Imagine you own a brand-name company with a beloved product. For decades, because of poor design decisions, the company has released versions of the product that have gone over poorly with customers — think Coca-Cola Bacon. But you put a new leadership team in place.
And voilà — almost overnight — you have an unexpectedly good year. Not amazing, mind you, but above average. And now, you have more seed money than all of your competitors to vault back to the success of your heyday. One issue: Even with all the work you’ve done to raise capital, there isn’t much to spend it on because the labor market is bare. Top talent either is unwilling to come to your company or working somewhere else, or both.
Congratulations, or sorry. You are the Knicks.
As N.B.A. free agency got underway on Monday, the Knicks shifted their strategy from recent years. Once again, they seemingly struck out on the market’s top players, like the point guards Kyle Lowry and Chris Paul. But instead of continuing to dole out short-term contracts to maintain their flexibility, the Knicks have decided to run it back with essentially the same roster as last season, except with longer commitments to the familiar players. It’s a curious strategy, because last year’s team was not close to being a championship contender yet the Knicks are doubling down and giving up salary cap flexibility. (There is another discussion to be had about why the Knicks keep missing out on signing big-name free agents: Leon Rose, a former player agent, was hired to run the team’s basketball operations in March 2020 in part because of his relationships with star players.)
The biggest move has been an agreement with the 28-year-old guard Evan Fournier, a solid but not elite playmaker and shooter, who told reporters on Tuesday that he chose the Knicks because “I enjoy the pressure.”
“I enjoy the spotlight,” said Fournier, who spent last season with Orlando and Boston. “They had a really good season. They had a spot open and I thought I could really help them. And, yeah, it’s freaking New York.”
The Knicks will also be bringing Derrick Rose back on a three year, $43 million dollar deal, according to a source familiar with his contract but not authorized to disclose it publicly. In addition, the team appears ready to bring back the reserve center Nerlens Noel, — who tweeted on Monday: “I’m excited to run it back New York!! Let’s go!” — and Taj Gibson, according to SportsNet New York.
The Knicks entered the summer with more than $50 million in cap space, projected to be the most in the N.B.A., and enough to sign at least two A-list stars. They were coming off an unexpectedly resilient campaign to the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference, led by Julius Randle and RJ Barrett. They were run by a competent veteran coach in Tom Thibodeau, who won the league’s Coach of the Year Award, and a patient front office. The team was stocked with young talent and draft picks, and played in the country’s top media market. It was where any team would want to be: on the upswing with lots of ways to improve.
Before Monday night, only one Knick — Randle — was not on a rookie contract, giving the team flexibility. That flexibility is limited now, with the commitments to current players likely to take up most of the cap space. Of course, free agency isn’t the only way the Knicks can add top talent. But the path forward for the Knicks to grow is less certain than it was before free agency.
What We Know
The Knicks had two late first-round draft picks. One, they punted to the Charlotte Hornets for a future pick. The other, they traded down to the 25th slot to take Quentin Grimes, a guard out of the University of Houston. Grimes is known for his shooting and defense, but like with many late-round picks, it’s difficult to project his success. It’s worth noting that the Knicks have had some recent success in trading for this draft slot: Last year, the Knicks acquired Immanuel Quickley, a Kentucky guard taken by the Oklahoma City Thunder at 25. He turned out to be one of the steals of the draft.
The Knicks will have to decide if they want to bring back any of several key veterans who are unrestricted free agents, including Elfrid Payton. That doesn’t include Frank Ntilikina, a 2017 Knicks lottery pick, who played sparingly. The Knicks didn’t extend a qualifying offer to Ntilikina, which likely means Ntilikina will be added to the long list of hyped Knicks prospects who didn’t flourish with the franchise.
Rose, 32, was almost a lock to return because he played well last season. He and Thibodeau have a solid relationship, having been together with three different franchises. In the rare moments when the Knicks played fluid basketball against the Atlanta Hawks in the playoffs, Rose led the charge offensively. But Rose likely cannot handle starter minutes at this stage in his career.
Last season, the Knicks rode a staunch defense to the playoffs, a Thibodeau staple. But the team was inconsistent on the offensive end, putting too much of a strain on Randle to generate offense. This made Rose a savvy midseason acquisition last season from Detroit. The Knicks need another top-level playmaker who can help Randle run the offense, and shooters to give him room to operate in the post. Fournier will be helpful in this regard, although Bullock’s departure means the Knicks lose some shooting at the same time.
Some of this, in theory, will also be solved with the improvement of the Knicks young players, like Quickley, Barrett and last year’s lottery pick, Obi Toppin.
This free agency class is headed by Paul, Lowry, Kawhi Leonard and DeMar DeRozan. Lowry and Paul are off the board, with Lowry agreeing to head to Miami and Paul opting to re-sign with Phoenix. And now, it’s unlikely that the Knicks will have the space to obtain either Leonard or DeRozan.
There are still some free agents who can help the Knicks, like Danny Green, Reggie Jackson and Victor Oladipo — all still within the Knicks’ price range.
One issue with a depressed free-agent market is that players get contract commitments they wouldn’t in most other free-agent classes. That opens the risk that teams will tie up All-Star level cap space with players who aren’t on that level, which will then keep them from acquiring actual All-Stars. This is something to keep in mind for Fournier.
The Knicks could still trade for disgruntled stars should they become available. That’s risky to wait for because it requires the player to be available and willing to come to the Knicks, and it requires the star’s team to want what the Knicks have more than what other teams are offering. Getting all three conditions requires a perfect storm. The three stars who have been the most frequent subjects of trade rumors are Portland’s Damian Lillard, Washington’s Bradley Beal and Philadelphia’s Ben Simmons.
The Knicks will have decisions to make on Randle and Mitchell Robinson, too. Both could enter unrestricted free agency next summer and are eligible for big-money extensions. Are the Knicks willing to devote substantial cap space to the 26-year-old Randle, who made his first All-Star team only last year? And what about Robinson, a 23-year-old who has dealt with injuries and has only marginally improved in his three N.B.A. seasons?
The Knicks have shifted from rebuilding to retooling, and that’s perilous terrain without top-level stars. A couple of unwise long-term contracts, or cutting bait on the wrong young player, and the world will be discussing a version of Knicks Bacon.