The Knicks didn't get fancy with the No. 3 overall pick in the 2019 NBA Draft. They didn’t have enough assets to package it in an Anthony Davis trade, and they didn’t try to haul in multiple picks by trading down in a three-man draft. They didn’t get Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, watching them walk across the East River to the crosstown rival Brooklyn Nets.
Instead, New York selected R.J. Barrett, the consensus No. 1-ranked freshman entering the college basketball season, before he committed to the Duke Blue Devils and a year alongside the show-stopping Zion Williamson. Now, New York is tasked with building around Barrett, a lefty, athletic scorer giving James Harden-type vibes. They may be forced to veer from the original plan to do so, depending on where the stars align this offseason.
Plan A for the Knicks was to pair Durant and Irving in New York City, turning a 17-win team into a title contender over the course of one summer. They’re staying in New York all right ... with the Nets. Yikes.
But while New York now must move to Plan B, it won’t be the end of the world if the Knicks miss on the cream of the crop. If they play this right, it actually could be a blessing in disguise.
New York hasn’t successfully built around their own draft picks this century. Their draft record prior to the Kristaps Porzingis pick is laughable, and with their next first-round pick, they took Frank Ntilikina eighth overall.
The last Knicks draft pick to sign a multi-year contract with New York after his rookie deal was Charlie Ward, who was drafted in 1994.— Tommy Beer (@TommyBeer) January 31, 2019
But this is a new era, spearheaded by Scott Perry, Steve Mills and David Fizdale. New York has a chance to build something sustainable for years to come.
And it starts by not mucking up what they have this summer.
They have a decent foundation to do so
Plan B might stand for “Barrett,” but this won’t be just his show alone, either.
New York’s roster features a few gems. Mitchell Robinson is The Blockness Monster, the future of the franchise’s center position after a standout rookie campaign. The Knicks also selected Kevin Knox ninth-overall last summer. Knox flashed a few bright spots in his rookie season and has the physical tools to become a legitimate three-and-D threat in this league.
New York also turned lemons into limoncello by trading Kristaps Porzingis — out for the 2018-19 season with a torn ACL — Tim Hardaway Jr. and Courtney Lee for Dennis Smith Jr., De’Andre Jordan, Wesley Matthews, and two future first-round picks, one unprotected in 2021 and the other top-10 protected in 2023. Not a bad haul at all for a promising, but injured player who didn’t want to be in New York anymore.
Smith Jr. is now part of New York’s potential rebuild. So is Allonzo Trier, a gem who went undrafted before showing nice promise in New York; and Damyean Dotson, whom New York developed into a knockdown (36.8 percent) three-point shooter in his second year. There’s also Ntilikina, the last lottery pick of the Phil Jackson era, whom Perry and Mills reportedly dangled for a second-round pick in trade discussions on draft day to no avail.
Now that Durant, Irving, and Kawhi Leonard won’t choose the Knicks, New York has to figure out which pieces fit into its long-term puzzle. But what they shouldn’t do is make the same mistake as teams did in 2016. That summer, there was $568 million total in cap space. Teams like Charlotte and Miami are still hamstrung by the contracts they doled out.
There could be as much as $474 million in total cap space this summer, but New York must learn from the mistakes of summers past. Begley reports they’ve done just that and plan to pursue short-term deals to maintain cap flexibility. That means the Knicks could look into one-year balloon deals — like Los Angeles’ with Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Philadelphia’s with J.J. Redick — at key positions. They could also look to absorb a heavy expiring contract into their cap space, so long as the other team provides draft assets as a thank-you.
New York made the mistake of settling for mid-tier players in the past. They signed and got the most out of Amar’e Stoudemire, but his knees only held up for so long. They gave Tim Hardaway Jr. so much money in 2017 that, he said, “Man that’s crazy,” immediately after signing the contract. A year into his new salary, Hardaway said, “It’s not my fault. They came to me.”
The Knicks can’t do that again. It can’t be front office’s fault ever again.
What do the Knicks need, anyway?
If you ask the ESPN broadcast team on the night of the NBA Draft, New York’s needs were summed with one word: Everything.
That’s not necessarily true. Yes, the Knicks need help across the board, but they have a little bit more on this roster than they’re given credit for, especially on the wing.
A glaring hole: power forward
New York has no starting power forward, unless the plan is to put the 6’9,” 215-pound Knox there. That can work eventually, but not so soon, especially not full-time.
Should none of the top three targets come, a one-year, $20 million deal for an impact player makes all the sense in the world for a stop gap in their frontcourt. Maybe that’s the kind of contract Julius Randle would sign after turning down his $9.1 million player option in New Orleans to become an unrestricted free agent.
Randle, technically, is the best power forward on the market. He’s an aggressive, athletic finisher who has turned himself into a decent three-point threat. He’s a player who pushes the ball in transition and finds teammates to the tune of three assists per game last season. The Knicks could end up being a team that has to run to win games. Randle could be a great fit, so long as he continues to work on his three-pointer.
New York could give money to Brooklyn’s DeMarre Carroll as an alternative to taking a pay cut to join a playoff team. He was an invaluable piece to the Nets’ development into a playoff team last season. Philadelphia’s Mike Scott hasn’t been paid more than $4.3 million in a season yet. Minnesota’s Taj Gibson is from Brooklyn and is a tough defender who now has a three-point shot. Begley also reports the team has interest in signing Washington’s Bobby Portis, who has become a 40 percent three-point shooter, but Portis reportedly is looking for a contract in the $16 million per season ballpark.
The Knicks could also address this position via trade. One idea: absorbing Marvin Williams’ one remaining year worth $15 million to provide Charlotte some cap relief, so long as they’re willing to attach a draft asset, like second-round picks, in the trade.
OK. So maybe the Knicks do need everything. It’s all good. With the money they have, New York should be able to fill all its needs.
A backup center
The easy win here was to bring DeAndre Jordan back, but he’s heading to Brooklyn with Durant and Irving. So now New York must move to other big men who can play the backup role to Mitchell Robinson:
- Ed Davis played a similar role in Brooklyn backing up Jarrett Allen. He was considered a culture setter, and the Nets sorely missed him in their playoff series against Joel Embiid’s Sixers
- The Knicks could also do something like go grab Boban Marjanovic, who could be separated from Tobias Harris depending on what the Sixers do in free agency. Fans make Madison Square Garden the best arena in the world, and Boban would immediately become the fan favorite
- My personal favorite? Anthony Tolliver. He hit three or more threes 10 times for the Timberwolves last season and has always been a valuable defender. If he doesn’t sign with a contender, he’d be a key addition for New York, both on the court and in the locker room
- Recent reports also suggest the Knicks could have interest in DeMarcus Cousins if they fall short of signing their top target free agents. A season with the Knicks could help re-establish his value, so long as it doesn’t take away from Robinson’s development.
Backup point guard
Trier is coming off the bench as a scorer, but New York needs a veteran point guard as a facilitator to initiate the offense. Indiana’s Cory Joseph immediately rings a bell, so long as a playoff team with cap space doesn’t come knocking first. Detroit’s Ish Smith could be another choice. The Pistons were night and day when he was out with injury versus when he was on the floor.
Two fun options: A) Bring Seth Curry to Madison Square Garden and let him cook in place of his brother; B) Bring Jeremy Lin back for nostalgia’s sake.
Backup scoring wing
If Barrett is poised to be the team’s primary scorer, New York will need another wing who can score off the bench. Terrence Ross and Jeremy Lamb were good options, but both are now off the board.
Another option: take a chance on Alec Burks, who — just like Rodney Hood — put up decent scoring numbers over an extended period of time in Utah, but didn’t pan out after his trade to Sacramento.
Backup 3-and-D wing
The best in this category will sign as role players on contending teams. Caldwell-Pope could thrive off the bench as a disruptor on the defensive end. Two other sleeper options could be Corey Brewer, who has played this role forever, and James Ennis, who can stretch the floor and defend a few positions in spurts.
Some elder statesmen
You can’t have a young team without veteran wisdom. It’s a recipe for disaster, as we’ve seen across the league over the years.
Thus, it makes all the sense in the world for New York to recruit Vince Carter. He played a key role in the speedy maturation of both the Kings and the Hawks in recent years. Begley also named him as a player the Knicks should sign. (I didn’t steal your idea, Ian! Great minds think alike.)
Another thoughtful addition to the locker room could be Pau Gasol, a sure-fire future Hall of Famer who is past his prime, but may still be able to contribute on the court. Gasol is recovering from foot surgery and may very well look to sign with a contender. But he is a two-time NBA champion and a six-time NBA All-Star. When he speaks, young players should know to listen.
One more powerful addition to New York’s locker room: Zach Randolph, who also played a role in helping the young Sacramento Kings mature. He has a relationship with Fizdale from the final years of the Grit ‘N Grind Grizzlies era. Randolph is battle-tested and a former All-Star. He commands respect, and the young Knicks will give it to him.
There is no one-size-fits-all answer to what the Knicks should do this summer. The only thing they unequivocally should not do is make the same mistake other franchises did in 2016 by spending big-time money on small-time free agents. The same mistake the Knicks have made in seasons past.
New York has more cap space than any other team. Scott Perry, Steve Mills and David Fizdale will have to spend it wisely. Even after the Knicks struck out on Durant and Irving, they still have a bright future ahead. As long as they stay the course and remain as patient as they’ve preached, New York could finally give Knicks fans what they want: a home-grown contender, built from the mud.