When the Knicks chose Tom Thibodeau as their head coach, the basketball world assumed that the team’s rebuild was over. It is a vague statement that lacks nuance in a time where there are no longer any gray areas, and the NBA doesn’t work that way.
Are the Knicks going to embark on a Philadelphia Sixers-like process that includes multiple years of striving to be the worst while stockpiling draft assets and cap space? No, and that was never going to be the case no matter who the Knicks hired as their head coach.
Are the Knicks going to go all-in during the 2020 offseason, and try to transform themselves into 50-win team by moving their young players and stockpile of draft assets? No, mostly because this free agent class doesn’t contain players of the caliber that would allow them to do that successfully.
The Knicks could package all of their own draft picks with little or no lottery protections and their young players in trades for good players, but it would be extremely short-sighted. The team would improve but with no assets left, becoming a long-term perennial winner would be impossible. Based on everything Leon Rose has said, this does not seem to be in the cards.
When Tom Thibodeau arrived in Minnesota, he played with their young players for a year before making major changes. The Knicks’ young roster will allow Thibodeau to do the same in New York, with the added benefit of cap space to supplement the team with hand-picked veterans to let Thibodeau achieve his vision.
The Knicks front office will attempt to thread a very difficult needle by trying to improve the team without sacrificing too much future cap flexibility, while giving the young players on the roster room to play. As both Leon Rose and Tom Thibodeau talked about in their press conference, player development needs to be the primary driver of their improvement.
It is also important for the Knicks to maximize the value of their draft picks. No team should try to lose, but drafting seventh has a much higher value than drafting 14th. At the same time, is there truly a long-term difference to the rebuild between winning 31 games and 38 games? This is something very difficult to control with any sort of precision, but it is worth paying attention to for front offices.
It is important for the Knicks to always keep one thing in the back of their mind as they make trades or free agency decisions: they need to eventually acquire not just one, but two stars if they want to be perennial contenders. Whatever decisions the Knicks make need to maximize their ability to add those kinds of stars.
These are not just All-Star caliber players, either. Adding two borderline All-Stars would make the team much better, but they would still be far from being championship contenders. If signing a couple of players ranked between 20th and 30th in the NBA costs the Knicks all their draft assets, young players and salary cap space, it would trap them as a bottom-half playoff team with little chance to become championship contenders.
One of the stars the Knicks acquire needs to be a legitimate top 10 or 15 player. Teams that have those kinds of the players are the ones that become perennial contenders on a year-in, year-out basis. Finding one in free agency, the draft, or via trade is difficult, which is why the Knicks need to maintain their flexibility and assets until they figure out a way to acquire one. Just waiting and praying one comes to the franchise in free agency despite the Knicks’ consistently poor record is not a strategy, either.
It’s why this year’s free agent strategy is going to have to be so precise. There will be veteran players available that will make the Knicks better. The Knicks need a starting-caliber point guard, and additional shooting to spread the floor at all positions. Players like Fred VanVleet and Goran Dragic fit the first criteria, while Davis Bertans, Joe Harris, and Danilo Gallinari fit the other.
The type of contracts those players will require in order to sign them will be critical. While all those options are solid NBA players, the 2021 free agent class potentially contains a number of legitimate superstars like LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, Jrue Holiday, Anthony Davis, Victor Oladipo, and of course, Giannis Antetokounmpo.
If the Knicks sacrificed their chance at one of those two superstars to roster Davis Bertans on a multi-year deal, fans would be justifiably upset. As tempting as it might be to improve the team immediately, Leon Rose’s eyes must still remain on the future. That doesn’t mean, however, that the team must sit out free agency or just add a bunch of low-end veterans.
It will require any of the contracts they sign this offseason to be only of the one-year variety, or be moveable in a trade that wouldn’t require the Knicks to attach a valuable asset to it. In other words, they must sign good players to contracts that match the value of the player in question so another team would want to trade for them. This is not what the Knicks did with Julius Randle.
The league’s uncertain financials also play a role in the Knicks’ options this summer. With the likely declining future revenues of the league depending on the progress the country makes against COVID-19, many teams might be hesitant to spend. It could allow the Knicks to land good players on short-term one-year contracts or discounted long-term deals.
With few teams having cap space in a summer where the cap will not rise, and fewer with ownership likely willing to spend money during volatile economic times, the Knicks could control the free agent market if James Dolan maintains his free-spending ways. It could allow them to add good players, improve the team, and make it more attractive to free agents in the future, while maintaining the flexibility to do so.
In my next column, I’ll evaluate the players they should target as free agents, and the type of contracts the Knicks should offer them.