The New York Knicks are the only team left with double-max space (at least, right now), after their crosstown rivals have reportedly worked out a deal with Kyrie Irving ahead of free agency starting later today (though, if we’re being serious, free agency has been going on for weeks now). After the league released their salary cap projections, the Knicks are projected to go into the summer with $69.95 million in cap space which includes retaining the non-guaranteed contract of Damyean Dotson. How they split that money up will be fascinating, particularly if the big names decide to sign elsewhere.
The best path for the Knicks, of course, is to sign both Kevin Durant and Kawhi Leonard to form another superteam in the Eastern Conference. There’s no special analysis to add here – if New York can add two of the three or four best players in the world, they do it. Durant’s injury is a concern, of course, as he would earn more than $38 million next season and likely would not suit up at all. Filling out their roster would be somewhat difficult at that stage, as they’d still have a few holes to plug with their Room Exception and minimum contracts.
The first order of business would be the center position, as Mitchell Robinson may not quite be ready to take on the starting role full-time next season. At the very least, they’d want to spend that Room Exception to get a starting-level big man on the squad who could play big minutes while Robinson has foul trouble, which will be an issue for him if he’s playing a lot. Robin Lopez has already been linked to the team and would be a strong addition, though he’s likely to command more than the Knicks can pay him under that exception. Kevon Looney would be another good option, though the Warriors would likely match an offer sheet at the Room Exception for Looney, considering they wouldn’t have massive tax concerns if Durant left.
What happens if they don’t sign one or both of those elite free agents is very interesting. They would likely see what those guys do before proceeding; if Leonard takes a 1+1 in Toronto and will be on the market again next summer, the Knicks will keep the powder dry and hope to land another meeting with him in 2020. Durant and Leonard both taking multi-year contracts to either stay home or go to another team (the Clippers can clear double-max space for the pair), then things become more difficult for New York, as they’d be tasked with filling out a roster with a ton of money to spend and no real reason to go the one-year contract route again, as the 2020 free agent class is not a particularly good one.
Should they strike out on the bigger names, they’re already connected to a slew of mid-tier free agents, from Julius Randle to Bobby Portis to Terry Rozier. Those players are all likely looking for multi-year pacts with their new teams and the Knicks could certainly afford to offer much more than almost any other team, particularly if they want to front-load those salaries and even overpay a bit in order to get some non-guarantees or a team option in the final year. That way, the club could keep their options open in the later part of the contract, whether to trade or move on from those guys in a few years.
The links to Randle and Portis make sense from a team-building perspective, since New York has an opening at both big man spots and could use the offensive production those guys bring to the table. The rest of their projected starting lineup (Dennis Smith, R.J. Barrett, Kevin Knox, and Mitchell Robinson) is full of young and unproven players, so signing a player like Randle or Portis to be an offensive fulcrum and give them a go-to scoring option would make things easier on the young guys.
Behind Smith at the point guard spot, they’re left with just Frank Ntilikina, who has mostly fallen out of favor with the Knicks and may not complete the season with the club, if they can find a trade they like later on in the summer or into the regular season. Putting money into the point guard spot in the form of Rozier would be interesting, with the added benefit of pushing Smith to the bench, where he could develop in a low-pressure role. Rozier’s lack of basketball intelligence and immensely poor shot selection would be a poor fit in New York, though he’d certainly find teammates with a similar view toward shot selection in Knox and Barrett. Going with a stopgap player with more playmaking and floor spacing acumen makes more sense for the Knicks, as they’ve been linked to George Hill in recent days. Hill is a better player than Rozier but doesn’t quite fit the timeline of the rest of their team. Still, he would be a very good addition as a shooter and secondary playmaker who could bring a veteran presence to a very young locker room. Evaluating which of their young guys around which they should build is also made much easier when they have competent point guard play.
New York will be going for the best players on the open market in Leonard and Durant and those guys will determine the rest of their summer, whether they choose to join the Knicks or not. A short-term deal for Leonard would open the door to recruiting him in 2020, particularly if they feel the meeting with his representatives went well but he wants to return to Toronto in order to defend the title in 2019-20. The worst-case scenario still isn’t all that bad for the Knicks, as they have a slew of interesting young players and a bunch of future draft picks to either use to continue to build their team or trade down the line for a star or two.