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’Bock to the Future: The Knicks Are Thinking Ahead, and About Kyrie Irving

New York is slowly building for the long haul for a change, and reportedly setting its sights on the star-studded free-agent class of 2019

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There’s speculation about free agency, and then there’s speculation about the New York Knicks in free agency. Stacked with young talent and not much immediate expectation, the Knicks’ 2018–19 season is already about the 2019–20 season. Multiple superstars are expected to hit the market next summer, and on Thursday, NBC Sports Boston’s A. Sherrod Blakely, who covers the Celtics, said that New York has already zeroed in on Kyrie Irving.

Irving is the Knicks’ “no. 1 target,” Blakely said on the Bulls Talk Podcast. “I’ve spoken with people within [the Knicks] organization. They have made it absolutely crystal clear to me that, if they had their pick of guys that are going to be in the free-agent market [next] summer, Kyrie would be their first, second, third, and fourth choice. He is a guy they definitely want.”

It sounds hyperbolic to hear someone say that Irving is their first, second, third, and fourth choice until you remember it’s the Knicks. (Terry Rozier is their fifth choice, by the way.) The franchise doesn’t quietly chase stars, and rumors of mutual interest between it and Kyrie existed before Blakey’s comments. Irving isn’t the only big-name player who can hit free agency next summer; Jimmy Butler and Kevin Durant — who has also been connected with the Knicks, largely because of comments by his business partner, Rich Kleiman — can also look for a new home. But Irving would fill the Knicks’ gaping hole at starting point guard, a position currently held by a rotating cast of unprovens and journeymen.

It’s funny to call Irving the missing piece for a team so young and nowhere near its prime. Between rookie Kevin Knox, unicorn Kristaps Porzingis, and the hot-and-cold Frank Ntilikina, the Knicks have three players with varying degrees of not-fully-realized star potential. Yet they’re in the unique position that the Los Angeles Lakers were in this summer, before they became the LeBron James Lakers. After years of whiffing on free agents like LaMarcus Aldridge and Carmelo Anthony, L.A.’s bundle of promising talent — Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, and even Kyle Kuzma — put them years ahead of most “rebuilding” teams trying to recruit established veterans this past offseason. Not only did the Lakers have a market advantage, they also had a stable of rising stars. With the Knicks keeping their own picks for a change, the franchise has finally been able to reap the benefits of their pain and suffering. Next summer, they could become the next huge-market franchise able to sell one of the best cities in the world and a promising supporting cast. And with Joakim Noah expected to be bought out before training camp, according to Shams Charania of The Athletic, they’re already signaling that they’re ready to turn their attention to the future.

Franchises like the Lakers and Knicks, which used to rely on big-market exceptionalism, have been forced to adjust their approach in recent years. In 2010, New York cleared a substantial amount of cap space thinking it had a shot at LeBron. Even Miami, the big market that James signed with instead, has struggled recently to sway stars — Pat Riley missed on Gordon Hayward last summer, who instead chose to join Al Horford, and a pair of very talented, very promising recent lottery picks in Boston. Hayward would have been the best player on a low-ceiling team; in the superteam era, that’s signing away your prime.

The Lakers had fallen short for the same reason. Lacking a clear next step for your franchise isn’t a convincing pitch to someone of Aldridge’s caliber. Yet, after a 35–47 season (and four even worse finishes before that), the GOAT decided he’d become a Laker. LeBron will make any team he joins an instant contender, but at 33, he also needs a roster that can carry more of the burden in the not-so-distant future. After 15 seasons, James’s top priority was not a rebuild marathon, nor a sprint to win now, but a steady pace that will take him where he wants to go. The Lakers’ cap space and younger players provide that clear path. That may be why Irving would think about the Knicks the way the Knicks are (reportedly) thinking about him. (I’m going to assume he watched Knox in summer league.) It’s an exciting — and inspiring — roster. New York, the city, and New York, the historic franchise, are bonuses.