Knicks Wonder Who's Really Worth a Max Contract After Kevin Durant Injury

Yaron Weitzman@YaronWeitzmanFeatured ColumnistJune 12, 2019

NEW YORK, NY - OCTOBER 26:  Kevin Durant #35 of the Golden State Warriors in action against the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden on October 26, 2018 in New York City. 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. Golden State Warriors defeated the New York Knicks 128-100.  (Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images)
Mike Stobe/Getty Images

We've been talking about the potential of Kevin Durant signing with the New York Knicks for more than a year. We've all heard the rumors. You can't even qualify them as whispers anymore.

The Knicks have done plenty to fuel these fires. There was the decision in late January to ship off the previous savior, Kristaps Porzingis, to the Dallas Mavericks for draft picks and cap relief. About two months later, Knicks president Steve Mills and general manager Scott Perry sent an email to season ticket holders explaining the move.

"We have created a tremendous amount of financial flexibility, which has put us in a position to potentially sign up to two max free agents," the letter offered as part of the rational.

And that was just a few weeks after Madison Square Garden Chairman James Dolan went on The Michael Kay Show and proclaimed, "We hear from people all the time, from players and representatives about who wants to come…I can tell you, from what we've heard, I think we're going to have a very successful offseason when it comes to free agents." 

NEW YORK, NY - OCTOBER 26:  Kevin Durant #35 of the Golden State Warriors in action against the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden on October 26, 2018 in New York City. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or
Mike Stobe/Getty Images

Neither Mills nor Perry nor Dolan has stated as much, but it was clear Durant was the primary target. And why wouldn't he be? When healthy, he's perhaps the best player in the NBA. But now he's injured, likely with an Achilles tear, likely one that will sideline him for at least a year. Who knows if he'll ever be the same.

Many seem to believe this means the Knicks' latest rebuilding plans have failed, that their future is once again grim. You've no doubt both heard and read this view over the past 24 hours. It's an understandable leap to make, but it's also one that misses the point.

As we saw with LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers this past year, even the greatest players can't single-handedly turn franchises around. In other words: The Durant injury might alter the Knicks' options, but the goal remains the same.

For the past two years, Mills and Perry have stated repeatedly that things are different with them in charge. They say that they're changing the "culture" within Madison Square Garden and that they want to build a championship-level team, one that's capable of contenting for years.

Reeling in a healthy Durant may have presented the quickest path, but it wasn't the only way for this current Knicks regime to prove itself. That's why this offseason will be such a revealing one for the Knicks. Come August, we'll know what the priorities are. 

The options will be plentiful, and the first choice is whether to chase Durant, no matter what his upcoming MRI reveals. The Knicks also wouldn't be the only team doing so.

NBA insider Bobby Marks said Tuesday on ESPN's Get Up! that he spoke with "three teams" who all said that, if they had cap space, they'd hand Durant a max deal without hesitation. (Not that Marks needs my confirmation, but I was told similar things in conversations with league executives.) That Wesley Matthews was able to fetch a four-year, $70 million deal from the Dallas Mavericks in July 2015, just four months after tearing his Achilles, supports this case.

Wesley Matthews during his brief stay with the Knicks.
Wesley Matthews during his brief stay with the Knicks.Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

But this would be a dangerous road to head down. The history of players returning from serious Achilles injuries is not promising. Cases of full recoveries, like with Dominique Wilkins and Rudy Gay, seem to be exceptions to the rule. Durant, remember, is 30 years old, around seven feet tall, with 12 NBA seasons—many of them long—on his odometer.

Maybe he returns to form. But the odds seem to be against him.

There will be nearly a dozen other All-Star-caliber players available on the free-agent market, but only a few make sense for a retooling team like the Knicks. Kawhi Leonard is obviously worthy of a max. Kyrie Irving is a less certain investment but one you wouldn't fault the Knicks for making. The cases for Kemba Walker and Jimmy Butler are even weaker, but again, you could understand the rationale.

Yet as free agency inches close, it's hard to see the Knicks landing any of those guys. Is Kawhi really going to leave the Toronto Raptors? If he does, most seem to believe that it'd be for the Los Angeles Clippers in his native California. The Charlotte Hornets can offer Walker $80 million more than any other team, and he's made his intentions clear. "Charlotte's definitely my first priority," he recently told The Athletic's Jared Weiss.

All signs point to Irving choosing Brooklyn over Manhattan. And if Butler did decide to leave a Philadelphia 76ers team that could pay him more than anyone else, why would he choose the Knicks over LeBron and the Lakers or a Clippers team coming off a scrappy playoff run?

This is where the Knicks' front office will be most tested. Perry's preference in such a scenario, according to league sources, would be to pass on second- and third-tier "stars" like Nikola Vucevic, Khris Middleton, Tobias Harris and DeMarcus Cousins, overpay Marcus Morris types on one-year deals to maintain cap flexibility and remain "opportunistic," a word Perry employs often.

He holds up the haul received for Porzingis, a player who had demanded a trade—two first-round picks, plus Dennis Smith Jr., plus the dumping of a pair of bad contracts—as an example.

Rolling over the cap space and focusing on their young players (specifically whoever they use the third overall pick on in a few weeks) would without a doubt be the right move. Given how weak the 2020 free-agent class is, the best path would be using the cap room to absorb bad contracts for the price of a draft pick—like the Brooklyn Nets did—and build up a war chest to trade for a star.

Perry has made clear he has no intention of building a team with a sub-50-win ceiling. He points to little signs of progress, like the front office and coaching staff all operating on the same page and better relationships with agents and the the rest of the league.

Knicks executives maintain Dolan has empowered Mills and Perry to build the team as they see fit. They don't need to sign a superstar to prove that point. 

         

Yaron Weitzman covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow Yaron on Twitter, @YaronWeitzman, and sign up for his newsletter here.

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