In retrospect, the moment it should have been clear that the Knicks would whiff again in free agency was when James Dolan expressed the highest confidence. “We hear from people all the time, from players, representatives,” Dolan blustered in an interview with ESPN Radio. “It’s about who wants to come. We can’t respond because of the NBA rules, etc., but that doesn’t stop them from telling us. And they do.”
“I can tell you from what we’ve heard I think we’re going to have a very successful offseason when it comes to free agents. The thing about the team now is that it’s very young. It’s the youngest team in the NBA.” Later in that same interview, Dolan would read the names of his own team’s young players off a sheet of paper as evidence that the Knicks would be an attractive free–agent destination.
In the end, they weren’t—at least not attractive enough to keep Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving away the crosstown Nets. Pairing Durant and Irving was reportedly the great dream of the Knicks’ front office. When New York traded away Kristaps Porzingis (arguably their best drafted prospect since Patrick Ewing) to Dallas, it was in part to clear enough room for two max free agents. It was a dramatic gesture in a league where there are no guarantees. Even if Durant or Irving had wanted to sign with the Knicks and covertly made such interests known, Porzingis was traded five months before free agency would open. Things in the NBA change quickly and without warning. By trading Porzingis in the manner they did, the Knicks left themselves vulnerable possibility that when all was said and done, they would be left holding more than $70 million in cap space with no superstar willing to take their max offers.
Free agency isn’t over—in fact, at the time Durant and Irving’s agreements with the Nets were reported, it hadn’t officially begun. There’s time yet for the Knicks to take meaningful steps forward, even if they don’t come in the form of the best players in the league. A reported three-year, $63 million contract for Julius Randle isn't exactly an encouraging start. Pivoting makes sense under the circumstances. It's pivoting into an overpay for Randle, who put up numbers for the Pelicans last season at the cost of playing actual basketball, that looks troublesome.
Hopefully, this juxtaposition with the Nets is in some way instructive. When faced with potential max offers from two New York franchises, Durant and Irving chose Brooklyn. (Per ESPN, the Knicks might not have been willing to offer Durant a full max contract at all.) We’ll find out their reasoning in time, though it may be as simple as the difference in what the two teams were selling. The Knicks have the glint of history: an iconic brand and a legendary building. The Nets have a fully functioning organization: a front office that knows what it’s doing, a coaching staff that took a young team to 42 wins and a playoff berth, and a roster of solid players ready to flank two stars.
There is some added indignity in these two particular stars—the very same the Knicks hoped and dreamed of—signing, instead, with the Nets. But when did the Knicks offer any valid alternative? Once the appeal of living in the city was mitigated, and once Brooklyn cleared the cap room necessary to sign two max-level players, the decision between the two franchises seems relatively straightforward. In recent summers, the Knicks have attempted to use cap space as a pitch in itself. This can work, though most every superstar move in recent NBA history suggests that it will take more. It could be one star recruiting another. It could be the right collection of young talent, whether valued as-is or for their trade potential. New York City is a hell of a start. Give good players a reason to come, and they will. Give them nothing, and they’ll come play for the Nets.