You would hope the Knicks learned their lesson after perhaps the biggest free-agent flop in NBA history in the summer of 2019. New York cleared the deck for Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant long before seeing even an inkling of commitment from the two superstars, trading away a franchise anchor in the process. We know the story from there. KD and Kyrie opted for another borough, Kristaps Porzingis shined in Dallas and the Knicks will enter 2020–21 in a state of relative purgatory. The franchise’s next move isn’t exactly clear.
Evidence suggests the Knicks could be in line to repeat their recent failures in the summer of 2021. New York doesn’t have a single non-rookie deal on its cap sheet after 2020–21, and Giannis Antetokounmpo’s free agency matches Durant’s in its anticipation and fanfare. The failures of the James Dolan era are numerous, but just one key free agent can resurrect the franchise.
We shouldn’t entice Knicks fans with such a proposition. Antetokounmpo will have a deep pool of attractive suitors when his free agency arrives, with each option likely far more viable than the Knicks as currently constituted. So if we assume Antetokounmpo is out of the picture, where can the franchise turn as Leon Rose begins his term as team president? There appear to be two distinct paths in play.
Let’s start with the simpler route Rose could take. Despite an assumed yearning from Dolan & Co. to return to the playoffs sooner than later, playing the long game may be the most prudent move. The Knicks could very well bottom out in 2020–21, attempt to gather draft capital and prepare for the 2021 draft. It’s hard to parse just how much (if any) value Julius Randle, Frank Ntilikina and Dennis Smith have on the open market, but it’s possible New York can scrounge up a couple of extra picks ahead of what is purportedly a stacked 2021 class. The Knicks have forfeited their spot as a destination for elite free agents until proven otherwise. Building a young core remains paramount.
The Knicks may be out of the game for the Giannis-level stars at the moment, but perhaps we’re still underrating their free-agent appeal for the next class of players. New York could still make considerable offers to Victor Oladipo, Jrue Holiday or Mike Conley next offseason, and James Harden and Bradley Beal could be among the following year’s class. A step toward a sustainable rebuild could land the Knicks a top draft asset in 2021, then the accompanying free agents either that summer or in 2022. This is all easier said than done, of course. But it’s likely New York’s safest bet toward a potential return to contention.
Yet the safest route may not be the Knicks’ preferred choice as we enter the offseason. Rose and Dolan could choose to eschew the youth movement in exchange for a quicker return to the postseason, which isn’t an impossible dream in the junior-varsity conference. New York could chase free-agent guards such as Fred VanVleet and Evan Fournier, and there are additional options on the trade market. The Knicks have been rumored as a potential landing spot for Chris Paul (Rose’s former client), and perhaps Conley could be acquired a year early for the right price. The Knicks could theoretically walk a tightrope where they both move toward playoff contention in 2021 and remain flexible for the following offseason. But as is the case every offseason, deciding on a vision is just one piece of the puzzle. Executing it is a whole different ball game.
There is no perfect formula for Rose and the Knicks as the franchise looks to reverse two decades largely defined by ineptitude. Sitting on their hands could lead to the No. 1 pick in the 2021 draft, and if the cap sheet is effectively cleared, every non-Giannis possibility in free agency is on the table. Yet there are more complicating factors at play. Does Tom Thibodeau want to fully punt on his first year with the organization? Will failing to add a legitimate point guard stunt the growth of R.J. Barrett? There’s more than just ownership impatience at risk if the Knicks tumble to the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings.
New York has suffered its fair share of embarrassments in the Dolan era, yet the 2019 free-agency debacle was the most painful chapter. Durant and Irving’s coming to Madison Square Garden felt not just possible, but probable. Each star had grown dissatisfied in their prior stop. Each wanted to play in a major market. If the Knicks were anything but a true disaster, they likely would have landed in Manhattan.
Losing out on Durant and Irving was a true gut punch. Hopefully it can serve as a wake-up call. Dolan has empowered Rose and Thibodeau, two impressive basketball minds with a vision for sustainable team building. The new brain trust deserves patience as the franchise eyes a way out of the East cellar. If the Knicks play their cards right, they could contend for the conference crown by the middle of the 2020s.