseasons.