The New York Knicks have pursued several big-name free agents in past years with little success. Recent extensions to players in the upcoming class might actually be a good thing for the franchise, forcing them into a different direction.

Extensions to superstar players like Giannis Antetokounmpo, Rudy Gobert, and Paul George are quickly draining the top-end talent from the free agent class of 2021. 

The New York Knicks are entering the next offseason with enough cap space to sign at least one player to a max contract, which would speed up their rebuild and bring the franchise back to the playoffs for the first time since the 2012–13 season.

However, these extensions to some of the best players in the world might be a blessing in disguise for a team that has tried—and failed—to attract superstar talent through free agency in recent years. This despite New York being one of the biggest cities in the world and the Knicks valued highest among all 30 teams, according to research from Forbes.

So what can the Knicks do to get back into the free agency discussion and back to relevance? 

Short answer: sit still.

Looking at all of the successful teams of late who were able to sign the big fish in free agency, almost all had proven they could compete to some extent before adding in a superstar-level player. For example, the Brooklyn Nets made the playoffs with their fun, fast team before signing Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant. Same for the Los Angeles Clippers and Kawhi Leonard, and same for the Golden State Warriors and KD, and so on.

In his first offseason at the helm of the Knicks, Leon Rose took a patient approach. With few big fish on the market, he signed solid role players, former clients, and young players on cheap, short deals like Nerlens Noel, Austin Rivers, and Alec Burks.

By not making many changes to the team he inherited, Rose and the front office essentially get a fresh look at what the team already has with its young core. They can then decide who’s worth building around for the long term, and who’s worth moving at the deadline or offseason.

Hopefully, this front office understands that in order to attract free agents who can elevate the team, the core needs to prove that it can win on its own and look like it’s ready to add a superstar.

So how can they do that?

One of the benefits of having plenty of cap space is that they can take on other teams’ undesirable contracts in exchange for draft compensation or young players, similar to the approach Brooklyn took in the post–Billy King era, or what Oklahoma City has done this year and last.

The Knicks Wall looked at the list of contracts that could potentially be dumped last season, which details tiers of contracts, most of which are still relevant. Becoming the destination for one or more salary dumps would boost the asset base for the team, which could be useful for swinging a trade later on, or give Rose and Co. another look at prospects.

This approach relies on other teams deciding they need to move off of contracts, however, and is somewhat out of the Knicks’ control.

Something they can do themselves is shift their focus to restricted free agents (RFAs) this offseason—try to overpay for players coming off their rookie-scale deals, or force the hand of opposing teams into committing more money than they’re comfortable doing. RFAs on the market who couldn’t agree to terms with their current team include Lonzo Ball, Lauri Markkanen, Zach Collins, John Collins, Josh Hart, and Jarrett Allen.

Those guys aren’t world-beaters, and they’re probably not the best player on the team from day one, but they’re all young enough to be considered part of the young core. The downside with these offers is that if the team is overpaying a player, they have to hope he grows into (or above) the number for which they’ve signed. 

Conversely, if we’re assuming the Knicks won’t be players in free agency for the foreseeable future, tying up the cap space on an albatross contract won’t be the end of the world; there’s nothing else to use it on. As The Ringer’s Bill Simmons puts it, he’s never seen “Cap Space” score 20 points a night.

John Collins turned down a contract “in excess of $90 million” according to ESPN’s Brian Windhorst on the Hoop Collective Podcast as he was looking for something “at or near the max.” If the Atlanta Hawks still don’t want to offer him something higher than $90 million a year from now, the Knicks could swoop in and steal the 23-year-old (heck, let’s add another power forward).

Lonzo Ball didn’t reach an agreement with the New Orleans Pelicans, according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, but “both sides remain positive about the ability to move forwards together.” If the Knicks offer a near-max contract to Lonzo, he’s probably going to be overpaid, but at least they’ll have a proven, competent point guard on their roster who can get things going for a team that so desperately needs lead guard play.

Hypothetically, if New Orleans were to match that, it would cramp their flexibility after they signed Brandon Ingram to his max and brought in big figures with Steven Adams and Eric Bledsoe. Do they really want to lock themselves into this young core with limited ability to improve around the edges? That’s the risk they take walking into restricted free agency.

While missing out on another run of superstar free agents like Giannis and Gobert isn’t fun, and the RFAs are much lower on the pecking order, it’s a step towards a slow build back to relevance. These possible moves will also run alongside the team’s draft selections who should only get better with age.

Free agency might not be the most attractive time of year for Knicks fans this coming season, but by proving the team is ready to grow and make the playoffs, there’s the chance the next KD or Giannis-level player will consider the Knicks. It just might be a few years until then.

 

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