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The Biggest Loser? A Defense of the New York Knicks Offseason

Ric Bucher@@RicBucherNBA Senior WriterJuly 4, 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

It's almost as if the universe didn't want Kevin Durant to be a New York Knickerbocker.

While team owner—pardon, governor—Jim Dolan and his front office are being lambasted far and wide for failing to land Durant or any of this summer's other superstar free agents after clearing salary-cap space to potentially sign not just one, but two of them, it's hard to imagine a greater host of circumstances beyond their control conspiring against them.

Let's run down the list of low blows, shall we?

      

1. The injury

It all starts with Durant rupturing his right Achilles tendon in Game 5 of the NBA Finals and Kyrie Irving pole-axing his reputation as a leader with the Boston Celtics. Prior to all that, multiple league sources had the Knicks in prime position to be Durant's next landing spot. They were on good terms with his business manager, Rich Kleiman, who also happened to be a longtime Knicks fan with a self-ascribed desire to one day be part of the organization. They had his close friend and former teammate, Royal Ivey, as an assistant coach and had also acquired another one of his BFFs, DeAndre Jordan, from the Dallas Mavericks last season. Few people in the NBA had been tracking Durant longer than Scott Perry, an assistant GM with the Seattle SuperSonics when they drafted Durant and now the Knicks GM. And they created salary-cap space not only to sign Durant but also Irving, with whom they knew Durant had interest in playing.

The duo had envisioned playing on the same NBA team ever since they spent time together on the gold-medal-winning 2016 Olympic team. They then met in the Bay Area during the Finals while Durant was nursing his original injury, a strained right calf, and again in New York after he had surgery to repair his ruptured Achilles, sources say. They talked extensively about not only playing together but also operating as business partners in the New York area.

But the prospect of having the Knicks' young ensemble of talent—Mitchell Robinson, Kevin Knox and No. 3 pick RJ Barrett—led for a year by Irving, whose condescending attitude had just alienated a similar corps of young talent in Boston, gave management pause. Sources who had conversations with Durant after the Achilles injury, meanwhile, say his concern about what he might be when he returns crystallized his desire to have another bona fide star by his side. The Knicks might have been able to accommodate that even without signing Kyrie, if not for… 

   

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2. The draft lottery

The Pelicans' draft lottery win, combined with the Lakers' move up to the fourth overall pick, killed the Knicks' hopes to pair Zion Williamson with a star like Anthony Davis.
The Pelicans' draft lottery win, combined with the Lakers' move up to the fourth overall pick, killed the Knicks' hopes to pair Zion Williamson with a star like Anthony Davis.Nuccio DiNuzzo/Associated Press

Despite having the worst record in the NBA at 17-65, the Knicks watched a pair of 33-win teams, the New Orleans Pelicans and Memphis Grizzlies, leapfrog them under the league's revised draft lottery system to snare the first and second picks, respectively. Now, there was no indication that any of the top stars were pining for the chance to play with No. 1 pick Zion Williamson, but had the Knicks landed the first pick back in mid-May, they could've dangled it as trade bait to acquire established star Anthony Davis from the Pelicans. It also might've made it still possible to sign Irving, since he wouldn't, arguably, be the team's best player and, by default, its leader.

Instead, the Pelicans got the No. 1 pick. And when the Lakers secured the fourth selection, L.A. had the final piece it needed to trade for Davis, while the Pelicans got a host of present and future assets to build around their brand-new big man.

   

3. The trade

There was a point at which the Knicks did have a young big man Durant clearly admired: Kristaps Porzingis. In 2016, Durant dubbed him "a unicorn" for his unique combination of size (7'3"), scoring range (career 36 percent on threes) and rebounding (7.1 per game), which earned him an All-Star berth in his third season.

The problem was that Porzingis (a) never actually appeared in the All-Star Game thanks to a major injury of his own (torn ACL in his left knee), and (b) didn't seem to distinguish between the Knicks' new management—Perry and coach David Fizdale—and their predecessors, Phil Jackson and Jeff Hornacek.

Porzingis skipped his exit interview with Jackson at the end of the 2017-18 season, and although Fizdale spent a week in Latvia visiting with him and Perry cultivated a relationship with his brother and agent, Janis, the Knicks collectively were never convinced that Porzingis wanted to stay.

That became clear at the start of the new year, when the Knicks tried to get a firm understanding of Porzingis' intentions. After several postponements, league sources say the Porzingis brothers walked into a February meeting, declared they didn't like the team's culture and demanded to be traded within a week to the Brooklyn Nets, Los Angeles Clippers, Miami Heat or Toronto Raptors. If the Knicks failed to do so, Porzingis threatened to return to Spain for the remainder of the season and make himself unavailable until he could enter free agency.

Sensing the relationship was not salvageable even before the brothers' demand, the team had already begun exploring what Porzingis' trade value might be. When Porzingis presented New York with his ultimatum, league sources say the Knicks quickly pivoted and used him to clear additional cap space by sending him along with Tim Hardaway, Jr., Courtney Lee and Trey Burke to the Dallas Mavericks for two future first-round picks, Dennis Smith Jr., Jordan and veteran Wes Matthews. The combination of hefty contracts going out and expiring ones coming in expanded their potential cap space to $74.5 million. 

   

4. The Kawhi factor

The Knicks ideally wanted to lure Kawhi Leonard and Kevin Durant to New York, but Leonard's preference to play in L.A. (if he were to leave the Raptors) and the Knicks' abysmal record all but ended that possibility.
The Knicks ideally wanted to lure Kawhi Leonard and Kevin Durant to New York, but Leonard's preference to play in L.A. (if he were to leave the Raptors) and the Knicks' abysmal record all but ended that possibility.Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images

All along, team sources say, the Knicks graded Kawhi Leonard and Durant as the only players truly worthy of a max salary, and their dream scenario was to sign that duo, rather than Durant and Irving. Durant, sources with knowledge of his thinking say, was open to teaming up with Leonard rather than Irving, at least on the court, but Leonard would only entertain that possibility with the Clippers, while Durant was set on doing it in New York.

It didn't help that Leonard was facing the prospect of jumping from a championship-winning squad to the league's worst and leading it for at least a year without Durant.

Leonard, a source with knowledge of his free-agency exploration schedule said, offered to meet with the Knicks on July 3. With no assurance the meeting would be fruitful, the team faced the prospect of seeing Leonard sign elsewhere, Durant do the same as a result and then perusing a free-agency market already picked clean of players who would have been available to them. Instead, they opted to forgo a meeting with Leonard and collected a core of mostly young talent with still-to-be-determined potential and solid work ethics—guys such as Julius Randle, Bobby Portis and Reggie Bullock—on shorter deals with team options, essentially allowing them to be more competitive next season while maintaining their flexibility to be players on the free-agent market in 2020 and in 2021.

The '20 class is not nearly as star-studded as this summer, but there is a handful of intriguing names. The unrestricted list is led by Davis, who league sources say has vowed to explore free agency with the Knicks and the Lakers as his top two teams. The restricted free-agent scroll includes several young talents with franchises that could face a burdensome tax bill to retain them: Toronto's 2019 Most Improved Player Pascal Siakam, Boston's Jaylen Brown, the Nets' Caris LeVert and the Pacers' Domantas Sabonis.

Then there's 2021, when Leonard could be on the market again looking for a supermax salary as part of a free-agent class as starry as this one. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Bradley Beal and Paul George are among the more than half-dozen young cornerstone players who could be available.

The reaction from opposing league executives to the Knicks' moves has been mixed. Some still find fault in the fact that they traded Porzingis without getting a proven star back in return. Some portray them as having abjectly failed by not finding a way to land Durant in spite of all the issues that arose. Others applauded them for not overreacting by offering max contracts to lesser talent in hopes of softening the blowback from missing out on Durant.

There are also one or two decision-makers in the league who wonder if, just maybe, the universe actually did the Knicks a favor—that Irving is sure to create another toxic spill, and Durant's age and Achilles may prompt an inexorable decline.

There's no way of knowing just yet. For now, it's easier to imagine karma wreaking havoc on Dolan and his franchise, as it seemingly has for decades. At some point, though, their fortunes have to turn, just as they did for the long downtrodden Golden State Warriors. Have to. Right? 

      

Ric Bucher covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @RicBucher.


Former Atlanta Hawks GM Wes Wilcox joins Howard Beck to talk which teams aced free agency and which left him scratching his head, who the Lakers should target and why the Jimmy Butler deal may leave everyone feeling a bit empty in the end. All that a whole lot more offseason talk on The Full 48.

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