Knicks president Steve Mills (left) and general manager Scott Perry

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Schmeelk: Knicks Free Agent Plan Is The Right One, Do Nothing

John Schmeelk
June 27, 2018 - 4:58 pm
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With the draft in the rear view mirror, the NBA now looks forward to free agency, which starts this weekend. As the basketball world focuses on LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, the Knicks will wisely sit idle and watch as they set themselves up for a potential future score.

Knicks General Manager Scott Perry has been very clear whenever he has been asked about what the Knicks plans in free agency will be this summer: Not much. With Kristaps Porzingis recovering from his torn ACL and unlikely to return before January (if at all this season), the Knicks front office realizes that the team has no realistic chance of being competitive for a playoff spot.

The Knicks won’t be actively tanking as they play and try to develop their young players, but they certainly won’t do anything to jeopardize their future flexibility either. With Enes Kanter still likely to opt in for next season, the Knicks won’t have any significant cap space this summer. Perry has made it clear any moves the Knicks make won’t go past one season to jeopardize potential cap space in the summers of 2019 and 2020. (Expect that to be the strategy even in the unlikely scenario Kanter decides to opt out)

In the summer of 2019, the Knicks will have a significant amount of cap space but cannot create maximum room unless they can move Courtney Lee for an expiring contract this season and/or use the stretch position on Joakim Noah (depending on what happens with Porzingis’ long term extension). Potential 2019 free agents include players like Kawhi Leonard, Kyrie Irving, Klay Thompson, Jimmy Butler, Devin Booker (restricted), and Kevin Durant. Stretching Noah only makes sense if they have a commitment from a truly max worthy player.

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If the Knicks can’t land a star in 2019, they can simply choose to wait until the summer of 2020 when Joakim Noah’s contract comes off the salary cap. Patience is on the Knicks side here. They will have Kristaps Porzingis, in theory, signed to a long term contract to go along with developing lottery picks and a young roster.

As much as Knicks fans may love players like Kyle O’Quinn and Enes Kanter, the team is far better off letting those players walk away than spending much needed future cap space on two guys that are no better than bench players on a good team. It’s important the team identifies what truly difference making players look like and focus on giving themselves the best opportunity of acquiring them.

Hoarding cap space for a star player is more often a foolhardy strategy that can backfire than it is a true path to championship contention but the Knicks have little choice but to try. Operating under the assumption that Porzingis is at worst good enough to be the second best player on a contending team, the Knicks need figure out a way to find a second star to pair with him.

There’s a chance they might find that player in the draft next year (or perhaps Frank Ntilikina or Kevin Knox develop into it) but it is unlikely. What the Knicks have to do is give themselves as many opportunities as possible to land that second star. They need to keep all their draft picks until they find that player. They also can’t spend all their cap space on support players on long term contracts (like Tim Hardaway Jr.) before acquiring that second star.

It is similar to what Daryl Morey did with the Rockets, not taking on large contracts and reserving assets and cap space until a star became available. It doesn’t mean the Knicks can’t compete, much like the Rockets did pre-James Harden, but they need to maintain their flexibility and gather assets so they can make the right deal when the time is right. That sort of flexibility might also include taking on bad contracts into available cap space with future assets as the price for salary dumps. Scott Perry and Steve Mills have to be willing to be creative.

As the Knicks look for a player to pair with Porzingis, the obvious prototype is a ball dominant scoring guard. Frank Ntilikina, even in his best projection, is a pass first tertiary scorer that plays good defense and hits open jump shots. Kevin Knox could develop into an able scoring wing or small ball power forward. That group is still missing someone that can really initiate the offense and create for themselves and others.

Does that sound like someone? It should. It sounds like Kyrie Irving. He can run an offense and score as well as anyone in the league. There are risks. Irving will be 27 next summer and has dealt with a lot of serious injuries that have taken him off the floor for the playoffs. He also doesn’t play a lot of defense. He does, however, fit into what the Knicks need.

Irving, who has been vocal about wanting to come home to the tri-state area (he grew up in New Jersey), seems like the most realistic shot for a star to come to the Knicks since Anthony forced his way to New York back in 2011. Whether it comes to fruition remains to be seen, but he will represent the first opportunity for the Knicks to get a star to pair with Kristaps Porzingis. If it doesn’t work, the Knicks shouldn’t just settle for the next best guy like they did with Amar’e Stoudemire. They need to find the right guy, even if it means waiting.

It could take a lot of patience, but for the first time the Knicks front office appears ready to wait for the right time to pounce. Fans are going to have to do the same. The 2018-2019 season is going to be a rough one to watch, but it is a necessary step for the Knicks to get where they want to go. It will be a quiet summer so the Knicks won’t have quiet seasons for the next decade. No news will be good news.

You can follow me on twitter at twitter.com/schmeelk for everything Knicks, Giants and the world of sports.