Cleveland and LeBron stand on shaky ground. How would the Knicks be able to capitalize on the seemingly growing disloyal ties between King James and the Cavs?
This is an exercise. Before rolling your eyes, or commenting below, take this article for what it is: an exercise into how the Knicks could clear enough cap space to sign LeBron James next summer. Before we debate the merits of signing an aging superstar, albeit King James, it’s important to understand if it even is possible, considering the Knicks current roster construction.
Let’s start with a look at where the Knicks stand today. Remember, although the Knicks waived Mindaugas Kuzminskas, they still carry his $3 million cap hit for the remainder of the season:
I include a few additional details in my cap table than what most cap projections consider. I add the projected cap holds and rookie scale salaries of upcoming draft picks. Since the draft is in June and free agency begins in July, these cap holds count against team salary in calculating cap space to sign new players. Of course, if the Knicks were to acquire LeBron, you would hope the future draft picks are not lottery picks, but I will leave them in the table, for now.
I also include Doug McDermott’s cap hold; his qualifying offer would be for a lesser amount ($4.5 million), but his future might not be decided by early July (whether he signs a long-term deal to stay with the Knicks, signs as a restricted free agent somewhere else, or takes the qualifying offer). The cap hold amount applies to team salary while McDermott’s status remains in limbo.
For projection purposes, I make a friendly assumption that Kristaps Porzingis signs the designated rookie extension with the Knicks, something precedented for rising stars in KP’s position before him.
So, clearly, from the table above, as things currently stand, the Knicks will not have any cap space next summer, let alone enough to sign LeBron James to a 10+ years of service veteran maximum contract. While LeBron has accepted less than the maximum salary in the past, it seems unlikely that he will do so going forward. With the cap projected to be at $101 million next season, that means his starting salary, and the amount of cap space a new team would need to sign him, would be ~$35.35 million.
How do the Knicks get there?
Of course, there are many ways for the Knicks to add LeBron to their roster next season. For example, The Ringer posted a piece today outlining the idea of LeBron opting-IN to the final year of his contract with Cleveland, so the Knicks could trade Enes Kanter + Frank Ntilikina + Willy Hernangómez + 2018 first round pick for LeBron. I am going to focus on how the Knicks could open enough cap space to sign LeBron without trading some of their younger pieces. It could happen with these three steps:
- Use their 2018 first round pick to trade either Joakim Noah or Enes Kanter this season for expiring contract(s). [A silver bullet would be trading Kanter without attaching a draft pick.]
- Trade Courtney Lee for expiring contract(s).
- Stretch the remaining years on of the player’s contract (Joakim Noah or Enes Kanter) that they didn’t trade.
The first step is the risky part, and why it’s perfectly acceptable, and wise, for the Knicks to be careful in making any move to clear cap space for an unknown reward. The advantage of the Knicks making a trade with Cleveland for LeBron is clear: it would afford them the opportunity to keep their roster in tact until they know for sure that LeBron is coming. But let’s focus on the option of signing him in free agency. For the dominoes to begin to fall, Scott Perry and Steve Mills would need to get to work this season, before the Knicks know whether signing LeBron is a real option or not. This is because unless the Knicks find a trade partner with enough cap space to absorb one of their large contracts (unlikely), they would need to take back expiring contracts to make any deal work. And they would need the salary they take back to expire this season, not next season. If the Knicks wait to make a trade in the summer, then it would be too late to take back expiring contracts, since teams could only offer deals expiring in 2018-19, one year too late. Under a simultaneous trade, league rules dictate that a non-taxpaying team would need to send back at least $13.6 million in outgoing salary to the Knicks in order to absorb Kanter’s 2018-19 player option amount of $18.6 million. The salary exchange amount is stricter for taxpaying teams (only 125 percent of incoming salary).
Let’s use an example to show how a potential trade would need to work. The Knicks could attempt the following using either Enes Kanter or Joakim Noah as the main outgoing contract. Although, with Kanter, they would probably have more flexibility around needing to trade a lightly protected first round pick (more on that later):
- Knicks trade Joakim Noah ($17.8 million in 2017-18 and two more years remaining) + 2018 first round pick (top 1 protected in 2018)
- Nets trade expiring contract of Trevor Booker ($9.2 million) + expiring contract of Quincy Acy ($1.7 million) + expiring contract of Sean Kilpatrick ($1.5 million) + expiring contract of Joe Harris ($1.5 million)
The price of trading roughly 2.5 seasons of Noah would probably cost the Knicks their 2018 first round pick (with only light protections). But if the Knicks want to create cap space for LeBron James, this is the type of move they would need to make. Losing their 2018 first round pick, believe it or not, would also save them cap space, since the cap hold for a lottery pick is enough to make the difference between having max cap space next summer or not.
The problem with acquiring multiple expiring contracts is the Knicks would need the roster space to make the trade. They would need to waive players (such as Jarrett Jack, Ramon Sessions, and Michael Beasley) to make the hypothetical trade outlined above work.
Theoretically, Enes Kanter should fetch a better return on the trade market than Noah. Remember, Noah has more term remaining (beyond Kanter’s player option) and more wear and tear (Kanter is only 25). The return in a trade for the Knicks is expressed in terms of what they would need to attach to trade either contract. If the Knicks are looking for any combination of expiring contracts to make the salaries work in a deal, the difference in trading Kanter versus Noah is in how much they need to protect an attached draft pick, or whether they could trade Kanter without attaching a draft pick at all. As mentioned earlier, the cap hit of a potential lottery pick is important to cap space considerations, so the Knicks might need to make another move, such as trading Kyle O’Quinn, if they hold onto that 2018 pick.
Trading Courtney Lee would be the next step. Lee is a 3-and-D player on a reasonable contract, albeit with some term remaining (two years). But with a cap hit of only $11.8 million this season, the Knicks could probably find a trade partner willing to give up the expiring contract amount ($6.8 million), and depending who that player, or players, would be to make the salaries work, perhaps they could net a low-end draft pick from the deal.
The final step could wait until July 1. At that time, if the Knicks have knowledge that they can sign LeBron James, and assuming Kanter opts in to his player option, they could stretch the final season of Kanter’s contract to open the necessary space to sign James to a maximum contract (the same would be true for Noah’s contract if the Knicks traded Kanter instead).
All of these options should be written on Scott Perry’s whiteboard because next summer offers a unique point in time to add talent to the roster as Porzingis makes his contract decision and before his contract balloons from a potential extension. The ability to pair LeBron James with Porzingis and some sharp shooters (Tim Hardaway Jr. and Doug McDermott, since the Knicks would have the ability to bring him back as a restricted free agent under this scenario) would make for an interesting roster.
That being said, assuming conservative cap projections, the Knicks would find themselves over the cap with no room to add players to their roster beyond minimum contracts and draft picks going forward. As LeBron ages and Porzingis enters his prime, the Knicks roster would be stuck in financial mud.
As Kristaps’ brother indicated last week, there are considerations beyond money on whether or not the Latvian forward stays in New York. Perhaps one of those considerations would be who the Knicks could pair with him on the court beyond what the current roster has to offer. LeBron may have gotten the last laugh after Monday night’s comeback win against the Knicks, but with the Garden rocking, who wouldn’t want to be a part of that atmosphere?
I’m not saying the Knicks are going to sign LeBron James and extend Kristaps Porzingis, making the screen you are reading this article on explode before your eyes. A lot would need to happen to make these hypothetical moves a reality. But with Porzingis proving every night that he could one day be a top five player in this league, it’s not IMPOSSIBLE to imagine the Knicks becoming a preferred free agent destination next summer. And if Scott Perry and Steve Mills need to create cap space, there are some avenues to do so.