In my last column, I wrote about what the Knicks’ strategy should be for free agency in 2020. The goal should be to improve the team without sacrificing future flexibility to add a star in the vaunted 2021 free agency class, by focusing on one-year contracts or long-term deals of good value that could be traded at a future date if they had to be.
If the Knicks don’t add any free agents on contracts longer than one season, and move on from some of their younger players like Kevin Knox, Frank Ntilikina, and Dennis Smith Jr., they could (depending on the salary cap) clear enough space to add two max free agents in 2021 – names like LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, Jrue Holiday, Anthony Davis, Victor Oladipo and of course, Giannis Antetokounmpo.
This would strip the roster to a minimum and leave only RJ Barrett, Mitchell Robinson, Ignas Brazdeikis, their draft picks in 2020 and 2021, and perhaps one other young player from the 2017 and 2018 draft class. The question would be, of course, whether that team would be attractive for the best free agents to sign with.
They would probably be able to afford one max contract (again depending on where the salary cap lands due to the pandemic and how they handle their 2017-2018 draft classes) even if they signed one player this offseason to a $18-20 million multiyear contract without gutting the roster. In theory that one player, along with others on one-year deals, would improve the team to the point it was more attractive to add that one star.
Keeping in mind that the Knicks’ two biggest needs this offseason are shooting and a lead ball-handler, here are their best options in free agency and what they would probably have to pay to get them. It’s important to note that the market this offseason will be a buyer’s market. With league revenues likely to drop precipitously due to the pandemic, teams will probably be reluctant to spend big. Here are some of the options the Knicks should consider:
Fred VanVleetHe is not a superstar and has never made an All-Star team, but there is very little not to like about Fred VanVleet. He shoots the ball extremely well from behind the three-point line (between 39 and 41 percent in his past three seasons) and can play both point guard and off the ball, as he often does when he shares the court with Kyle Lowry.
VanVleet is very good and would immediately improve the Knicks. Even if the Knicks drafted LaMelo Ball or eventually brought in a top point guard, his versatility would allow him to help the team playing off the ball. He is a good player, and the only unrestricted free agent in this class the Knicks should be willing to sign for more than one year. He is a good player.
Depending on how the 26-year-old wants to attack free agency, the Knicks could sign him to a two-to-four year deal worth $18-22 million per year, with the final season as a team option. This contract would have takers if the Knicks wanted to trade him, due to his ability to fit in on different teams playing different roles. Just imagine how valuable someone like VanVleet would be to the Lakers in the bubble.
If VanVleet preferred a one-year contract to try to cash in during next offseason, the Knicks could offer him an oversized one year deal worth upwards of $25 million. It would be an overpay, but to get him on the roster while leaving cap space available in 2021, it would be worth it.
Goran DragicDragic would be a fallback option to VanVleet and serve as a filler until a younger long-term solution could be found. He is still a productive player (16 points and 5 assists per game on .440/.375/.775 shooting) but he will turn 35 years old in 2021. He is not as unselfish or as good of a passer as VanVleet. He is also not as good of a three point shooter, and though he finishes at the basket at a higher rate, he does not get to the hoop as often.
Dragic also isn’t the defender VanVleet is, nor does he have experience having success playing off the ball. He would be an improvement over what the Knicks had at the position last year, though, and at 34 years old, he would probably be willing to sign a one-year deal. The Knicks could probably get him on a one-year, $14-18 million contract if he didn’t prioritize playing for a contender.
DJ AugustinI list Augustin here because he had the best year of his career with Tom Thibodeau in Chicago, when he averaged 14.9 points per game in 30 minutes per game. The problem is that season was all the way back in 2013-2014, and Augustin will be 33 years old next year. He has averaged between 20 and 28 minutes per game in the last four years with the Orlando Magic, scoring about ten points per game. This would be an extremely low-cost option at less than $10 million for a season, and he is, at best, a good backup point guard.
Joe HarrisHarris has emerged as one of the top three-point shooters in the league for Brooklyn the last three years, shooting at least 42 percent from behind the arc for three straight seasons. He turns 29 in September, and at 6-foot-6, he would be a perfect wing compliment to RJ Barrett. Like VanVleet, Harris may prefer a longer-term deal around $15 million per season, and the Knicks could consider it given the importance of his best skill. Despite his poor defense, Harris’ consistently elite three point shooting (90th percentile for three straight seasons) should keep his value high amongst other teams in the league.
Danilo GallinariThe best player traded away in the Carmelo Anthony trade, Gallinari has gone on to have an excellent NBA career. His only issue has been consistently staying healthy. Gallo has averaged 18 or 19 points per game in four of his five seasons, with usage rates above 20 percent in those years, and his effective field goal percentages the last two seasons has topped 55 percent.
Gallinari has shot better than 40 percent from behind the arc the past two seasons, putting him in the top 12 percent of shooters in the league. While he struggles finishing at the rim, he does average five free throw attempts per game over the course of his career. Traditionally, Gallinari has been a strong defender, though the metrics show a backslide his last two seasons, which may have to do with the fact he will turn 33 next year.
Gallinari would be the perfect stretch four next to Mitchell Robinson, and at his age, he might be drawn back to New York on a big one year offer worth around $20 million. He could hit free agency the following year trying to cash in long-term or go to a contender.
Davis BertansAfter VanVleet, Bertans might be the next most expensive player on this list. He has shot over 40 percent from behind the three-point line for two straight seasons, on an average of six attempts per game. At 6-foot-10, his shooting as a stretch four is exactly what NBA teams are looking for – but that, plus the fact that he will only turn 28 in November, means he will be looking to cash in this offseason with a big multi-year contract worth around $20 million per year. He would fit the Knicks’ needs and slide in nicely next to Mitchell Robinson, but Bertans could limit their flexibility moving forward.
Marcus MorrisHe is a free agent and would fit well at power forward for the Knicks next season. He can defend and shoot the three. Given the market, he could probably be had on another one-year deal.