The Knicks are one of several teams projected to have enough cap space to sign a max free agent in the summer of 2019, and on a recent episode of NBC Sports’ Bulls Talk podcast, Celtics reporter A. Sherrod Blakely said New York has its sights set on none other than Kyrie Irving.
“I can tell you right now: The New York Knicks, he is their No. 1 target,” Blakely said.”I’ve spoken with people within (the Knicks) organization. They have made it absolutely crystal clear to me that, if they had their pick of guys that are going to be in the free-agent market (next) summer, Kyrie would be their first, second, third, and fourth choice. He is a guy they definitely want.”
The question, now, is no longer whether the Knicks want Irving, a cold-blooded point guard whose dagger three delivered Cleveland its first championship in NBA history. It’s whether the All-Star point guard and all-world scorer wants to sign with a New York franchise that is trending in the right direction but still hasn’t been to the playoffs since 2013.
Can the Knicks sign Irving outright?
Kinda. The salary cap is projected at $109 million for the 2019-20 season. That number is subject to change, but likely not by much.
The Knicks would first have to address their own projected top-10 pick in next year’s NBA Draft. Draft picks are usually paid 120 percent of the rookie scale. Depending on where the Knicks finish the season, the pick can expect a first-year salary of anywhere from $3.4 million (pick No. 14) to $9.7 million (pick No. 1). New York might need to trade this pick to create more cap space. We will revisit this thought later.
A strong finish in the 2018-19 season not only indicates to Irving that this team is ready to compete now, it saves the Knicks some much needed cap space next summer. But it’s hard to imagine the Knicks as a playoff team, or anywhere close, with Kristaps Porzingis expected to miss a chunk of the year rehabbing from his torn ACL.
To create more space, New York would also have to buyout and stretch the final season on Joakim Noah’s contract, turning a $19.3 million cap hit next summer into a $6.4 million dead cap hit over each of the next three years. They are expected to do just that at some point before Sept. 1, 2019.
The Knicks will also be on the hook for Kristaps Porzingis’ monster five-year, $158 million extension. They would be able to do so after all other signings since teams are allowed to exceed the salary cap to re-sign their own players, but his cap hit coming off the fourth year of his rookie scale contract will be 300 percent of his 2018-19 salary, or $17 million, until he signs his new deal.
New York would also need to renounce its free agent rights to Emmanuel Mudiay, clearing an additional $5.76 million from the books.
If the Knicks trade their draft pick, stretch Noah and renounce Mudiay, they could offer Kyrie Irving a four-year, $140.6 million max contract that pays $32.7 million in Year 1. This would still give them the $4.45 million room mid-level exception, and about $3.9 million in additional cap space to sign free agents before officially re-signing Porzingis to a max extension.
But Irving reportedly isn’t as interested in the Knicks as we think
Blakeley also said on the same podcast that he doesn’t think the interest on Irving’s side is as significant as it is on the Knicks’; that the media has made the Irving to New York stuff a bigger deal than it actually is. That would make sense: with Irving and a healthy Gordon Hayward, Al Horford and the budding Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, the Celtics are likely favorites to win the post-LeBron James Eastern Conference and make a trip to the NBA Finals.
But the Celtics also made it to the Eastern Conference Finals while Irving recovered from knee surgery. Their young players thrived without the All-Star point guard, and they were a Game 7 loss to LeBron’s Cavaliers away from making it to the NBA Finals.
Irving is also expected to opt-out of his current contract for a longer-term and more lucrative deal. He turned down a four-year, $107 million extension over the summer because he can command a five-year, $187 million extension from Boston this time next year.
Will Danny Ainge and Boston brass pay up, especially with the level of success they had with Terry Rozier, who can be re-signed at a lower number? It’s not improbable nor impossible, but it does complicate the equation a bit.
The Knicks can still pull it off
Irving played high school basketball in New Jersey, about a 30-minute drive from New York City, but the Knicks aren’t the only team with cap space this summer. Home is where the heart is, and there’s no bigger market on the planet than New York.
The Brooklyn Nets will also have enough space to sign a max free agent this summer, too, and could create enough cap space to add two max players if they really wanted to. But they don’t have a true star on the team, and interest in Irving would create more questions surrounding D’Angelo Russell. Brooklyn and New York tied at No. 18 in ESPN’s future power rankings. Landing Irving would change the fortune of either of the franchises.
One way the Knicks could convince Irving to come to town? Win some games. That would show they’re serious about competing for the playoffs and beyond, not just the circus act they’ve been labeled for years. Sure, they’ll be bad without Porzingis, but when he comes back, go on a run. Show the world you’re ready for primetime.
Another way to get Irving’s attention? Pull off a trade for Jimmy Butler.
Irving and Butler are reportedly interested in playing with each other should they choose to leave their respective teams. Minnesota will probably warm up to the idea of moving Butler before the trade deadline or risk losing him for nothing in next summer’s free agency. The Knicks could offer their 2019 first-round pick, Tim Hardaway Jr. or Courtney Lee and maybe even Frank Ntilikina for Butler, giving the Wolves a young point guard, a wing ready to contribute right away, and an attractive pick in an upcoming draft.
Nobody knows what Irving’s thinking now, and the All-Star guard himself doesn’t know what his thought process will be next summer. But we do know what the Knicks are thinking:
They want Kyrie Irving in New York. We just don’t know if they’ll actually get him.