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Can the Knicks Make a Big Splash in 2019 Free Agency?

Yaron Weitzman@YaronWeitzmanFeatured ColumnistJuly 6, 2018

NEW YORK, NY - MAY 8: Steve Mills, David Fizdale and Scott Perry of the New York Knicks during a press conference announcing David Fizdale as the new head coach on May 8, 2018 at Madison Square Garden in New York City, New York.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2018 NBAE  (Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images)
Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

Since taking the reins last year, New York Knicks team president Steve Mills and general manager Scott Perry have been consistent and clear about their plan for fixing the franchise: They'd take two seasons to clear cap space and build an infrastructure. Then they'd storm into the summer of 2019 with the foundation and cash to lure one of the plethora of stars on market.

It's not the most innovative strategy—The Process, this is not—but it's a sound one, and, perhaps more importantly, one they've remained committed to. Aside from Tim Hardaway Jr. (who is a rather big aside, but the merits of that contract are a discussion for another day), Mills and Perry have refused to ink any player to a deal that extends beyond 2019-20.

All of which is great. But if there's anything we've learned over the past week of free agency, it's the Knicks are far from the only team that's circled July 2019 on their calendars.

Cap flexibility has become the thing that all the cool kids are doing. As of Thursday morning, 28 of the 45 contracts that have been agreed upon since July 1 (remember, contracts can't officially be signed until July 6) have been one-year deals.

Tim Hardaway Jr.
Tim Hardaway Jr.Matt Slocum/Associated Press

One reason: The Warriors have scared teams into planning for the future instead of chasing titles in the present. Another: A large number of those ludicrous contracts that were signed following the cap spike in 2016 (hello, Timofey Mozgov's four years and $64 million) are coming off the books.

And another: There's a glut of stars who will hunt for new deals next summer, and the group will likely include big names such as Kevin Durant (player option), Kyrie Irving (player option), Jimmy Butler (player option), Klay Thompson, Kemba Walker and DeMarcus Cousins.

And one more: Next year's cap, after two stagnant years, will leap from $101.9 million to a projected $109 million, and might, as one team cap expert posited, wind up climbing a bit higher thanks to the additional revenue generated from LeBron James' move to the Los Angeles Lakers and the legalization of gambling.

Take all this and you end up with a market where around a third of the league will likely to have enough cap room to compete with Knicks for these studs. These teams will include LeBron's Lakers, the rising Philadelphia 76ers, Jerry West's Los Angeles Clippers and even the Knicks' neighbors in Brooklyn, who will have enough cap room to afford two max guys.

In other words: The competition includes big-market teams with equal, if not more, glitz. 

This doesn't necessarily mean the Knicks' plan is doomed. However, the way this summer's free agency has played out will force Mills and Perry to dangle additional incentives. The ability to write a check combined with the supposed lure of New York City is unlikely to be enough.

First, though, they have work to do before they can offer a max deal, which is projected to be around $33 million. We can assume they'll stretch Joakim Noah's contract sometime between now and next summer. Finding a taker for Courtney Lee—who's owed about $25 million over the next two years—would help, too. This should not be difficult. Lee's three-and-D skill set from the wing is something any contender that's chasing the Warriors would welcome. 

The biggest cap-space boon for the Knicks would be convincing Kristaps Porzingis to wait for next summer to sign his max deal. Of course, it'd be understandable if Porzingis, given his torn ACL and the reluctance any employee would have if asked put to an employer's future before their own, declined this route.

Will the Knicks and Kristaps Porzingis be on the same page when planning for his next contract?
Will the Knicks and Kristaps Porzingis be on the same page when planning for his next contract?Julie Jacobson/Associated Press/Associated Press

Still, it's safe to say it'd be a shock if the Knicks didn't enter 2019 with something like $30 million in cap space.

That will get them in the room with the whales. And a few of them will no doubt be keenly interested in what the Knicks have to pitch. Irving, remember, told the Cavaliers last year the Knicks were one of the four teams he was interested in joining because they're close to his hometown of West Orange, New Jersey. Walker was born and bred in the Bronx. 

And then there's Durant, who will no doubt be Target No. 1. And before you scoff at the idea and label this as yet another example of a New York sports team's assuming every star from every city wants to play for it, consider the context and the man. It doesn't take much imagination to envision a scenario where Durant leaves Golden State.

Maybe he and the Warriors coast to a third straight title. Perhaps Durant, a man who clearly thinks about how the public views him, decides he wants a greater challenge, the opportunity to be viewed as LeBron's equal and to stop taking pay cuts for the benefit of Silicon Valley billionaires. So he decides the best path to accomplishing all this is by joining a new team—one not coming off a 73-win season—where his triumphs would be given more weight. Being the Knicks' savior would check all those boxes. It's also worth mentioning his manager, Rich Kleiman, is a New York native and vocal Knicks fan.

But none of this will mean anything if the Knicks roster doesn't take a leap forward this season, and one big enough where players such as Durant and Irving can envision competing for titles if they signed there.

The good news for the Knicks is the foundation is in place. Or, rather, the upside is. Porzingis proved last season that when on the floor he's one of the league's most explosive scorers. Kevin Knox is an intriguing prospect. They'll probably have another top-10 pick next summer. 

The key, though, could be Frank Ntilikina.

Ntilikina, who won't turn 20 until later this month, is already one of the NBA's top perimeter defenders. He's also grown at least an inch and is probably closer to 6'7" than his listed 6'5", which, combined with his Inspector Gadget-like arms, will make him a terror on that end of the floor.

His offense was raw last season, but, remember: Thanks to his French basketball league schedule and a bruised knee that kept him off the floor during last year's summer league, he entered his rookie year having spent little time preparing his offense for the NBA game. Also, the intricacies of player development wasn't something former Knicks head coach Jeff Hornacek stressed last year. Ntilikina, for example, didn't begin spending extra time on his finishes at the rim until late in the season.

If Knicks second-year guard Frank Ntilikina doesn't show signs of progress next season, that could factor into New York's 2019 free-agency plans.
If Knicks second-year guard Frank Ntilikina doesn't show signs of progress next season, that could factor into New York's 2019 free-agency plans.Julie Jacobson/Associated Press/Associated Press

This offseason has been different. Ntilikina is getting stronger. He's working on his handle. Hornacek's replacement, David Fizdale, has him in the gym practicing his finishes. His stroke is fluid enough that most scouts and coaches expect him to improve on the 31.8 percent he shot from deep last season. And, as Chris Herring, then of the Wall Street Journal, pointed out in 2015, European players have a history of struggling as rookies to connect from the NBA's deeper three-point line before they see their percentages dramatically improve as their careers progress.

The potential is there for Ntilikina to morph into a sort of super-secondary player who'd be a perfect fit alongside Porzingis and another star. But the Knicks need him to show prolonged improvement this season. And for Porzingis to come back from his ACL tear and prove he's the same player. And for Fizdale to show he's learned from his mistakes in Memphis.

Because as much as the Knicks have preached patience these past couple of years, don't expect that to remain the case. This upcoming season will likely be the last one where Mills and Perry aren't judged from above for the team's on-court results. The pressure will come. In owner James Dolan's world, it always does.

That's the danger of constructing a team around the hope that one superstar will swoop in and save you. It leads to expectations, and, often, poor decisions if things don't go as planned. The Knicks experienced this firsthand in 2010 when, after failing to lure LeBron, they handed the decaying Amar'e Stoudemire a five-year, uninsured $100 million deal. 

Next summer will be full of similar landmines. That's what happens when there's more demand for something (in this case, a star) than supply. That doesn't mean the Knicks can't succeed with this strategy. 

It does mean, though, it will likely be the moves Mills and Perry will have made in the lead-up to next July that will make or break their plan.

           

Yaron Weitzman covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow Yaron on Twitter @YaronWeitzman, listen to his Knicks-themed podcast here and sign up for his newsletter here. Cap info via Basketball Insiders and RealGM unless otherwise noted.

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