The Knicks have finally cracked open a window to contend, but with that leaves many roads and directions to slip up or capitalize in the offseason.
The New York Knicks are in the best position they’ve been in years, both from financial and basketball standpoints. And yet in recent days, most discussions of the team have been plagued by consternation and battle lines being drawn in the sand. Debates about the ideal trajectory the team should be aiming for this summer have raged with every new rumor, which makes sense given the multitude of options the team has to choose from. Some people think the team should push the chips in for a big splash, others that they should continue the slow and steady build, so as not to squander the unusual position of strength the team, for once, finds itself in. But while there are valid reasons for this mindset, that we will get to momentarily, it’s important to remember that the moment of opportunity the Knicks find themselves in is one with a shelf life—and a shorter one than you might expect.
But first, let’s dig into the root cause of some of the reasons for concern.
When you’re the fanbase of a team constantly linked to any and all players, whether available, potentially available, or possibly at some point in the future available, and then mocked joyfully when your team doesn’t land said players, it can be hard not to become cynical about trade/free agent propositions. Despite the perception around the league, for the last few years, most Knicks fans have just wanted to build a normal, non-dramatic, and most importantly, sustainably competent team.
Granted, that didn’t keep us from coveting Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving—who wouldn’t? But this is a fanbase (or at least a very vocal portion of a fanbase) that balked at including Frank Ntilikina for Chris Paul or LaMelo Ball, or at trading Mitchell Robinson and Kevin Knox for Anthony Davis. Call it loyalty, call it delusion, call it years of scarring from a combination of rumors that never came to fruition and moves that turned out to be colossal miscalculations, but contrary to public opinion, many Knicks fans tend to air on the side of caution more than anything.
All of which makes this offseason even more interesting. As is tradition, the Knicks have been linked to…well, just about every big-to-medium name player available via trade or the free-agent market. From Damian Lillard to Collin Sexton to Kelly Oubre Jr., with a smattering of Lonzo Ball, Cam Payne, and Duncan Robinson in the mix, if you’re available, chances are you’ve been floated as a potential Knicks target.
But there’s something different about this year: the stakes have changed. The Knicks are no longer a laughingstock bottom-dweller desperate to land a big name in order to right the sinking ship and single-handedly lead them back to relevance. They’re already back to relevance!
Not only did the Knicks earn a top-four seed on the broad shoulders of their second-team All-NBA point-forward, but they did so as the fourth-youngest team in the playoffs, not to mention one with three top-32 picks in this year’s loaded draft and the most cap space in the league this summer.
All of which gives the team a massive amount of freedom to operate this summer.
But there’s also an inherent level of pressure that comes from success, even the relatively low-level success of making the playoffs for the first time in eight years. The thing is, the Knicks are cheap now, but that’s not going to be the case for much longer, which means that while they have the ability this summer to absorb a bigger contract, they may not have that flexibility moving forward.
A lot of their future room will be decided, or at least impacted, by how they approach their tricky frontcourt decisions this offseason, so let’s start by taking a look at those, and how different choices will mean different paths forward.
Mitchell Robinson is as good a place to begin as any.
Robinson has a $1.8 million team option this summer, a price that’s ridiculously cheap for one of the best defensive centers/rim-runners in the league. The Knicks can pick up that option, which would allow them to operate with a ton of cap space this offseason, and then spend the next year trying to work out an extension with the big man. The issue with this plan is that if they fail to reach an agreement, Robinson becomes an unrestricted free agent next season. Between Robinson changing agents multiple times and the lingering rumors that the Knicks aren’t fully, 100% committed to him long-term, the possibility of them not landing on a suitable number for either side, Robinson feeling undervalued and leaving in unrestricted free agency is higher than you might expect.
If the Knicks don’t pick up the option, on the other hand, Robinson becomes a restricted free agent this summer. This would give them a year less of team control than picking it up and reaching a four-year extension, but it also gets rid of the uncertainty and the possibility of negotiations hanging over the team next year. His restricted free agency could also be negotiated after a larger move this summer unless a team offers him a deal early to hamstring the Knicks.
Then there’s Randle. Randle made one of the most dramatic turnarounds in recent NBA history this year and has gone from trade bait to building block. It’s hard to believe he doesn’t feel a certain amount of gratitude and loyalty, if not to the Knicks, then at least to Tom Thibodeau, but his contract situation is interesting too. He’s eligible for an extension that could come out to around four years, $106 million this summer, but if he waits until next summer, when he’s an unrestricted free agent, he could potentially earn upwards of $200 million on a five-year deal—if he chooses to stay with the Knicks.
It’s hard to believe that someone would turn down the amount that the Knicks could offer him, especially since no other team could come close to matching it, and the Knicks could potentially negotiate the deal after making another big signing next offseason, which would allow them to use their available cap space and then go over the cap to sign Randle.
But that’s a tricky balancing act. Trying to negotiate deals for Robinson and Randle while simultaneously trying to bring another star into the fold means convincing your two incumbents to hold off signing while also making sure that they don’t feel under-prioritized since they both have the freedom to walk if they feel slighted. As history has shown us, some guys get these business machinations, others take things more personally.
And then there’s the fact that next summer is also when R.J. Barrett becomes extension-eligible, meaning they’ll have up until the first day of the season to secure a deal with their prized youngster. The extension deadline being that late means it can be the last order of business, but it’s still another (likely) big number that must be negotiated in the 2022 offseason.
So what does all this mean?
Basically, it means that if the Knicks are serious about maximizing the Julius Randle era and trying to go from feel-good overachievers to legit playoff threats, they have this summer and next summer to do so.
Given the relative weakness of this year’s free-agent class, and the purported strength of next year’s class, the desire to fill out the roster with incremental steps forward makes sense. The Knicks currently have only eight players under contract, including Robinson and the nonguaranteed Luca Vildoza, and with very few true superstars on the market (Kawhi Leonard is the only name that really qualifies, and he is likely to stay in L.A.), and the best/biggest names available being far older than the team’s core (Mike Conley, Kyle Lowry, Chris Paul), it’s understandable to want to prioritize cap flexibility for next year and just find cheaper complements to the current core.
But it’s also important to remember that free-agent classes can go from loaded to barren in the blink of an eye. After all, it wasn’t long ago we were discussing the 2021 class as being “absolutely loaded.” Next year is filled with superstars with player options, but there’s a lot of risk in banking on someone like Stephen Curry leaving the team that got him three championships, or Durant, Irving, or James Harden switching boroughs. Those aren’t the only names—guys like Jimmy Butler, Bradley Beal, and Zach LaVine are out there too. If their teams underperform for another year any one of them could legitimately be available and would all be perfect fits for what the Knicks are looking for to complement their current players (okay, Butler’s fit is a little less perfect, but still). If the Knicks get any one of those players, it’s not unreasonable to think they could join the ranks of the top tier of teams in the Eastern Conference.
But if you miss out on the stars in 2022, it’s going to be a lot harder to make trajectory-changing moves going forward, which is why there’s an appeal to making a move now, to maintain some semblance of flexibility while also giving guys like Randle and Robinson more confidence in why they should want to stick around after next season.
Damian Lillard has been a major point of contention the last few weeks among Knicks fans, and for good reason. Fear of a ‘Melo Trade 2.0, and of how the team could surround Lillard and Randle in order to make them anything better than Portland East are very legitimate, but they can also, at times, be paralyzing and blown out of proportion given the upside.
Now, I’m not saying that the Knicks should 100% push everything in for Lillard. But it’s rare for a top-10 player under contract long-term to become available, and it’s even rarer for that to happen in a time when the receiving team has enough cap space to make the deal without sending out significant money in return. If you trust your front office (and Leon Rose has given us no reason not to trust him—yet), part of that should entail trusting their ability to surround two All NBA talents with the pieces they need around them to succeed, whether that means winning a championship, or being a perpetual Eastern Conference Finals threat. Because after all, the difference between those two choices can sometimes be as simple as a flip of the coin by the basketball gods.
On top of that, it’s worth noting that there are very few teams that have traded for a top-10 player and ended up regretting it. In basically every recent example of such an event—Dwight Howard with the Lakers, Jimmy Butler with the Timberwolves, Kyrie Irving with the Celtics (he probably wasn’t a top-10 player, but was close)—the regret stemmed from an insurmountable personality clash, which someone like Lillard doesn’t seem at risk of.
Again, Lillard here functions more as a totem than a sticking point. I’m using the rumor of a potential Dame trade to try to illustrate a larger point, which is that in the NBA, oftentimes windows for a team’s ceilings are determined as much by passing up a franchise-changing opportunity as they are by choosing the wrong opportunity.
Look at the Heat. The Heat chose not to pursue a trade for Chris Paul because they wanted to keep cap space for Giannis Antetokounmpo in 2021, and they chose not to push their young pieces all in to land James Harden. Say what you want about Harden’s injuries, but after a four-game sweep in the first round, the Heat now have to prove something if they’re going to keep Butler around long-term.
The Celtics are another example of a team that, according to them, got close to pulling the trigger on just about every star that’s been available over the last five years. And yet now, they’re in a weird position—decently set up for the future with Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum and, I guess, Robert Williams, but stuck in a limbo where they have no cap space to sign a point guard and aren’t likely to have any in the near future. For the last few years they were building towards being a Finals contender, but now their path is much less certain.
Of course, the Knicks are not the Heat. A playoff berth does not equate to a Finals run. They’re not even the Celtics, whose young stars have been in the playoffs every year of their career.
But they are a team that has been looking for answers for a long time. There are still answers to find—is this team here to stay, or are they closer to the Hornacek 48-win Suns? The question may seem heretical to fans (especially since those Suns missed the playoffs altogether), but it’s an important angle to consider. Nothing is guaranteed in the NBA. Between general league weirdness, Barrett’s massive and rather unexpected shooting leap, some luck defensively, and Randle becoming the league’s hottest shooter this side of Curry, the team could be poised for a slight regression if they don’t take substantial and well-considered steps forward this season.
All of which brings us back to the original point: the Knicks have a ton of different directions they can go as they continue to build this team into the competitive mainstay they hope it can be. But their window for making big moves is not an open-ended one. In this league, fortunes change in a blink, so if an opportunity comes up that has the chance to genuinely impact the team’s trajectory, it may be worth prioritizing the guaranteed move now over the potential for a future move later.