Schmeelk: Assessing Knicks' Free Agency Options If Superstars Say No

John Schmeelk
June 25, 2019 - 1:26 pm

So, what do the Knicks do if their search for a star fails, and Kawhi Leonard or Kevin Durant don’t come? There are three good young players that are hitting free agency this year that are coming off their best seasons as pros: D’Angelo Russell, Julius Randle and Malcolm Brogdon. The Knicks have let it be known that they will not throw long term max money at players that aren’t worth the cost. Would these players qualify?

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D’Angelo Russell: A nominee for the NBA’s Most Improved Player, Russell had career highs of 21.1 points, 7.0 assists, 43.4% FG, 36.9% 3PT, 53.3% TS and 31.9% USG. His efficiency jumped from last season, despite shooting almost five more shots per game. He will not turn 24 until next February, is coming off his first All-Star game appearance and was good enough to lead an injured Nets team to the playoffs as their lead playmaker and scorer. He is a restricted free agent but could become unrestricted if the Nets go after Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving and renounce his rights.

There are two red flags for Russell. First, he is not an explosive athlete. This limits his ability to get to the rim (in the last three years only about 15% of his shots have come at the rim) and draw fouls (he has never averaged more than 3.0 FTA per game), which would make it tough for any player to be efficient at a high level.

His advanced Synergy stats add some context. On isolation plays last year (just 11% of his possessions), Russell was in only the 49th percentile in terms of points per possession. He was better in the pick-and-roll as a ball handler (which he was on half of his possessions), with a 49.6% EFG, ranking him in the 67th percentile at .89 points per possession. Where Russell was most effective was as a spot-up shooter (15% of his possessions), ranking in the 70th percentile with a 54.5% EFG.

Defense is another worry. His advanced defensive numbers last year aren’t poor (the Nets were only 1.4 pts per 100 possessions better on defense when he was on the bench) but he doesn’t have the requisite traits or desire to be elite on that end of the floor. Can he be good enough to not to hurt you at that end or will you have to hide him?

Some might also point to his playoff performances as a red flag. After a strong first game against Philly (26 pts, 4 assists), the Sixers put their best defenders on Russell, and he only shot 27-78 the rest of the series.

Russell is a good shooter and passer but can he can improve his efficiency by getting to the line/hoop more, while also getting better defensively? Russell is likely to get at least close to a max contract offer from someone this summer. The Knicks would jump at a two-year deal at max money, but that probably won’t get it done. If he continues to develop, he could play into being worth a four-year max deal starting at $27 million, but there’s no guarantee.


Would his contract be moveable or would it become a toxic asset? That’s a tougher question, but an important one, given the Knicks desire to remain flexible. Still, under 25 years old, there’s reason to think he would still be of value to teams that might be looking to get younger, and could serve as a useful piece to add value to a trade for an older star. The Knicks also have to ask themselves how much of an upgrade Russell would be over Dennis Smith Jr., especially if they think the latter is going to take a jump in his third season.

Lead ball-handlers/initiators at guard (even ones that aren’t overly efficient) are hard to find, and the Knicks would be wise to keep an eye on Russell, who could provide the Knicks roster, including RJ Barrett, with something they need desperately: someone to run the offense and provide volume offense and shooting.  

Julius Randle: An unrestricted free agent, Randle’s offensive numbers last year in his fifth season were spectacular.

21.4 pts

52% FG

34.4% 3PT (2.7 attempts per game)

73% FT (6.7 attempts per game)

8.7 REB

3.1 ASS

60% TS

He was an efficient scoring machine, but the question for Randle is whether the way he plays lends itself to winning. Despite his three assists per game last year and legitimate passing skills, he was a shoot-first player that often appeared selfish. He also often looked disinterested on defense as a pick-and-roll and help defender. Despite his gaudy numbers, the Pelicans were just two points worse per possession when he was on the bench compared to on the floor. 

Power forward is a need for the Knicks, with Kevin Knox not ready to rebound the position well enough. Randle would add much-needed scoring, and if his three-pointer continues to improve (he will turn 25 in November) he can stretch the floor too. If the Knicks can get him on a two-year deal on less than max money they should run to sign him. If he gets closer to max dollars on a four-year deal, they need to stay away.

Malcolm Brogdon: Efficiency is what it’s all about with Brogdon, who is coming off a .505/.426/.928 season. He is a smart player and a good defender. He is the perfect helper player for a team that needs a top support player for stars, but he isn’t someone you can run an offense through. The Knicks lack those centerpieces, so they may be putting the cart before the horse if they sign Brogdon. He is also a little older, turning 27 in December. It will take a large tender of $20+ million to get him out of Milwaukee as a restricted free agent.

You can follow John on Twitter (@Schmeelk) for everything about the Knicks, Giants and the world of sports. You can also subscribe to his Knicks podcast, "The Bank Shot" on all popular podcast platforms, and Apple Podcasts here. The most recent episode is with SNY’s Ian Begley.