Three decisions that the Knicks either make or don’t make will define the outlook of the franchise. Patience will be the virtue that pushes them to new heights down the road.
There are many life-altering inventions that each of us experience every day and take for granted. The smart phone. Sliced bread. A toaster oven for your sliced bread (or, if you have a small child, for your smart phone when you’re not looking). None of these get my vote for the best, however. No, for me, that designation goes to the little white button that pops up from a piece of poultry to let you know when it’s done.
How it works is one of the great mysteries of life, right up there with the existence of Bigfoot, whether there really was a second shooter, and why NBA players continue to date the Kardashians. What isn’t a mystery is that life would be much easier if everything had a button that popped up to say when it was the right time to make major decisions (Just think about how many years dating terrible people you would get back by knowing when was the perfect time to break up. For me, the answer is approximately 17.6).
No one wishes such a life hack existed more than the New York Knicks. Perhaps no team in professional sports has prematurely taken the chicken out of the oven more times than the one that calls MSG home. Whether it’s giving up on young players too soon (my heart will always weep for Danilo Gallinari’s New York career that never was), trading a pick for a vet on draft night (Nene for Antonio McDyess, anyone???) or everyone’s favorite “Knicks gonna Knick” folly of dealing away future draft assets (Gordon Hayward, LaMarcus Aldridge, Dario Saric, Jamal Murray, and a younger, useful Joakim Noah—all taken with Knicks’ traded picks—make for a pretty good starting five), rushing the process hasn’t worked out so well in the past. If the Knicks were on a date that ended up in bed, they’d be better off not asking “was it good for you?”
Yet, here we are again, with segments of the fan base clamoring for a plethora of moves that will theoretically accelerate the Knicks rebuilding process and turn them into a winner sooner rather than later. There are three classic mistakes they could make, each of which is the wrong move for different reasons.
The Big Trade
Ever since the first signs of discord between the Spurs and their erstwhile star began trickling out of San Antonio, Knicks fans started dreaming of a future that featured Kawhi Leonard wearing orange and blue.
It’s not hard to imagine why. Leonard won the Finals MVP award as a 22-year-old, and all he’s done since then is finish tenth, second, and third in the MVP voting. There are stars, and then there are stars. Kawhi Leonard is a star.
He’s also a player entering the last year of his contract who played fewer minutes for the Spurs this season than Willy Hernangómez did for the Knicks. No one has gotten to the bottom of the Kawhi injury situation, but it seems fair to assume that all is not well.
Still though, this is Kawhi freaking Leonard, and we’re talking about the NBA, where high level, All-NBA caliber talent matters more than every other part of the equation put together. When you have a chance to get a player like Kawhi Leonard, you go get Kawhi Leonard, right? After all, ask the Miami Heat (Shaq), Phoenix Suns (Barkley), and Boston Celtics (KG and Kyrie) how they felt about mortgaging the farm for those superstar-level players.
Even putting aside Leonard’s impending free agency and health questions, there is one notable difference between New York and all those situations: each of them were a superstar away from true contention. The Knicks? Not so much.
A superstar by himself doesn’t guarantee you anything. We’ve seen what Anthony Davis is capable of in these playoffs—he might be the best player in the whole damn league—and his team won 34 games last year. Put Kawhi on the Knicks next season, give them a top notch coach, throw in half a season of KP, and you win, what, 40, maybe 45 games?
Sure, you’d have a healthy KP moving forward, but Leonard on the roster also means Frank Ntilikina is gone in addition to multiple first round draft picks, including this year’s selection (if you think San Antonio is trading him for anything less, I once again refer you to my one time only, can’t miss Brooklyn real estate opportunity…).
Would having Kawhi and KP man the same frontcourt mean another star would come in 2019? Maybe someone would want to, maybe they wouldn’t—but it’s a moot point. Whether it’s in the form of a cap hold or new contract (to say nothing of KP’s extension), Leonard’s presence would preclude them from having anything close to a max salary spot, regardless of the cap gymnastics they’d try to pull off.
Oh, and there would be nothing preventing Leonard from walking right back out the door from whence he came when the clock struck midnight on July 1, 2019. The financial incentive to stay in New York would be minimal if Kawhi signed the 3 + 1 deal he’d almost surely be looking for. Even if he agreed to an extension before the trade, the Knicks would be capped out for the foreseeable future. As wonderful as the healthy combo of Kawhi and KP would be, absent some significant supporting talent that New York would be hard pressed to come across with their newfound financial constraints, that’s not enough to contend.
Yes, friends, that’s the goal. Getting the superstar and worrying about the rest later is fine—if there is some cognizable path towards other moves. In this case, that chance likely wouldn’t come until 2021 at the earliest.
Does this argument at least partially rest on the presumption that Frank is going to progress by leaps and bounds as an offensive player? To a certain extent it does. Still, by next season, he and Kawhi will essentially be the double Spider-Man meme on defense. There is a reason the Spurs would seriously consider a package build around the precocious 19-year-old who barely looks old enough to work at a CVS.
The alternative to a Kawhi trade? Don’t raid the cupboard for Leonard now, and instead hoard those very assets to make New York the type of attractive situation he could come to during said free agency (opening up the requisite cap space wouldn’t be that hard). It’s the smart play, which is to say it’s not the one New York would usually make. Just ask Donnie Walsh.
No, Carmelo Anthony at his best was nowhere near a healthy Leonard, but the point remains: why trade for a player who would want to come here anyway (remember, Kawhi is agreeing to an extension before a trade or you run the risk of losing him after 12 months, so in the “trade for Leonard” scenarios, he either wants to be here long term or you’ve just given away the future with zero guarantees it will help you long term) when he could come on his own the following summer?
Let’s hope Scott Perry and Steve Mills are recent history buffs. It sounds nuts, but the Knicks must pass on Kawhi.
The Restricted Free Agent
This is the route many Knicks fans are hoping for. If Enes Kanter continues taking his crazy pills and opts out, New York would be an Emmanuel Mudiay salary dump away from having the ability to offer a max deal to someone on this summer’s restricted free agent market. Among the pool of candidates, there are three that have become popular to suggest: Julius Randle, Jabari Parker, and Aaron Gordon.
Let’s start with Randle. The former Kentucky Wildcat is a player Knicks fans have fantasized about for a while now, both because it feels like he’s attainable and because his game seems like a natural compliment to that of Kristaps Porzingis.
Like many things in life, the idea is better than the reality. Yes, Randle can bang down low and grab rebounds, but he presents all of the same issues as Enes Kanter, albeit in a smaller, quicker package. He’s someone who needs to play center because of his lack of range and difficulty guarding smaller players, but he’s not known as a rim protector. If you look past the offensive numbers (which, to be fair, are outstanding), Randle is actually the opposite of the prototypical modern NBA player.
He’s also not going to come cheap. Much like Tim Hardaway Jr., four years and $44-48 million is probably what Randle is worth. As they did with Timmy, the Knicks would need to go overboard to beat other teams’ offers and also ensure that the Lakers don’t match. Spending big two summers in a row on good but not great players is no one’s idea of intelligent team building.
Jabari Parker, on the other hand, feels like he should be a great player. His ability to create offense from anywhere on the floor is unquestioned, and an improved deep ball may make him indefensible before long. Like Randle though, his defense leaves much to be desired. But that’s not even the most troubling similarity.
Both Julius and Jabari serve an important but limited offensive role: getting buckets. Both possess strong passing ability for their positions, but don’t always use it and have a tendency to become black holes when their team has the ball. Getting either would ensure adding a wonderful offensive talent without necessarily helping transform the Knicks into a great offensive team.
Then there is Aaron Gordon, who on paper looks like the perfect player for the modern game. He can defend any position on the floor, and made real strides from deep for the first time in his career, shooting 33 percent on nearly six attempts per game. That number is a bit deceiving, considering that Gordon leveled off big time—29 percent from three after December 1—after a scorching start to the season when seemingly no Magic player could miss).
Did we learn this season that Aaron Gordon is a legitimate two way force? Sure. We also learned that if he is your best (or even second best) player, you’re probably not going to be very good. He is a classic example of a guy for whom less is more.
He is also going to break the bank. Unlike Randle and Parker, who might be attainable for an annual number in the teens, Gordon is going to get the max from somebody, and Orlando may still match. If the Knicks are that team, and the Magic let New York have him, that is your team. With KP’s extension looming, like with the Kawhi trade scenario, any financial flexibility goes out the window.
Can a squad led by KP, Gordon, Frank, Timmy, and this and next year’s picks win some games? Absolutely, maybe even a playoff series. But is it the best ceiling for this team, everything else considered?
Hold that thought while we go through one last pitfall, one that has seemed like an inevitability for some time now.
The Buy Out and Stretch
Nearly two years into Joakim Noah’s Knicks career, suffice it to say things have not gone as planned. Noah was brought aboard, according to the Zen Master himself, because he had a strong history of playing off of Derrick Rose. So much for best laid plans.
Since nearly the day he signed on for four years, $72 million, fans have been plotting ways to get him off the roster. With the price to dump him via trade exorbitant, the two remaining possibilities are to waive and stretch his contract or to simply let it expire. Scott Perry got kudos for letting the trade deadline pass without giving up a young asset to rid himself of Noah’s contract, and then again for not waiving him prior to the March 1st deadline that would have left Noah free to join a playoff roster. Making either move would’ve been a mistake, what with the Knicks not in a position to be players in the free agent market this summer anyway.
The next date circled on many calendars is September 1. If Noah is waived after this date, his salary can be stretched over three years at a lesser annual number (a little under $6.5 million) than if he was stretched before that date (essentially one extra season at a little over $7.5 million per).
For many fans, the Knicks have waited long enough. If they make the move in September, it opens up an extra roster spot and frees up a nice chunk of cap space for the summer of 2019 when several big names become available.
Here’s the thing though: waiving and stretching Noah’s blonde-bearded cadaver on the eve of the new season is no different financially than doing so in July of 2019. If a major free agent comes knocking on the Knicks’ door when next summer’s free agent bonanza begins (Kawhi! Welcome! No, please, leave your shoes on…) and they need the room, Perry can buy Noah a complimentary camouflage knapsack and send him packing. Other than that scenario, there’s little incentive to get rid of him prematurely. Presumably the next coach will be able to play nice with Jo of the Jungle for one season, and with a guy like Isaiah Hicks taking up a spot, roster space isn’t at that much of a premium.
What’s the benefit of keeping Noah around another year? It’s the same as the benefit of not signing a Gordon or a Parker or a Randle to more than they’re worth, and the same as not pillaging the cupboard to land Kawhi right this minute: opening up the prospect of having serious, serious cap space for the first time in Knicks recorded history if they don’t get the dream free agent they want next summer.
If Tim Hardaway Jr. decided to test the free agent waters and opt out of the final year of his contract (not crazy considering he’ll be just 28 and presumably coming off of a good season), New York could have nearly $55 million on their hands in the summer of 2020 with a core of Kristaps Porzingis, Frank Ntilikina, and three more first-round picks, including two lottery talents (yes, the added benefit of the patient approach is that the Knicks wouldn’t do much winning next season, only helping their draft position in 2019). That is a core you build around, and one that stars will actually want to join. You wanna get nuts…let’s get nuts!
Patience. It hasn’t been a part of the MSG vocabulary for over a generation. It needs to become part of the lexicon now. We’ve survived nearly two decades of pain. I have the scars to prove it. Another year or so won’t kill us.