Despite rumors spitting out mutual interest from big-time soon-to-be free agents, the Knicks’ fantasy of compiling a “super team” in the summer of 2019 could be more folly than gold.
One of the more enjoyable aspects of the fan experience is how it allows us room to use our imagination, to, for lack of a better word, fantasize. We spend countless hours debating how prospects would fit on teams we imagine might draft them, play video games that allow us to construct our dream super teams, and look years into the future to imagine our favorite players suiting up for our favorite teams. It’s part of what makes sports so much fun, but it’s also, to quote an elite Scranton-based Lipophedrine telemarketer named Vikram, “the food of the wise [f]an but the liquor of the fool.” This should ring especially true for Knicks fans.
Because Madison Square Garden is, of course, THE MECCA, and because New York is New York, this kind of daydreaming has, with the gleeful encouragement from local media over the years, become a kind of self-feeding delusional fever dream that has brought heartbreak and harm more often than success. The clearest example of this, of course, occurred the last time LeBron signed a non-one plus one contract, when the Knicks, drunk on cash and reeling from missing out on James, gave most of that LeBron money to their Plan B: Amar’e Stoudemire.
Now let me be clear, I went out and bought myself an Amar’e Knicks jersey almost before the ink was dry on his sparkly new $100 million contract. STAT injected hope into a franchise desperate for it, but we all know how the experiment went on the whole. That’s why I meet almost any “Knicks are gearing up for a run at superstar free agent X” rumor with one of two responses. The first: an eye roll that would put an angsty teen to shame. This happens on instances like early on this summer, when the inevitable “wait, doesn’t LeBron love David Fizdale?” rumors and articles started popping up. These storylines are mostly harmless, if annoying, because all but the true lotus eaters know how ridiculous they are.
The second reaction is an intensely familiar premonition that all of this will end in disaster, whether a spectacular explosion or death by a thousand cuts. It’s the cynic in me trying to protect the optimist in me. The cynic knows the optimist has been hurt too many times before, but the optimist just can’t stop himself from hoping. This reaction also occurred this summer, when rumors about Kyrie, then Kyrie and Jimmy Butler, then Kyrie and Kevin Durant, then Kevin Durant and Kawhi, and so on into eternity, started bubbling up. These rumors do actually make a certain kind of sense, which makes them even scarier. Scott Perry was adamant all summer about not taking on long-term money, which is almost certainly why Courtney Lee is still on the team. After spending the last two years strapped from the Noah and Hardaway Jr. contracts, there’s finally max cap space on the horizon, just as the team is starting to operate in a decidedly functional manner.
Jimmy Butler in the Jeter shirt ? pic.twitter.com/SlLbwdTlUQ
— The Knicks Wall (@TheKnicksWall) July 25, 2018
But here’s the thing: The Knicks aren’t the only team that are going to have cap space this coming summer. 2019 is the first summer that a good portion of the now-infamous 2016 free agent money could come off the books. At least 10 teams could have at least one max cap slot next summer. Some of these teams are terrible and unlikely to land a major star—teams like Sacramento or Atlanta. Some are interesting and at least have the pieces to make a real pitch—teams like Dallas, Chicago, Brooklyn, or the Clippers. And some are already either really good, have big market appeal or have LeBron James (or some combination of the three): the Sixers and Lakers.
That’s the bad news. The good news is there will be a ridiculous amount of talent on the market. Kyrie Irving*, Al Horford*, DeAndre Jordan, Kevin Durant*, Klay Thompson, Boogie Cousins, Marc Gasol*, Jimmy Butler* and Kawhi Leonard are all legitimate stars that could be available, and even the second tier of free agents is loaded with guys like Tobias Harris, Harrison Barnes*, Isaiah Thomas, Spencer Dinwiddie, Tyreke Evans, Goran Dragic*, Khris Middleton*, Julius Randle*, and others. (Those with asterisks have player options.)
While there is plenty of talent to go around, some teams looking to change their fortunes will inevitably get the short end of the stick. New York exceptionalism would proclaim that the Knicks can offer a platform few other lottery-dwellers can, but we’ve seen that come back to haunt us before. The worst possible case scenario is that after striking out on their big targets and increasingly resolved to make their first big free-agency splash, the front office overspends on mid-tier guys like Hassan Whiteside* and IT. It doesn’t seem like the kind of move we’ve come to expect from Scott Perry, who has thus far provided a level of competence hitherto unknown by a mid-20s fan like myself, but who truly knows how long James Dolan is willing to patiently endure a rebuild?
Even if they do get a star, that doesn’t ensure years of glory days and title contention. Look at the Timberwolves: Thibs made a solid win-now move to get Jimmy Butler but the young guys weren’t ready to step up (and it turns out Thibs might not be that great of a coach). Fast forward to today and the team is plagued by chemistry issues, and Butler—whom the team falls apart whenever he’s off the floor—is a real threat to walk next summer. Whether he leaves or stays, Minnesota does not have money available to improve the roster going forward.
So while I would be positively giddy if the Knicks could land one of Durant, Kyrie, or a (healthy) Kawhi, it’s important for us to pinch ourselves and remember that next summer is only a make-it-or-break-it summer if we make it that way (like Sixers fans did this summer, leading to disappointment and anger from the fanbase despite having the third-best team in the East, multiple blue-chip prospects, cap space moving forward, AND valuable future picks). Our own Harry Liao recently wrote about the pleasures and benefits of giving the young core time to grow together, which given KP’s lengthy recovery, they won’t have had much of by the time next June rolls around, and while the 2020 free agency class isn’t as deep (hi there Anthony Davis), there will be a lot fewer teams with cap space after splurging in 2019.
So enjoy the photoshops of Kyrie wearing orange and blue or stories about how Kevin Durant’s favorite ophiologist (get it?) lives in Alphabet City that will inevitably gain steam as the season goes along, but take care not to lose yourself in the fantasy, for that way, madness lies.