The New York Knicks’ toughest decision in the coming weeks has nothing to do with the free-agent class of 2018. Instead, they’ll have to weigh whether to sign star big man Kristaps Porzingis to an extension now rather than next summer.
Porzingis became eligible to sign a new deal on July 1, and he’ll be free to discuss an extension until the day before the regular season tips off. If he and the Knicks can’t reach an agreement by then, he’ll become a restricted free agent in July 2019.
As counterintuitive as it may sound, the Knicks are better off waiting to re-up Porzingis until next summer.
Had Zinger not torn his ACL in February, this would be less of a discussion and more of a formality. Much like the Minnesota Timberwolves figure to do with Karl-Anthony Towns, the Knicks likely would have presented Porzingis with a five-year, $156.6 million max extension (based on the projected $108 million salary cap for 2019-20) right away.
Instead, the Knicks can now make a convincing case to Kristaps Porzingis that it’s in the best interest of the franchise to hold off on an extension in hopes of securing him a superstar sidekick next summer.
If the Knicks did sign Porzingis to a max extension this summer, it would kick in immediately once the 2019-20 league year begins. By holding off, they could keep his $17.1 million cap hold on their books instead, which is nearly $10 million less than his max salary in 2019-20 ($27 million). That would give them an additional $9.9 million in breathing room to pursue top-tier free agents before turning their attention to re-signing Porzingis to a max deal next July.
Knicks president Steve Mills told ESPN Radio’s Stephen A. Smith (via ESPN.com’s Ian Begley) that they’re already eyeing the free-agent class of 2019 as they plot their course for this offseason.
“We are not going to be players [in free agency] this year,” Mills said. “If we sign guys, it’s going to be for a one-year deal, because we are going to have room for a max contract in the following year. We’ll be able to make room for a max guy.”
If the Knicks signed Porzingis to a max extension this summer, they’d project to have roughly $12 million in cap space next offseason, according to ESPN’s Bobby Marks (via Begley). That projection includes them waiving Lance Thomas, whose 2019-20 salary is fully non-guaranteed until June 30, 2019, and renouncing the rights to all of their free agents that year (including Enes Kanter, Emmanuel Mudiay and Ron Baker).
Holding off on an extension for Porzingis would get the Knicks up to around $22 million in cap space, according to Marks. That still isn’t nearly enough to sign a max player next summer, but it gets New York in the ballpark.
Depending on where their first-round pick falls in 2019, the Knicks could potentially carve out the requisite amount of space by waiving and stretching the final year of Joakim Noah’s albatross contract over the ensuing three seasons. Rather than paying him his full $19.295 million in 2019-20, they’d owe him roughly $6.4 million each season from 2019-20 through 2021-22.
That’s an undeniably hefty cost to pay for past mistakes, but if it results in Kristaps Porzingis having an All-Star-caliber co-star, it may be worth the price.
Who might the Knicks target next summer? While Klay Thompson seems like a lock to return to Golden State, the same can’t be said for Boston Celtics point guard Kyrie Irving or Minnesota Timberwolves swingman Jimmy Butler.
According to Chris Mannix of Yahoo Sports (via Bleacher Report’s Mike Chiari), some people in Cleveland believe “the Knicks should be considered a real threat” for Irving. He added, “Kyrie had talked about it—about playing with the Knicks with some players in that Cleveland locker room—from what I was told.”
During All-Star Weekend in February, Irving heaped praise upon Porzingis while speaking to reporters: “I told him I would love to play with a big like you, man, when we played them in the beginning of the season when he came to Boston. He’s so versatile. So I wish him nothing but the best and hope he comes back even stronger.”
When Irving demanded a trade from the Cleveland Cavaliers last summer, the Knicks were one of the four teams on his wish list, along with the Timberwolves, Miami Heat and San Antonio Spurs, according to ESPN.com’s Chris Haynes. The Spurs have since fallen into disarray, the Timberwolves may not be far behind, and the Heat will be mired in salary-cap purgatory until 2020 (if not longer).
Winning a title with the Celtics this upcoming season could help cement Irving’s long-term future in Boston, but rest assured, the Knicks will come calling next summer regardless.
If the Knicks can’t lure Irving, the likes of Butler, San Antonio Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard or Milwaukee Bucks forward Khris Middleton all loom as potential targets.
While far more teams project to have cap space next summer compared to this one, much can (and will) change between now and next July. Whether teams sign players to multiyear deals this summer or ink 2015 draftees to long-term extensions, far fewer teams will have max-salary slots than projected at the moment. That bodes well for the Knicks, who appear to be actively swearing off multiyear commitments this summer.
Getting Porzingis on board with the delayed extension should thus be the top priority for Mills and New York’s other top decision-makers. While it may be a tough sell for someone coming off of an ACL tear—he may prefer to lock in long-term security sooner rather than later—explaining to him the potential superstar-laden advantages of waiting could help coerce him into such a move.
And if the Knicks strike out next summer, they could hand Porzingis his five-year max and then try again in 2020, when both Noah and Courtney Lee will be coming off of their books.
Delaying Porzingis’ extension isn’t a risk-free approach for New York, however. He could always short-circuit the plan by signing an incentive-laden offer sheet with another team next summer, perhaps one that allows him to reach unrestricted free agency sooner down the road. While the Knicks could offer Porzingis one additional year and larger annual raises than any other team, the allure of having full control over his next destination could appeal to Porzingis as well.
The Knicks must remain mindful of that prospect, especially after Porzingis skipped his exit interview at the end of the 2016-17 season. His comments to Stefan Bondy of the New York Daily News in October hardly inspire much confidence, either:
“…There remains a chasm that requires bridging after last season’s dysfunctional plummet. Asked if he still needs to see changes from the Knicks before committing long term, Porzingis told the Daily News, ‘Yeah.’
The 22-year-old then paused, smiling, before realizing it’s best not to air the issues.
‘Yeah. That’s it.’
Over the past year, however, the Knicks have completely overhauled their leadership, bringing in Mills as president, Scott Perry as general manager and David Fizdale as head coach. As Mills told Smith during their recent interview, those changes have helped the Knicks repair their relationship with their franchise big man.
“We communicate with KP all the time,” Mills said. “And we know he feels good about directionally where we’re going. I think you can see that through some of his tweets and social media stuff, and our conversations with him. He’s back on board with where we’re going and we feel really good about his future with us.”
The Knicks must clearly communicate the advantages of delaying an extension to Porzingis, and they’ll need his sign-off before proceeding with that plan. But if he’s willing to wait a year to improve New York’s chances of landing a marquee free agent in 2019, it could ultimately behoove all parties involved.