Which Free-Agent Duo Should the Knicks Actually Target?

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistFebruary 6, 2019

Which Free-Agent Duo Should the Knicks Actually Target?

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    As a rule of thumb, the New York Knicks never deserve the benefit of the doubt. They've done nothing to earn it over the past two decades. So, when they traded Kristaps Porzingis to the Dallas Mavericks, it wasn't just fair but also necessary to question their logic.

    New York received quite the haul for Porzingis. No one's denying that. Dallas sent over Dennis Smith Jr., a 2017 top-10 pick with two years left on his rookie-scale contract; an unprotected 2021 first-round pick; a 2023 first-round pick with top-10 protection; and two expiring contracts in DeAndre Jordan and Wesley Matthews. The Knicks also parted with Trey Burke and the money left on deals for Tim Hardaway Jr. (two years, $39.0 million) and Courtney Lee ($12.8 million).

    Completing this trade basically assured the Knicks of two superstar-contract slots over the summer. Pencil them in for the No. 1 pick, and they'll have about $68.6 million in cap space if they keep Smith, Kevin Knox, Frank Ntilikina, Mitchell Robinson and Allonzo Trier (team option until June 20).

    That's more than enough to offer two Kyrie Irving-level salaries ($65.4 million) but roughly $2.2 million shy of maxes for Kevin Durant ($38.2 million) and another star. If they end up with anything lower than the No. 2 pick, it would just about make up the difference. Otherwise, New York could decline Trier's option, reroute another player for cap space or hope its prized targets are willing to accept teensy-tiny, itsy-bitsy pay cuts.

    Point being: The Knicks' may have long ago squandered goodwill, but their latest pipe dream is functionally possible. It might even be likely.

    Most teams wouldn't cut bait with Porzingis—a potential top-25 player when healthy—for cap space unless they knew something. The move suggested New York has someone—or someones—already in the bag. (Well, that, or it did this on a whim, which verges on franchise malpractice if Porzingis goes boom in Dallas.)

    Naturally, then, we have to rank the best possible outcomes for this two-star swing. While doing so, we will cater to the most realistic scenarios. Get ready for a lot of Durant, because he's linked to the Knicks more than any other name. You won't see Klay Thompson, who's unlikely to leave the Golden State Warriors or Tier 2 consolation prizes who won't warrant max money (Tobias Harris, Khris Middleton, etc.).

5. Jimmy Butler and Kyrie Irving

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    ESPN.com's Zach Lowe this offseason reported Jimmy Butler and Kyrie Irving were interested in playing together. The Knicks have the flexibility to make it happen.

    Worth noting: The Philadelphia 76ers could, too. Offloading Markelle Fultz, Zhaire Smith and their own first-round pick would get them within $700,000 of Irving's max. They can make up the rest if Butler accepts a starting salary of $30 million or less in exchange for a five-year deal or by dumping Jonah Bolden or T.J. McConnell.

    Teaming up on the Sixers might be preferable. They're already a contender. The Knicks are trying to assemble one from scratch.

    Lackluster postseason showings by the Sixers and the Boston Celtics would be crucial to the Knicks' pitch. It'll be a lot harder to poach someone who's coming off an Eastern Conference Finals or NBA Finals cameo.

    Butler and Irving would strike a nice offensive balance. Crunch-time touches might be an issue, but the Knicks don't have another primary ball-handler to eat into their usage. Neither Dennis Smith Jr. nor Allonzo Trier nor Kevin Knox is taking priority over either of them.

    That should resonate with both stars. Butler has to contend with Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. Irving is the alpha in the Boston machine, but the pecking order will get crowded if the Celtics don't consolidate Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum and Gordon Hayward into other assets.

    Some might place this pairing higher. But moving it up any more than one spot would be too much. The duo comfortably bested a Butler-Kawhi Leonard partnership, which would want for a top-shelf passer, but the collective health bill of this dyad is troublesome.

    Irving (three) and Butler (one) have undergone four knee surgeries between them. The latter, meanwhile, will turn 30 in September and has Tom Thibodeau miles on his body.

4. Kevin Durant and Kemba Walker

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    Chuck Burton/Associated Press

    Few players deserve a co-star more than Kemba Walker. The Charlotte Hornets are trying to get him Marc Gasol, according to Shams Charania of The Athletic and Stadium, but a big man with a $25.6 million player option for his age-35 season ain't it.

    Kevin Durant runs laps around anyone with whom Walker has ever played. His own passing affords point guards the opportunity to dabble in off-ball movement and shooting. Walker is seldom granted that chance. Only Durant and James Harden are averaging more pull-up jumpers per game this season.

    Though the chemistry may not be instantaneous, the fit isn't awkward. Walker is hitting under 34 percent of his catch-and-fire threes, but his efficiency will climb along with the quality of his shots.

    Partnering Durant with a point guard who's comfortable scoring off the dribble and moving without the ball is just good business. It might even be why New York opened a second max slot in the first place. Bleacher Report's Ric Bucher reported the Knicks have "a strong chance" of landing Durant, and it makes sense they'd want to ensure he doesn't have to be their offensive be-all or play beside a ball-dominant guard with untested or underwhelming spacing chops.

    Walker's next deal is a potential problem. He will turn 29 in May, and paying undersize point guards max-ish money into their 30s is not foolproof. But his contract may not actually look so bad.

    A four-year deal that includes a player option at the end would put Walker back on the market in 2022, after his age-31 season. He'd be coming off his age-32 campaign if he stayed for the whole thing. That's not absurdly old. Besides, since he ended up on a discounted extension with Charlotte, Walker might be itching to re-explore the landscape even sooner. A two-plus-one contract would mitigate the risk for the Knicks.

    Mostly, though, Walker is really good. That his efficiency hasn't fallen off a cliff while he serves as the Hornets' all-everything lifeline is a big deal. They've built a competent offense around him taking and making ridiculously tough shots without the threat of first-rate shooters to bail him out.

    Imagine what he could do beside Durant if he tires of the never-ending, one-star grind in Charlotte.

3. Kyrie Irving and Kawhi Leonard

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    Whether Kawhi Leonard would consider the Knicks if he leaves the Toronto Raptors is up for debate.

    The Los Angeles Clippers are viewed as the most serious threat to steal his services. League executives placed them ahead of the Los Angeles Lakers in an informal November poll conducted by ESPN.com's Tim Bontemps, and during a September spot on Mason and Ireland, ESPN.com's Ramona Shelburne said the Clippers topped Leonard's list of preferred free-agent spots.

    Still, the Knicks sort of made his short list when he first requested a trade from the San Antonio Spurs. The bandwidth to pair him with another top-10 player could put them in play this summer.

    Kyrie Irving is the safety net Leonard has yet to have during his superstar heyday. (Kyle Lowry comes pretty close.) Leonard is now accustomed to working on the ball, and the Raptors are traveling great lengths to keep it that way. But having another killer-instinct scorer as an outlet would simplify his role.

    Linking up with Irving wouldn't relegate Leonard back to his accessory days. It would be the middle ground. More of his looks could come on spot-up attempts, on which he's posting an effective field-goal percentage north of 60, and Irving would be the best closer he has ever played beside.

    Another drop in usage might do Leonard some good. He's not shouldering 2016-17's workload all over again, but he's a tick slower when defending in the half-court—perhaps a byproduct of last year's quadriceps injury. Having him play off one of the league's premier scorers would save him a ton of energy.

    It'd help, too, that neither Irving nor Leonard will be older than 28 when next season tips off. Every other pairing up for consideration has one player entering his age-30 campaign.

2. Kevin Durant and Kawhi Leonard

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    Here's hoping Kawhi Leonard doesn't hold grudges.

    Kevin Durant essentially called him a system player in June 2014. He then followed that comment with your run-of-the-mill non-apology. This all happened just after Leonard earned Finals MVP honors. Which, yikes.

    However!

    Durant was singing a different tune by March 2016. He made it clear Leonard wasn't a system player. All was well...for like a second.

    "No, I don't," Durant said in 2016 when asked whether he regrets his comments from 2014. "I mean, at the time, you know, I didn't even call him a system player. I just said Paul George was better. I liked Paul George better as a player. I could be a fan of the game, too. One of my guys was debating with me and said that [Leonard] was better than Paul George at the time, and I didn't think so. I'm not taking it back. I said that the system is the reason why he's out there—you know, [Gregg Popovich] put him in great positions to be the player that he is. So, no, I don't regret it at all."

    Oh.

    But also: Pish posh. Durant's second non-apology was almost three years ago. It's water under the bridge. Even though Kawhi's idle Twitter account was created in 2014, we can't be sure he knew social media existed before 2018.

    Anyway, that Durant stuff happened a lifetime ago in NBA years. It isn't enough to derail this pick. Short of a trade for Anthony Davis after striking gold in free agency—which is logistically possible—no other potential duo would give the Knicks a realistic shot at housing two top-five players. It really is that simple.

    New York can figure out the "But neither one is a point guard!" obstacle later. Durant has looked the part of a point forward more than ever this season, and the Knicks can snag a veteran floor general on the cheap—someone like George Hill, perhaps, who'll most likely be waived by the Milwaukee Bucks.

1. Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving

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    Kyrie Irving won't be happy his name is getting dropped a third time. It rubs him the wrong way when other people talk about his future, per Sports Illustrated's Chris Mannix. His comments to the media ahead of Boston's Feb. 1 victory over New York reflected as much.

    "This is a new position for me to be in, answering all these questions—all this stuff that I'm trying to avoid—and it's just a distraction," he said, per ESPN.com's Ian Begley. "It's crazy how things and storylines can seep into a locker room. You guys are part of the destruction of locker rooms, and that's just what it is."

    Grandpa Drew can gripe all he wants. He has some legitimate complaints. But this rumor mill wouldn't exist without his own abstract comments, criticism of teammates and decision to let the world know he apologized to LeBron James for aspects of his behavior in Cleveland. Just saying.

    Regardless, Irving cannot avoid this hypothetical. He and Durant are the pairing. The Knicks dredged up two max slots with signing both in mind, according to The Athletic's Frank Isola.

    Listing anyone ahead of this combination feels wrong. Irving is more ball-dominant than Stephen Curry, but the fit should be relatively seamless between the former and Durant. Their pick-and-rolls would be just as dangerous, and there would be those who'd argue Irving is harder to defend down the stretch of close games. (I'm not one of them.)

    There's also something familial and symmetric about this twosome. Durant called Irving "one of my best friends" while speaking with The Athletic's Shams Charania in December. They could be what the Cleveland Cavaliers thought they had in LeBron and Kyrie: a duo with a shelf life that extend's beyond the elder's prime.

    Going on 27 (in March), Irving is young enough to take the reins from Durant in a few years as the primary scorer but old enough to understand that's not really a concession. His apology to James is nothing if not proof he grasps the bigger picture.

    On top of that, getting Irving at all would give the Knicks a leg up in the Anthony Davis sweepstakes if they leak into the summer. The two are known friends, and while Davis already identified New York as a preferred destination, per Charania, the chance to join a pair of top-10 players would be far more compelling than syncing up with an aging LeBron on a Los Angeles Lakers team that probably won't have another All-NBA talent.

       

    Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of NBA.com or Basketball Reference and accurate through Monday. Salary and cap-hold information via Basketball Insiders and RealGM.

    Dan Favale covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter (@danfavale) and listen to hisHardwood Knocks podcast, co-hosted by SLC Dunk's Andrew Bailey.