It's so hard to sift through all the NBA noise these days to determine what's real and what's fake, what's true and what's just being deployed as leverage. Which is to say: You never know what might happen. Still, with the official start of the free-agency moratorium period just hours away, it seems there's a decent chance the New York Knicks could whiff on all their primary free-agent targets.
Kyrie Irving is close to an agreement with the Brooklyn Nets, according to ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski. Kemba Walker is all but certain to sign with the Boston Celtics, according The Athletic and Stadium's Shams Charania. A pairing of Kevin Durant and Kawhi Leonard appears to be in play, according to ESPN's Wojnarowski and Ramona Shelburne. But no one would label the Knicks as favorites for either play.
All of which raises the question: If the Knicks whiff, where do they go from here?
There's no easy answer. That, however, doesn't mean that promising paths don't exist. For a team like the Knicks, one playing in a market capable of luring and seducing stars, the primary goal should be securing an All-NBA-caliber player. Years of NBA history tell us that such players present the best route toward a championship, and that once you have one, it's easier to attract the second.
In other words, the Knicks should be viewing this as an algebra problem. We know the answer (securing a star) and one of the variables (the team's current core). The difficulty is figuring out what "X" represents.
The good news for Knicks fans is that management appears to be working off this equation. Knicks president Steve Mills and general manager Scott Perry have made it clear they don't plan on locking up second-tier free agents to max-level deals. That's a break from past regimes and one worth commending.
But what then? Listing restrictions isn't the same as drawing up a plan. This, for the Knicks, is where things get tricky.
The easy response is the one the team's been pushing—that it plans on doling out enticing one-year offers to mid-level free agents. Maybe Marcus Morris. Maybe Terry Rozier. You can pick whomever else you want here. And now, with the flattened lottery odds, you can hover around 30 wins and still land top draft picks. Doing so would allow New York to avoid a repeat of last year's 17-win campaign, perhaps helping fend off the invasive hands.
The Knicks could then roll over their cap space and try chasing A-list free agents again next summer. Sounds like a solid plan, right? Here's the problem: Assuming Anthony Davis elects to remain in L.A. and that Durant opts for a long-term deal this summer, there's not anyone hitting the market next July who's capable of being the best player on a championship team. Look at this list. Draymond Green might be the best of the crop.
Instead, Mills and Perry are going to have to get creative. One of the things we've learned over the past few seasons is that things in today's league change fast. Partnerships are formed and broken with two years. We seem to hear about new trade demands every few months. The Knicks' strategy should be about ensuring that they're ready to pounce when Player X does become available.
Cap space won't be enough. They'll need players—good players and young players and players who are both good and young—to both dangle in trades and entice the next disgruntled All-Star.
No. 3 overall selection RJ Barrett, the most highly regarded Knicks draft pick since Patrick Ewing, is obviously key here. Mitchell Robinson's continued growth would be huge as well. 2018 first-rounder Kevin Knox will have to show that his talent can translate into results.
But the Knicks will need more. Offering to absorb other teams' junk in exchange for a draft pick, like the Brooklyn Nets and Atlanta Hawks have done, would be one way to build up the war chest (which already includes the picks received from the Dallas Mavericks in the Kristaps Porzingis trade). It would also be smart for the Knicks to try signing some young free agents to multiple-year deals, which, unlike one-year contracts, carry Early Bird rights, meaning there's potential for upside and value.
Julius Randle, 24, would fit in this category, though playing him alongside Knox, Barrett and Robinson could be tricky. D'Angelo Russell is someone the Knicks should probably be more interested in. He's still just 23. There's potential for him to improve and turn himself into a legitimate No. 2—and if not, he'd be movable within a couple of years. He's unlikely to lift next year's Knicks out of the lottery, but New York would still have the room to trade for a max player in the future. Russell's presence would also help shrink the learning curve for Barrett, Knox and Robinson.
Or maybe there's another young player out there who, like Russell two years ago, just needs a change of scenery. Or perhaps there's another young free agent who Perry believes just needs an opportunity to play. Those are the kinds of moves the Knicks will now need to pull off. Being patient is a great first step. It can't be the only one taken.