With the Knicks in a rebuilding stage, reports have spread of a grand scheme to bring Kyrie Irving and Jimmy Butler to New York. What’s stopping the Knicks from signing the two All-Stars?
One reason we all love and adore the NBA is because there are rarely dull moments. Even during the dog days of summer, there is still a huge buzz surrounding the highly anticipated 2019 free agent class—and what do you know, the Knicks are right in the thick of all of the chatter. An ESPN Forecast Panel was recently released outlining which teams were most likely to land prime free agents after the conclusion of the upcoming season. According to the predictions, the Knicks are early favorites to land Kyrie Irving (46.9 percent chance) and Jimmy Butler (42.4 percent chance), a pair that happens to be very close friends.
I advise fans to take these findings with a grain of salt, considering the Knicks have struggled mightily to land a superstar free agent over the years. However, there is reason to have tempered optimism going into the 2019 free agent frenzy. Many factors play into the decisions of both Irving and Butler, including some that are unfortunately out of the Knicks’ control. There are plenty of storylines worth keeping an eye on throughout the season, as we move closer to one of the most important summers in Knicks recent history.
Irving’s current situation with the Boston Celtics is difficult to get a read on. After demanding a trade from the Cleveland Cavaliers, he ended up in a perfect situation in Boston on a team run by a terrific GM in Danny Ainge, an excellent coach in Brad Stevens, established stars in Gordon Hayward and Al Horford, and budding superstars in Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. To boot, the Celtics suddenly have a favorable path to the Finals for the foreseeable future in the LeBron-less Eastern Conference and an excellent chance to win a title in the near future. Despite landing in a good spot last year, it was somewhat of a rollercoaster season for the 26-year-old Irving. The injury-prone guard missed a chunk of the regular season and the entire playoffs with a knee injury that has been lingering since 2015. He caught some flack for not showing up to Boston’s game seven loss against the Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference Finals. Irving has also been labeled by some as a flake for the way he left LeBron, along with the recent rumors of leaving Boston for the New York Knicks.
On the surface, ditching a top-three seed in the East for a team that has been consistently dysfunctional doesn’t make sense. Despite that, it is evident that the West Orange, New Jersey native would love to play in front of hometown fans and has considered taking his talents to the Mecca of Basketball. It’s worth noting that Irving isn’t too happy with always sharing the superstar spotlight and enjoys the accolades of being the number one, go-to option. If there’s any place where the spotlight shines the brightest, it’s at MSG. Whether Irving is truly serious about coming to play for the Knicks remains to be seen, but the mutual interest seems to be there, and clearly, Kyrie is one to always keep his options open.
Jimmy Butler has a less complicated situation in Minnesota, but it’s difficult to gauge where the All-Star’s head is currently at right now. As Butler approaches his 29th birthday, he’s playing on an ultra-talented team that has quite frankly underachieved and been lost in the shuffle of a loaded West. Butler recently turned down a four-year, $110 million extension from Minnesota, opening the floodgates to rumors of his potential departure. Despite having a good rapport with Tom Thibodeau, whom he played for in his Chicago days as well, there were rumblings about Butler taking issue with the attitudes of teammates Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns. Jimmy is smart, an absolute gamer, and one of the best two-way players in the league, but if he won’t be in the mix for a title in Minnesota, he may be better off joining a team that can contend soon. Butler is much more likely to leave than Irving, based on their current organizational situations.
As previously noted, Butler and Irving are good friends, so one can assume they have considered joining forces somewhere. Whether that is feasible cap-wise for the Knicks remains to be seen, but it is important to keep an eye on the Wolves’ progress this season, as well as the turmoil that we caught wind of last year within the locker room.
Coach Fizdale’s First Audition
Perhaps one of the most important factors in whether the Knicks are able to land marquee free agents like Kyrie and Jimmy Butler is the performance and reputation of David Fizdale this season. There’s no doubt that Fiz is well respected around the league and received widespread support and backing from former players. As an assistant on the Miami Heat, Fizdale earned the respect and trust of stars like LBJ and D-Wade, but was unable to get along with Grizzlies star Marc Gasol as a head coach and was subsequently canned after an unsuccessful stint in Memphis. As a result, there is skepticism regarding Fiz’s ability to handle big personality star players when things get a little choppy.
Fortunately for him, he has a clean slate this year. Fiz has a chance to bring one of the most storied NBA franchises back from the dead. So far, he’s won over fans with his positive attitude, infectious smile, and a visit to Latvia to make sure he and KP get this relationship started on the right foot. Once the season begins, Fizdale needs to prove he can manage young players while cutting through the BS of a dysfunctional franchise and the extreme pressure of the New York fans and media.
Fizdale’s first year will be defined by his ability to get guys to compete every night, while affording them opportunity to grow. I wouldn’t put much of a premium on Fizdale’s win total this year, as he has been dealt a hand that isn’t conducive to winning a lot of games. Should Fiz show the rest of the league that he can be a leader at this level, while also being a player’s coach who guys want to play for, the Kyries and Jimmy Butlers of the world will take notice and be more inclined to come to the Big Apple? This is especially important in the case of Jimmy Butler, who he has no problem butting heads with coaches, as we saw with Fred Hoiberg during his final season with the Bulls. If Butler likes what he sees from Fiz this year, it’s all the more reason he would choose New York.
The Return of Porzingis
Getting KP back for at least the final 15 games of the season can be crucial in luring these two superstars to the Knicks. Showing the league that Porzingis can be productive after a torn ACL will go a remarkably long way in attracting free agents.
Solidifying KP’s potential as a worthy partner for a superstar gives the Knicks a much better shot at title contention. On the contrary, missing the entire ’18–’19 season could create uncertainty and skepticism about his health going forward, which may deter free agents from joining a team with a superstar coming off a major knee surgery.
Cap Space/Noah Contract
When looking to sign any big money free agent, cap space must be considered before pulling the trigger. As it stands now, New York will be able to afford one max contract, as they try to free up as much as possible to be able to offer max money ($33 million). Two max deals could present some potential roadblocks.
Finding a suitor for Courtney Lee is something the Scott Perry and Steve Mills are exploring in order to get an expensive veteran contract off the books ($25 million remaining over two years). Lee, despite being an excellent role player and a great teammate, doesn’t really make financial sense to keep around, so look for the Knicks to aggressively shop him through training camp and during the season.As for Joakim Noah and his disaster of a contract, it seems like the most likely course of action is to stretch it out and come to some sort of agreement with him over the ensuing months. His albatross of a contract is something no intelligent team would trade for, so New York’s hands are tied to a degree.