It’s been a little more than three months since James Dolan took a brief break from defending his latest laughable decision—banning a Knicks fan who’d had the temerity to suggest he sell the team from Madison Square Garden—so that he could promise a brighter tomorrow.
“New York is the mecca of basketball,” the Knicks chairman said during an in-studio appearance on ESPN Radio’s The Michael Kay Show. “We hear from people all the time, from players, from representatives, about who wants to come. We can’t respond because of the NBA rules, etc. But that doesn’t stop them from telling us, and they do. I can tell you, from what we’ve heard, I think we’re going to have a very successful offseason when it comes to free agents.”
A lot has happened in those three intervening months. None of it has been good for the Knicks. First, the chance to land Zion Williamson evaporated when New York fell to third in the 2019 NBA draft lottery. Then, Kevin Durant—long considered not only the Knicks’ top target in free agency this summer, but also the rare iconic talent who might be eager to take on the responsibility of restoring the long-benighted franchise to title contention—returned from a calf strain in Game 5 of the NBA Finals only to rupture his right Achilles tendon, a devastating and potentially league-shaking injury that will likely keep the two-time Finals MVP on the shelf for all of the 2019-20 season.
Next, Kyrie Irving—widely rumored to be the second superstar who’d join Durant in Manhattan to reboot the Knicks and the league writ large—reportedly became much more interested in playing for the Nets. And on Saturday night, the Lakers and Pelicans officially kicked off the NBA’s offseason, pulling the trigger on a blockbuster deal to at long last send Anthony Davis—yet another of New York’s hoped-for All-NBA cornerstones—to Los Angeles to partner with LeBron James. According to multiple reports, the Knicks never put forward a formal offer for Davis, clearing the path for the Lakers to land the superstar forward with an eye-bulging all-in deal. (Well, all in except for Kyle Kuzma, that is.)
If KD-Kyrie-AD was the power trio the Knicks were dreaming of when they shipped Kristaps Porzingis to Dallas, the events of the last month seem to have set up Dolan, team president Steve Mills, general manager Scott Perry, and New York fans for an awfully rude awakening. The good news: The Knicks will still enter the summer with enough salary cap space to sign two maximum-salaried free agents. The bad news: It’s far from certain that they’ll be able to convince any top-tier stars to take their money.
New York is expected to “aggressively pursue” Kawhi Leonard, which seems smart, what with him having just spent the last two months making the case that he’s the best basketball player in the world. But will a player who just won his second NBA championship pass up the chance to return to Toronto for the top dollar the board man can get paid, or to head closer to home to join an already playoff-caliber Clippers team, in favor of linking up with a Knicks side that’s miles away from contention?
Kemba Walker can make nearly $81 million more by sticking with the Hornets than by going anywhere else. He’s maintained that he wants to stay in Charlotte, but will listen to other suitors; an interested Lakers team that already has LeBron and AD in tow would seem like a much more attractive option. (Provided, of course, that L.A.’s brain trust can get its cash flow and calendar straightened out.) Either way, New York’s nascent rebuild might not pique the Bronx-born Walker’s interest all that much; league sources tell SNY’s Ian Begley that “if Walker chose to sign somewhere outside of Charlotte, going to New York isn’t a likely outcome.”
Other star-level options carry similar uncertainty. We’ve got no reason to believe that Klay Thompson would want to leave the Warriors, who reportedly intend to offer him a full five-year max contract even after the devastating ACL tear he sustained in Game 6 of the Finals last week. Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris figure to field multiple max offers, including from the Sixers team that traded for both of them last season. Khris Middleton would provide a welcome dose of shooting, complementary playmaking, and defense on the wing, but convincing him to take less total money to not play next to Giannis Antetokounmpo would probably be a tough sell. Keep going down the list of prospective free agent targets, and the options quickly get significantly riskier.
The wisest course of action, then, might be to take the more judicious and patient approach that Mills and Perry signaled heading into last season—one predicated on coach David Fizdale’s developing young pieces into bona fide contributors, and on retaining the flexibility to be able to get in the running for a star player in the future. The problem: The Knicks haven’t amassed all that much young talent yet. It’s possible that Knicks brass never presented the Pelicans with a formal offer because they weren’t interested in matching Rob Pelinka’s willingness to hand David Griffin a half-decade or more of draft capital. (Which could absolutely prove to be a very prudent decision.) It’s also possible though, that they knew a deal built around some combination of Kevin Knox, Frank Ntilikina, Dennis Smith Jr., and the no. 3 overall pick that will likely become R.J. Barrett wasn’t going to be enough to move the needle for New Orleans.
The best prospect the Knicks have right now is shot-swatting menace Mitchell Robinson—a talented and intriguing player, but not exactly a franchise-resetting centerpiece. Maybe that will change as soon as Adam Silver calls Barrett’s name on Thursday night; the Canadian Duke standout has the tools and talent to be a star, if he stops driving into facepalm-inducing contested jumpers early in the shot clock. At the moment, though, the Knicks don’t really have the raw materials they need to build something of consequence.
So maybe the Knicks will pivot to Plan D or E, moving toward lower-wattage options who won’t eat up 30 percent or 35 percent of their books. Maybe, if the Nets do snare Irving, New York will take a run at D’Angelo Russell or force a Milwaukee franchise with plenty of balls in the air to match a very big offer sheet for Malcolm Brogdon. Maybe, with a hole at power forward and a need for some scoring punch to pair with Robinson’s rim protection, they’ll make a play for Julius Randle, “whom they like,” according to Marc Berman of The New York Post.
Maybe Mills and Perry will still offer the full boat for Durant, in spite of the mammoth uncertainty over what he’ll be able to provide over the life of his contract, and wager that a player this great and this skilled is a better bet than most to return from an Achilles tear at an All-NBA level. The best way to get good players is to already have good players, and stars of Durant’s caliber, even injured, come available only so often.
There are ways for the Knicks to come away from this summer better on the court than they were last season, when they tied for the worst record in franchise history, and without having squandered their assets in pursuit of instant gratification. It just won’t look anything like the image Dolan projected three months back. New York may well still be on the path to something better. After a disastrous few weeks, though, it’s hard not to look around and let your gaze linger on the ghost of what might have been.