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Flashback: the Summer Before the ‘Summer of Spending’

We’re seen a similar story before—the Knicks make cap-space-clearing moves to make a big splash in next summer’s free agency. Here’s why the present Knicks have a better contingency plan in place than a decade ago.

November 21, 2008. I remember the day clearly—certainly more so than any actual Knicks games from that season (or the season before that…or the season after…or most of that decade).

I was in my UWS apartment, skipping class. Despite it being an unseasonably warm morning, those 25 blocks to Lincoln Center were just too arduous, especially when a Business Law seminar awaited me on the other end. I had ESPN News on like I did every day in the pre-Twitter world (true story kiddos). Then, like a bolt of lightning, the trades were reported.

In my memory, Jamal Crawford and Zach Randolph were dealt simultaneously, but in reality I’m sure there was some time in between the two moves. I remember it feeling like the end of The Godfather when Michael settled all of the family business in one fell swoop. Whoever was behind the ESPN news desk surely said something tantamount to, “With these moves, Donnie Walsh has cleared the way for the New York Knicks to be major players in the summer of 2010, when LeBron James leads a star-studded crop of free agents,” but all I heard was “LeBron is starting his apartment search in the SoHo area, but plans to start looking further uptown after lunch, after which he’ll get sized for the first of several championship rings.”

In my mind, it was a fait accompli. James would come, bring a friend with him, and there wouldn’t be enough ticker tape in the world to cover the parades that followed.

We know what happened next, two more years of losing, Amar’e (and his knees), then trading everything but the kitchen sink for Carmelo Anthony, followed by “so close yet so far,” Snoop Bargy Bargs, Phil, the no-trade clause, fun with shapes, and …

[sips scotch]

Yeah.

So why, nearly 10 years later, is any of this worth remembering?

A wise man (who probably went to his law school classes) once said that those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Well, lo and behold, here we are once again: a shitty Knicks team being talked about as a landing spot for some of the game’s best, and one in particular who has fans salivating like Eddy Curry at a Golden Corral.

Have we learned nothing? The last time the Knicks didn’t lose 50 games, Donald Trump was still hosting The Apprentice, LeBron James was a member of the Miami Heat, and Kristaps Porzingis still had cornrows. Dispense with this blasphemy at once!

I get it. 2010 still stands out as a painful reminder that putting all of your eggs in the free agency basket isn’t the best idea. As a result, there’s a significant portion of the fanbase that hasn’t been thrilled with the Knicks’ approach so far this summer. Scott Perry and Steve Mills have stuck to their edict of “no multi-year contracts”—possibly thanks to the urging of a certain writer—in a summer where the thinking goes that teams willing to offer multiple years will end up with great bargains. “Get good players at under-market deals and worry about the rest later” has been the rallying cry of some very smart people in the Knicks Twitter-verse. It is, after all, how intelligent teams tend to operate.

The angst of this group only increased with the news that Kevin Durant signed a 1+1 deal to remain in Golden State, a pact that will allow him to hit the market again next July. The very notion that Durant would even entertain New York as a landing spot is offensive to many fans who feel that this is what the Knicks always do: aim for the pie in the sky while tripping over what lies in front of them down here on the ground.

For those folks, let me repeat: I feel ya. When an organization is run as incompetently for as long as the Knicks have been, it’s hard to look at any approach with anything but skepticism.

Here’s the thing though: this time around, things are shaping up to be very different.

Let’s start with the popular notion that hoarding cap space to make a big run at free agents is something the Knicks have tried and failed at throughout most of their existence. This, sadly, is not true. Thanks to everyone’s favorite ex-Knicks GM (did you even have to ask, of course it’s Isiah), the Knicks were in salary cap hell for most of the 2000s. They’ve had distinguishable cap space exactly three times in the last three decades: 1996, 2010, and 2016.

The primary hauls from those years have been a mixed bag. Allan Houston, while not the running mate for Ewing fans hoped for, did make two All-Star teams and helped lead the Knicks to the Finals. Amar’e Stoudemire was an MVP candidate for half a season before Mike D’Antoni destroyed his knees by playing him 38 minutes a night his knees gave out but was considered one of the top targets on the market that summer. Joakim Noah is Joakim Noah.

The results of those forays into free agent waters aren’t as significant as the circumstances that led to them. Just looking at 2010 (when the free agency rules were close to their current form) and 2016, the approaches the Knicks employed in the build-up to each key summer were fraught with questionable decision making.

Let’s start with 2010. That fateful November day in 2008 was seen by many fans (including yours truly) as a coup for the organization. Donnie Walsh unloaded two contracts thought to be immovable. He was branded a visionary who was finally willing to bite the bullet that Isiah never could.

Looking back, it’s fair to question whether Walsh was in too much of a rush, making the deals nearly 20 months in advance of D-Day. The players he received in each trade were nothing more than salary flotsam, while Zach Randolph went on to make multiple All-Star teams and Jamal Crawford became a three-time Sixth Man of the Year award winner. He did the one thing you’re never supposed to do in business or in sports: he sold low.

Neither of those transactions, however, were nearly as bad as his move at the trading deadline in 2010, using Jordan Hill (back when he was a rookie who still had real upside potential) and New York’s 2012 first-round pick to dump Jarred Jeffries’ $6 million salary. Again, Walsh was lauded—this time for opening up a second max salary slot, but the cost was absurd.

That neither Hill nor the first rounder (Royce White was later selected) ever amounted to anything is beside the point. That deal, along with getting nothing for Z-Bo or J-Crossover, left the Knicks with a gutted roster. The best players in the world were expected to come to New York to play with a talented but unfinished product in Danilo Gallinari, the defensively-challenged David Lee, the mildly intriguing Wilson Chandler, and… that’s it.

In retrospect, it was a pipe dream. Walsh was too cute by half, and yet things still could have worked out had it not been for some subsequent disasters (giving up the farm for ‘Melo and guaranteeing Chancey Billups before amnestying him to sign Tyson Chandler both induce painful grimaces).

This is what comes to mind when most people think of a bad Knicks team preparing to play summer roulette. Well, that and 2016, when a septuagenarian with no experience as an executive was given a blank check during a once in a millennium salary cap spike. Maaaybe not the best idea.

Fast forward to today. From the moment Scott Perry came aboard until a few days ago, every move the Knicks have made has evinced sound basketball decision making irrespective of any free agency preparations. There have been low-risk acquisitions (Trey Burke, Troy Williams, and Emmanuel Mudiay), forward-thinking trades (this year’s 36th pick acquired via the Carmelo trade; two juicy future seconds for Willy Hernangómez), and the hiring of a coach whose effect on those around him seems nothing short of infectious.

There has been no purging the roster of talent to create space for players who may or may not come, nor has a single draft pick been shipped off to shed salary. This has been anything but the lead up to 2010 all over again. And unlike 2016, the person pulling the strings has been doing this work for two decades, not two years, and actually seems to have a clue.

Yet, because some have talked about bringing a max player (or—gasp—two such individuals) to New York, everyone is starting to roll there eyes and go “Same old Knicks”

This is where the things truly divert from history. In 2010, the player the Knicks were targeting (LeBron) not only would have been coming to a blah roster, but he had no connection to New York and there were no discernible signs that the Knicks were ever under consideration for him. In 2016, KD shunned a meeting with a team that was comprised of a ball-stopper (‘Melo) who just happened to play his position, a 20-year-old Porzingis, a washed Derrick Rose, and essentially nothing else.

While New York has continued to lose, and will probably do more of the same this season, there’s at least a strong possibility that things will look much different in July. Kristaps Porzingis looked like a top-five player for about a month last season, fresh off his 22nd birthday, and should have several months to show he’s back to normal. By himself, KP represents far more of a reason to come to New York than any player since Patrick Ewing. Frank Ntilikina and Kevin Knox are also here—raw players with tantalizing upside, to say nothing of wild cards like Damyean Dotson and Mitchell Robinson. David Fizdale is as popular a coach as there is in the league. Scott Perry has brought competence and consistency to a front office that has seen anything but for a decade and a half.

Could all of this go to hell by next July? Of course. Porzingis could look like a different player, Ntilikina and Knox might not tap into their potential, and Fiz could struggle to get the most out of a group short on talent. The path to summer glory could once again detour into a wooded forest. We’ve seen it happen before.

Or it might not. We just saw a summer when one of the three best players in NBA history made a business decision to go to a team with a roster no better than what New York’s could look at this time next year. DeMarcus Cousins, an All-Star starter, will be playing for the mid-level exception in Golden State. Kawhi Leonard is forcing his way off the model sports franchise of the last two decades. This is the NBA. Crazy shit happens.

And yet, would either KD, Kyrie, or both be that nuts? When certain local beat reporters who shall not be named spout off about fantasy acquisitions, it’s one thing. The likes of Zach Lowe, Brian Windhorst, Rachel Nichols and Bill Simmons—who are all as plugged into the NBA landscape as anyone not named Woj or Shams—all speak of Durant to the Knicks in an “it’s not completely insane” way. Throw in the reports that Cleveland was worried Kyrie would eventually bolt to New York (not to mention the Knicks being included on his initial list of trade destinations last summer), and is it that insane to think the two would consider coming together next July?

The answer is simple: it doesn’t matter. As long as Scott Perry keeps doing what he’s doing—making smart moves poised to set the franchise up for long-term success—no decisions need to be made right now. Might they regret not signing Mario Hezonja—or whoever else they could have signed this summer—to longer contracts? Sure. Anything is possible.

But the NBA, like life, is all about risk, reward, and opportunity cost. Adding future money now can only make life harder for an organization that, for the first time in a long time, hasn’t been limiting itself to one possible optimal outcome. Keep the powder dry. What have you got to lose?

(By the way, if the Knicks decide to ship off Joakim Noah’s contract along with Dotson, Robinson and two future first-round picks before the start of training camp, ignore everything I just wrote and pour me another scotch.)

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