What the Knicks do if they don’t sign a superstar in 2019 could define this front office

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While the Knicks have put themselves in position to make the necessary moves to offer a max contract to a free agent this coming summer, the front office is not looking to throw a big contract at just anybody, according to Marc Berman of the New York Post.

Berman reports the Knicks are “opposed to giving a 2019 free agent a max-like deal ‘unless that player would be a dramatic difference maker to the team’s fortunes.'”

Some could take this to suggest the Knicks are slowly moving the goalposts for the upcoming summer. In fact, I think Stefan Bondy summarizes it perfectly here:

The Knicks have set expectations and positioned themselves to make a run at a max player in 2019. This has come at the cost of potentially straining their relationship with Kristaps Porzingis by delaying his contract extension and incurring an added cap cost by stretching Joakim Noah through 2021.

But this is life in the NBA. You don’t build a championship team without taking on risk. And risk carries the possibility of loss.

If the Knicks end up empty-handed in the 2019 superstar sweepstakes, what they do next will define how much loss they actually realize from taking on the risk to chase Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, and the likes this summer.

This is why Berman’s report (backed by recent comments from Steve Mills) that the Knicks are willing to pass on extending a max offer to a player if they don’t feel like he is a true difference maker is a positive sign.

2019 represents a litmus test for the Mills-Perry front office that has been saying all of the right things when it comes to rebuilding the team through the draft and being careful in how they spend future cap dollars.

If July 1st comes around and a Woj notification pops up on our phones to report the Knicks have agreed to a max deal with say, Kemba Walker, no offense to the Bronx native, but many in New York will be singing the “same ol’ Knicks” song.

The last time the Knicks entered a summer optimistic about their free agent chances and with “max-like” money to spend, they ended up with Amar’e Stoudemire.

It’s okay if the Knicks want to move the goalposts on free agent expectations, as long as when they get to July, they don’t suddenly call an audible and give up on their patient approach to overpay for a player just because they have cap space to burn.

Remember, while the Knicks took on some risk by waiting to re-sign KP and stretching Noah, there were legitimate reasons to make both decisions independent of 2019 cap space.

Noah admitted to having less than ideal focus during his time in New York, and he was not the type of veteran the front office wanted around a young core that includes many players who aren’t even old enough to drink.

Kristaps Porzingis is recovering from a major ACL injury that might have him out of the lineup for the entire season. Perhaps waiting to offer a gigantic extension until he is back on the court and healthy is a wise choice in its own right.

What Berman’s report suggests is that the Knicks are not looking to repeat mistakes of the past in 2019.

Based on the current cap projection of $109 million for the 2019-20 season, the Knicks can create close to $30 million in space by renouncing their own free agents, waiving Lance Thomas, and waiting to sign Kristaps Porzingis until after they have made all of their other signings.

If the Knicks want to create “max-like” space this summer, it will leave their options extremely limited in keeping any of the players who are not already signed through next season. In fact, to create enough room to sign Kevin Durant, who is a 10+ year veteran, they would need to move an additional $8-9 million off their books.

Mills explained in a press conference with reporters on December 21 that the team is still evaluating the players on their roster and that they “feel like there are more people than just the three rookies [they] can grow around.”

This is an important point in the context of whether the Knicks end up signing a max-like player. It seems to suggest that the team is open to bringing back some of their successful reclamation projects, such as Emmanuel Mudiay or Noah Vonleh. As explained earlier, this would be difficult to do if they use all of their cap dollars on a max contract.

In other words, it’s not max player or bust for the Knicks in 2019; it’s max player, if it’s Kevin Durant or Kyrie Irving or Kawhi Leonard, or it’s use their cap space to sign players they believe they can build around ..

OR, and this is the part of the strategy that has not been reported or commented on, but perhaps most important, it’s use their cap space to sign players who they can later trade for a star player.

We saw Philadelphia do this with Robert Covington. They signed him to a four-year $46.9 million contract and then traded him a year later for Jimmy Butler.

In the chase for cap space, people forget how often star players change teams via trade. Young players on reasonable contracts are just as valuable, in fact, considering they add value to your team before you trade them, they are more valuable than empty cap space.

If the Knicks don’t land a superstar free agent next summer, and instead overpay for a non-max player, they would only limit their ability to land a star in the future.

If they choose to pass on signing a non-max player to a “max-like” contract, they keep their options open. It would allow them to preserve future cap dollars while investing a portion of their space in signing young players to reasonable contracts.

At this point, even after failing to reach their goal of signing a superstar, they would be maintaining their ability to attract one in the future. And they would be showing us that two fundamental things are different than how the organization has operated in the past.

  • First, the team would be continuing to accumulate assets in the form of draft picks (remember, they will add another lottery pick to their roster in 2019), cap space, and young players on reasonable contracts. In 2010, the future of the team was heavily contingent on the players they signed as big ticket free agents.
  • Second, they will have proven that all of the promises and words they have told us over the past year ring true. They have avoided trading draft picks for stars they can sign later. They have put themselves in a position to sign a star this coming summer. And if they don’t sign a star, they would have successfully pivoted their approach without making a panic move.

The Knicks have set their own expectations by taking on risk to sign a superstar in 2019. But it’s a risk worth taking. And if they don’t sign a superstar, but then successfully pivot their approach, times will truly be different at 2 Penn Plaza.

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