The Knicks have many decisions to make this offseason as they look to improve the present and future with trades, free agency, and the draft.
While the Miami Heat and the Denver Nuggets are breaking down the X’s and O’s of how to guard Nikola Jokic and Jimmy Butler, everybody else is moving towards the June 22nd NBA draft and ensuing July 1st free agency. With a loaded draft class and weak free agency class, there is a palpable buzz around the league, especially with the new CBA agreement rapidly approaching.
Every team will must evaluate their roster in both the short and long term. The rumors and reports are starting to circulate, and it is officially slop season, meaning more NBACentral and LegionHoops tweets to look forward to. It seems like the most active offseason teams will be the likes of the Blazers and Wizards, who are equally likely to go all in on a “win now” move as they are to take a move out of Kevin O’Connor’s playbook and “blow it up.” The New York Knicks do not check either of those boxes, and the reports from the mainstream media have been that they are fairly content after their postseason “success” this past year.
While we do not know the truth or meaning of that statement, we can analyze the current roster construction along with the long-term opportunities the face this summer. While there may not be a big move available to them, it is the first summer in a long time they can build off of their successes and get help for Jalen Brunson. Getting better on the margins is how you build a contender. If you look at the Nuggets, their KCP trade, and Bruce Brown signing paid dividends. The Miami Heat signed (mostly) smart deals for guys on the fringes, such as their many (in case you haven’t heard) undrafted players and older veterans. Even though those aren’t the only way to build up your contenders, they are proven effective if you look at the teams, not just bringing in the biggest names in free agency.
The Knicks are in a good place financially this summer, blessed with cap flexibility but cursed with the burdens of choice, including team options and potential extensions. With only 6 players with guaranteed contracts going into the next season, the Knicks will have plenty of choices to make about how to build their team out in the long and short term.
Guaranteed Contracts: Julius Randle, RJ Barrett, Jalen Brunson, Evan Fournier, Mitchell Robinson, and Isaiah Hartenstein.
These are the easy options for the Knicks’ summer, unless, of course, they aren’t. Jalen Brunson is as safe as a choice can be—he will be on the Knicks until his contract runs out, and hopefully far beyond that. After that, there would be a big swing required for a move with Randle or Barrett. You do not move your two-time All NBA forward nor your 22-year-old near-max wing without thinking it’s a needle-moving, star-chasing trade. Robinson and Hartenstein, both with team-friendly contracts, seem secure unless an MVP big man were to ask for a trade… Evan Fournier and his 19 million dollar expiring contract this year could be on the move, provided they can find a partner. Fournier gives them the flexibility to combine salary for either a big move or a marginal one. He can also help free up some cap space for a different long-term deal.
The Knicks must choose who to build their franchise around, and they are in no rush. Year one of Barrett, Randle, and Brunson was extremely effective in the regular season but struggled offensively in the postseason. Which one is the anomaly? This question will loom over this front office. They can run it back next year with the same core, but the patience of the fan base is running out.
Player Option: Josh Hart
Josh Hart when he is not tasting his significant other’s breast milk was a valuable part of the Knicks postseason run and quickly became a Tom Thibodeau favorite. With a 13 million dollar player option, Hart will almost definitely decline his player option and “enter free agency” only to re-sign with the Knicks to a long-term deal, estimated as a four-year $70-$75 million contract ($15-$18 million annually) to secure his place in the rotation.
Team Options: Immanuel Quickley, Obi Toppin, Quentin Grimes, Deuce McBride, Derrick Rose
This is where things start to get difficult for the Knickerbockers, but also where they start to get more flexibility and can get more creative. Derrick Rose has been out of the rotation for a while and will not be on the Knicks next year, but picking up his option to combine salary as an expiring contract to match a bigger deal is a realistic option. If not, I would expect the Knicks to decline his option and allow him to go chase a title on a minimum deal or go end his career in Chicago. The other choices are more difficult. Young players like McBride and Grimes are easy choices as you have more time on Grimes’ deal and McBride is in a place of very little leverage. However, it gets more complicated when you are considering the contract extensions of Obi Toppin and Immanuel Quickley.
IQ seems to be in the long-term plans of this front office, with rumors about his contract swirling around the internet. It’s easy to compare him to every other young player with a similar skillset, with Knicks Twitter being quick to bring those guys up after every good game or bad game. Four years for somewhere between 80 and 100 seems like an appropriate contract to lock in the potential 6th man of the year, but it will tighten up the long-term books significantly.
Paying Quickley over the next 4 years makes it harder to retain Obi Toppin. While it seems very likely that IQ returns, Toppin’s future is more in the air. His fit with Randle has never been perfect, and opportunities for playing time under Tom Thibodeau just aren’t there. If they do not see Obi as a legitimate piece going forward, he may end up being the most likely player on the trade block.
Rotation: Quickley, Brunson, Barrett, Grimes, Hart, Randle, Toppin, Robinson, Hartenstein
If the Knicks make no changes to their core rotation, they can bring back 9 players that all contributed at some point or another in the playoff run. However, it is a roster still devoid of shooting and additional playmaking, which hurt the Knicks during their series against Miami. This roster would be fairly expensive after paying Hart, Quickley, and potentially Toppin on top of the current long-term deals they handed out to Mitch, JB, RJ and Julius Randle. While this would potentially hamstring them to the roster they have, they have plenty of salaries to match in a trade and loads of draft capital to move at their leisure.
Alternative Options: Trade for a Star
I am sure many readers have come to this article for an opinion on if the Knicks should make a splashy trade to bring a star into the Garden, but that is not what I am going to do. After the Donovan Mitchell debacle of last summer, I know Knicks fans are chomping at the bit for the team to throw their hat in the ring, especially considering how much draft capital the team has. The Knicks are not likely to force any of these moves, but it is worth at least considering the plausibility of these options.
Very few teams in the league are in a better position to make a big move if a star becomes available due to the extensive draft capital combined with the movable salaries and “young talent” that teams could want to build around. Now, this should not be expected, nor would it be likely for one of these stars to demand a trade at this time.
Luka Doncic and Joel Embiid are the two names that you will see on Twitter most often, but neither seems ready to be available. Embiid will get his chance under the Nick Nurse regime in Philly, and Doncic will likely let it play out with Kyrie Irving for at least one year in full. Beyond that, the Knicks could reach on a second-tier guy like Jaylen Brown or one of the Raptors wings but would have to watch the value of what they are willing to pay.
There are very few marquee free agents in this class, and the Knicks will have minimal cap space depending on what they do with their current roster spots. The Knicks will get access to the non-taxpayer MLE if they don’t pick up the team option for Derrick Rose and can use that to add shooting and depth to their short playoff rotation. The playoffs highlighted a lot of flaws in their roster construction, and while free agency may not be a cure-all, it can be a temporary stopgap if they add a veteran rotation guy.
One option that Knicks fans clamor for is instead of trading picks for a star, trading a star for picks. In the immediate aftermath of the lottery, the fanbase was quick to heat up the trade machine to figure out how to turn Julius Randle into the number 3 pick and Scoot Henderson. While you are not going to find a bigger fan of Scoot than me, leveraging an All NBA talent for a young prospect that may not be ready to compete right now does not make sense with the current timeline or seem like a likely choice of the current front office.
What does seem more likely, however, is the Knicks make smaller moves to get back in the draft and have an active draft night after trading out of one potential draft pick and losing their other pick to the Mavericks due to some late-season tanking. Leon Rose and co. have been very effective in the late first with smart signings like Quickley and Grimes. This draft class is extremely talented—even into the second round, where picks are sold for very little. The Knicks will need to keep building up their youth movement, and after skipping out on their draft picks last year, it might be nice to restock the cabinet.
While Leon Rose may not claim to be lightyears ahead, the two timelines approach has garnered steam in many places, whether it be Golden State, Toronto, or Portland. The Knicks may not be committing fully to that theory, but they do need to be thinking of both the long and short-term impact of the decisions they make this summer. They did compete this year, and should continue to as long as Jalen Brunson is in his prime.
However, their top six is all 26 or younger, and they play Quickley, Grimes, and Barrett in extremely important roles all before the age of 24. Leon Rose will have a very tough decision to make on how “all in” to go with this core. At what point do you want to leverage the future for the present, and at what point do you want to punt on the present for the future? Leon Rose may eventually have to answer those questions, but for now, it seems most likely that the Knicks will stand tight with the talent they have and see if they can improve on their success from last year.