While Knicks brass have justifiably preached the waiting game, maybe finding a middle ground and signing bargain deals with young players should be Mills and Perry’s endgame in this summer’s free-agency bonanza.
On the eve of free agency, it appears the New York Knicks plan to sit this one out, with team president Steve Mills recently reiterating the party line of limiting any summer spending to one-year deals in the name of cap space in 2019 and 2020 (per the Daily News). To many Knicks fans, our own Jonathan Macri included, this is a welcomed approach that symbolizes a philosophical sea-change toward something New York front offices of recent—and not so recent—past have struggled with, namely, patience.
Generally, I’d agree that patience represents progress for the Knicks, and that avoiding anything even remotely resembling our recent Tim Hardaway Jr. shaped forays into restricted free agency is a good approach. Then I read ESPN’s Zach Lowe’s—otherwise known as the GOAT of basketball words—latest free agency primer in which he floats the concept of teams like the Knicks taking advantage of a uniquely tepid and team-friendly market, where bargains could be found in mid-July.
Perfect. So when the Knicks brain trust finally decides to exercise caution, there may be value in some considered spending. Is there a middle ground between the uber-patient sit tight approach and spending like it’s the summer of 2016?
I think yes, with the crucial caveat on spending being whether it is team-friendly. Meaning, can we expect the contract to be tradable if it becomes necessary to do so? If yes, the Knicks preserve an avenue to max-space whilst hedging against striking out in free agency next summer by signing a young asset now. The full non-taxpayer mid-level exception, worth just shy of $9 million per year, is what the Knicks have available that a lot of teams don’t. Most teams are either in the tax or under the cap, with only a few sitting in the apparent sweet-spot of being over the cap but under the tax apron.
A cheat sheet for how much the Knicks can offer free agents this summer.
Steve Mills has indicated they are unlikely to sign a free agent for longer than a one-year deal.
Kevin Knox will be signed using the rookie exception, but Mitchell Robinson requires a regular exception. pic.twitter.com/pNqADTLjsw
— Knicks Film School (@KnickFilmSchool) June 30, 2018
Some names from the batch of players that are projected to be available at the mid-level and suit the Knicks current desired skill sets of athleticism and multi-positional defenders include Jerami Grant (unrestricted, Oklahoma City Thunder), Dante Exum (restricted, Utah Jazz), and Nerlens Noel (unrestricted, Dallas Mavericks), to name a few.
The contracts these players sign this summer will likely be for less money than the same players would sign for next summer in a different market—when half the league is projected to have cap space, unlike the present. These savings could be significant and will be even more so if a team adds the security of a multi-year deal. A talented player on a multi-year deal at below market value is an asset. As we’ve learned, assets are good.
As they stand, the Knicks avenue to open max cap space in 2019 is to stretch Joakim Noah ($19 million in 2019), trade Courtney Lee ($12.8 million in 2019), and waive Lance Thomas ($7 million in 2019, only $1 million of which is guaranteed). Let’s consider a best case—however unlikely—scenario next summer where one of Kyrie Irving, Kevin Durant, or Kawhi Leonard wants to come to the Knicks (or any semi-high-profile free agent, people).
Is the aforementioned multi-year mid-level for Exum, Grant or Noel—let’s call it a three-year, $24 million deal with the last year partially guaranteed—enough to roadblock the Knicks landing a superstar? Even if they have to give up a second-round pick or two to do so, the Knicks can offload that money without difficulty to land one of Irving, Durant, or Leonard.
Now let’s consider a much more likely scenario that the superstars aren’t knocking down Madison Square Garden’s door in free agency next summer. You’ve got a likely great value contract at the mid-level exception at below market value—an asset. You let Noah play out the last year of his contract without the future cost of stretching his contract and live to swing for the fences again in 2020.
There is a strong argument that if we’re really preaching patience, 2020 is the more logical target for big-game hunting in free agency anyway, with Noah and Lee gone, and THJ as an expiring contract—the books look a lot cleaner, in other words. Another variable is Kristaps Porzingis’ impending extension talks. If KP wants to sign this summer rather than next (and Knicks brass should be in the give KP what he wants business) then the cap gymnastics for 2019 max-space are even more complicated.
Planning for a best case scenario next season and taking advantage of an unusually team-friendly offseason are not mutually exclusive. If this summer’s approach was a binary choice between leaving the door open for a superstar and throwing the Brinks truck at this summer’s version of Mr. Hardaway Jr., of course the former is the smarter option. But a middle ground exists here, too, not that the mid-level should be burning a hole in Scott Perry’s pocket—but that he shouldn’t lock that $9 million in a safe so that he can spend the summer staring adoringly at a picture of Kevin Durant in orange and blue.
There is a strange irony in the Knicks’ historically overestimating their ability to land a superstar free-agent, historically failing to be patient because of this inflated self-perception of the Big Apple, and now calling for patience this summer so that we can land a superstar free agent. Maybe the much talked about recent culture reset at the Mecca will attract the big names again, but there’s an argument that part of this culture reset should involve the self-awareness to realistically weigh the chance a marquee free agent wanting to join a Knicks franchise projected to be a bottom-five NBA team next season.
Maybe New York’s current young core of Frank Ntilikina, Kevin Knox, Porzingis, and a likely 2019 top-10 pick will get the attention of the next available free-agent stud, nothing would make me happier, but an opportunistic hedge against it shouldn’t be ruled out. It’s true that only signing one-year deals this offseason is the safer move with big names next summer in mind, but given the unusual state of the market this summer—as Kevin Pelton’s recent piece highlights—it’s not necessarily the shrewdest move.
Even if the front office doesn’t want to use the bulk of the mid-level, they could use a small chunk of it—in the $3-5 million range—to take a low-risk/high-reward swing at guys like Mario Hezonja, Glen Robinson III, or even Rodney Hood. The bi-annual exception on $3.5 million is also available to the Knicks if they prefer to preserve the full mid-level going forward. Using the bi-annual also has the advantage of added flexibility in 2020, should the Knicks succeed with their plan of getting under the cap next summer, as you can only use this exception every other year anyway (read: bi-annual).
There is young talent available this summer, at a discount, because of a market inefficiency for multi-year middling NBA contracts before cap space floods the league again next summer. The Knicks are in talent acquisition mode and are in no position to turn down talent or opportunities to take advantage of market inefficiencies.
I’m all for Mills and Perry going into free agency with a plan not to compromise future cap space, crucially, as long as future cap space doesn’t compromise a chance for a young rebuilding franchise to net a young asset at the right price. The two don’t have to be mutually exclusive, with perhaps the smartest route being something in between swinging for the fences and sitting on your hands.