Training camps open the first week of December, and it looks like the Knicks have their roster in place for the start of the abbreviated 2020-2021 season… or do they? The Knicks have salary cap space and assets to do more before teams report. Here’s what might be on the Knicks radar.
1. Trade Julius Randle
There are no reports or evidence that the Knicks are looking to trade Julius Randle, but it is hard to see how he fits on the roster as it is currently constructed. No. 8 overall pick Obi Toppin is already 22 years old and very polished offensively, and should be playing close to thirty minutes a night in his rookie season. Randle and Toppin both play power forward and cannot co-exist on the floor together.
But what do you do with Randle? Even with only one year remaining on his contract, Randle is not a positive asset making $19 million this season. Only four million of his 2021-2022 salary is guaranteed. Trading him before the season starts seems far-fetched unless the Knicks can find a team looking to trade a similarly unwanted player at a different position in a straight-up deal.
Randle could become a valuable trade chip at the trade deadline. If another team suffers an injury at power forward, Randle could be an attractive replacement. The Knicks would be willing to move him with only future picks and salary coming back in return. The Knicks’ remaining cap space would also make it easier to consummate a trade from a salary perspective, since they could take back more than Randle’s $19 million in salary into their cap space.
Randle’s contract could also be valuable if another team is looking to clear salary cap space in the summer of 2021 at the trade deadline. As an expiring contract, Randle could help clear space for another team that is big-game hunting in 2021. The Knicks, who also value 2021 salary cap space, might be hesitant to do this unless significant assets are coming in return. Depending on how Leon Rose views the team’s chances in the 2021 offseason, this may become a possible path.
If the Knicks can’t move Randle, Tom Thibodeau will have a challenge figuring out how to use him and the prized rookie. Randle’s presence will also potentially block Kevin Knox and Ignas Brazdeikis getting minutes at power forward in smaller lineups.
Or perhaps they can use Randle to solve another problem…
2. Find a Point Guard
Is Elfrid Payton really going to be the Knicks’ starting point guard this season? He might be by default. The only other true point guard on a guaranteed NBA contract is Dennis Smith Jr., who was one of the worst players in the NBA last year.
In a recent article for the New York Daily News, Kristian Winfield reported that Smith was training with Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf to improve his shot and conditioning. There were similar reports of Smith’s training regimen last season, and he proceeded to play the worst basketball of his career. He also suffered through the personal tragedy of losing his stepmother.
Smith still possesses the elite athletic ability that made him a top 10 pick, and it is possible he finally taps into some of his unused potential – but it’s impossible to depend on it given his history. Jared Harper is on a two-way contract and it is unclear if Tom Thibodeau sees Frank Ntilikina as a point guard or primarily an off-ball player. Rookie Immanuel Quickley was recruited as a point guard but did not show advanced passing ability at Kentucky.
Right now, it seems Payton is a placeholder with all the younger players on the roster having an opportunity to unseat him and earn as many minutes as they can. There’s no doubt the Knicks would like to upgrade the position, but there isn’t anyone available in free agency that would fit the Knicks well given they remain in a rebuilding phase.
A trade remains a possibility. The New Orleans Pelicans have three point guards that would like a lot of playing time in Lonzo Ball, Eric Bledsoe, and 2020 first-round pick Kira Lewis Jr. They might try to move either Bledsoe or Ball at some point. Bledsoe’s contract is long and onerous, while Ball is a restricted free agent next offseason.
For the Knicks to surrender assets for Ball, they would have to know they could sign him long-term at a contract number that works for them. Complimenting matters further is that Ball is not a traditional point guard that can be a main engine of a half-court offense or shoot at a high percentage from distance. He is one of the best in the league in transition and initiating the fast-break, but does need someone that can penetrate and be an efficient pick-and-roll playmaker in the half-court.
The Knicks are also unlikely to make a trade for Russell Westbrook. They no longer have the cap space to absorb the majority of his contract and the Rockets appear committed to starting the season with him, with the goal of acquiring real assets in any trade they made. The Knicks are unlikely to give them what they are looking for.
One potential trade target could be George Hill, who wound up with the Oklahoma City Thunder, a team that has two large trade exceptions they could use to absorb Randle’s $19 million salary. Hill makes $9 million this season with only $1 million guaranteed; the Knicks might have to include a future second round pick to conclude this deal, and it would require some gymnastics to fit into league trade rules, but it would give them a veteran stabilizer in the backcourt that would leave the playmaking to the Knicks younger players. This might make too much sense for both teams for it not to happen at some point.
With a trade in the immediate future unlikely, the Knicks will likely head into the season with their point guards in place. It will be on DSJ, Ntilikina, and Harper to wrest the majority of the point guard minutes from Payton.
3. Use Their Cap Space
The Knicks still have $18 million of cap space but they are unlikely to spend it now with the best free agents off the market. Their remaining cap space is better used to facilitate trades between now and the trade deadline. They can accept pure salary dumps, or use it to accept larger contracts in exchange for some of their players on one year deals such as Alec Burks in order to acquire future draft compensation.
One possible opportunity could present itself now with Adrian Wojnarowski’s report that the Hornets are looking for someone to take on Nicolas Batum’s contract so they do not have to waive and stretch the remaining one year and 27 million dollars left on the deal. The Knicks could swap Jacob Evans and Reggie Bullock for Batum and pick compensation (they should receive at least first round pick in return for this) in order for the Hornets to complete the sign and trade, or just cut out the Celtics entirely and sign Hayward outright.
If the Knicks cannot consummate that deal, they can wait for the trade deadline. If history is any indication, they should be able to do it. The lucrative 2021 free agency class will be highly sought after and teams will be hot after salary cap space. With most teams unable to host fans this season, other owners might try to dump contracts midseason simply for cost-saving measures. After acquiring as many as four second round picks in the past week, they will try to find a way to acquire future first round selections.
Follow John Schmeelk on Twitter: @Schmeelk