With five years and counting outside the playoffs, there doesn’t seem to a quick end in sight for the New York Knicks. And with so many negative assets and quite a bit of dead money clogging up their books, the Knicks won’t be particularly active on the free agency market this year as they bide their time for some of their current contracts to expire. Still, there are plenty of decisions for management to navigate this summer, starting with today’s NBA Draft and extending to their mid-level exception and extension negotiations for Kristaps Porzingis.
In the immediate term, there is a lot of turmoil surrounding the Knicks’ draft pick, slated at No. 9 later today. Reports from ESPN’s Jonathan Givony indicate that New York is actively seeking a deal to move up, particularly to the Grizzlies’ No. 4. New York would love to add a high-end center next to Porzingis, whose best position is probably the 5 but who also lacks the physicality to play there full-time. Now dealing with a torn ACL and a consistent theme of wearing down as the NBA season progresses, the Knicks may try to go with a dual big man approach, especially if both players can shoot and defend. Porzingis has shown that he can play in the post and in pick-and-pop situations, so it’s not imperative that his frontcourt partner be able to do the same things, but it never hurts to have more shooting on the floor. Givony mentions Mohamed Bamba has a key name to watch as the Knicks try to move up later today.
To make a deal work with Memphis, the Knicks would likely have to take on Chandler Parsons’ behemoth contract. Parsons is scheduled to make $49.2 million over the next two years on a bloated 2016 contract with which the Knicks aren’t unfamiliar—they have one of those themselves in Joakim Noah. New York would have to send out $19.1 million in salary in order to match Parsons’ deal in a trade, but it’s unclear whom Memphis would want from the Knicks and involving a third team this late in the process might be difficult. A trade might start with Tim Hardaway Jr. and his $17.3 million for 2018-19 and including a lower-end player like Trey Burke just for matching purposes, but Hardaway’s contract extends until 2021 and doesn’t help the Grizzlies turn around a rebuild quickly. Memphis could take on the aforementioned Noah, who makes about $5.5 million less per season than Parsons over the same timeframe, but would Memphis be amenable to a swap that moves probably-dead money in Parsons (due to his consistent fragility when it comes to injuries but decent play when he’s out there) to absolutely-dead money in Noah? Unless New York was willing to throw in more future assets, Memphis probably doesn’t do that one.
Assuming they stay put at No. 9, New York will begin their summer with almost exactly $101 million in team salary. Enes Kanter has a player option for his $18.6 million that would create significant cap space for the Knicks should he choose to leave that money on the table, but it seems highly unlikely that path will come to fruition. If the Knicks do find a center in the draft and Kanter sees a home for himself elsewhere, he may opt out in an attempt to find a better basketball situation, but there will be no better financial situation than picking up his option to remain with the Knicks. Kanter’s contract will expire after the 2018-19 season, which could open up some space for them despite 8-figure deals for Noah, Hardaway, and Courtney Lee. They could also roll that 2019 space over to 2020, when Noah and Lee come off the books, but 2020 is expected to see more teams with cap space across the league, so they’d have more competitors for their key signings.
New York doesn’t have a strong crop of incumbent free agents this summer, so they’ll be looking elsewhere to add to their team. Using the $8.6 million mid-level exception, the Knicks will be able to sign an impactful player in this market, but they’ll have to be uncharacteristically wise with their decision making. While things can obviously change, the Knicks have been heavily linked with forward Kevin Knox in the draft, both by Givony at ESPN and Sam Vecenie at The Athletic, which would leave an opening in the backcourt for their mid-level exception signing. Depending on how they feel about Frank Ntilikina’s full-time move to the point guard position, the Knicks could go after a combo guard in free agency—somebody who can play with Ntilikina or run the offense when the youngster sits. New York has Emmanuel Mudiay and Trey Burke as backup point guards already on the roster, but neither player inspires particular confidence in being able to remain efficient and make his teammates better in that spot. A few mid-level targets for the Knicks would include Malcolm Delaney, who will likely be an unrestricted free agent, Devin Harris, and Tyreke Evans, along with restricted players Yogi Ferrell, David Nwaba, and Fred VanVleet. If they’d rather put their money into a wing, Joe Harris, Treveon Graham, and James Ennis could be names to watch.
Further down the line, New York will open extension talks with Porzingis, who is still recovering from a February ACL tear and does not yet have a firm timetable for a return. Owner James Dolan recently told the New York Post that Porzingis could miss the entire 2018-19 season, which would certainly throw a wrench in negotiations, both for a possible extension and his restricted free agency next summer. At his peak, Porzingis is absolutely worth a max extension, but with this knee injury and lingering questions about his ability to stay in shape throughout the season, New York may try to wrangle a discount out of him, especially in a preseason extension, with the knowledge that they can always come back and try again next summer. In terms of maximizing 2019 cap space, the Knicks would be wise to leave his $17.1 million cap hold on their books rather than sign an extension, then come to an agreement in free agency a little more than a year from now. If both sides are confident he’s a max player and will continue to be in the wake of his recovery, then that would save the team more than $8 million in cap space next summer.
New York has spent the last two summers splurging wildly on outside free agents, but we shouldn’t see anything like that from them this year unless Kanter unexpectedly opts out. For a team with an abhorrently bad contract (Noah) and multiple overpaid players (Kanter, Hardaway, Lee), the Knicks have a remarkably stable financial situation, with no real concerns about the luxury tax and three budding young stars in Porzingis, Ntilikina, and whomever they select with No. 9 in the draft. While the immediate future doesn’t hold much competitiveness for New York, the long-term upside for this team is strong.