No Zion, no Kyrie, no Durant -- but still a plan.
The Knicks have channeled their frustration, taking a strategic approach after missing out on the NBA’s biggest stars to their crosstown rival.
By signing six free agents to short-term contracts with team options, New York has maintained flexibility for the present and future of its storied franchise. This offseason has guaranteed a better team and surrounded R.J. Barrett and Kevin Knox with legitimate, hard-working veterans.
The chance of landing Zion Williamson was 14 percent. Kyrie Irving grew up a Nets fan. Kevin Durant is friends with Kyrie but also wanted to play with his close companion DeAndre Jordan, who sat out the last seven games and never had a future with the Knicks to begin with.
Executing the master plan and acquiring any part of that three-headed monster required luck in the lottery. It required steering Irving away from the place he called home and Durant away from the player he once hosted on a recruiting visit at the University of Texas.
Rather than funneling its money into a risky max contract for a second tier free agent, New York spread its cap space to Julius Randle ($63M), Bobby Portis ($31M), Reggie Bullock ($21M), Taj Gibson ($20M), Wayne Ellington ($16M) and Elfrid Payton ($16M). The organization can move on from Randle after the 2020-21 season, and they can opt out of the other five players’ deals one year before that.
The common threads among the group are professionalism, perseverance and grit.
Randle sat out his rookie year due to injury. Portis was traded by the team that reportedly said they wouldn’t trade him. Bullock had to prove himself in the G-League before the NBA. Gibson is a bruising big, someone who was willing to take a backseat to Dario Saric. Ellington earned the 2015-16 J. Walter Kennedy Citizenship Award for his community involvement. Payton was an overlooked recruit and had to earn his recognition at Louisiana-Lafayette.
Beyond their character, though, is an encouraging element to what they can do on the court.
Randle is a liability on defense, but finally developed into a high-volume scorer last campaign. He had 11 games with 30+ points and his 6.1 win shares were second to only Anthony Davis (9.5) on the Pelicans. Portis is a better shooter from three-point range and can also help space the floor, while Gibson provides playoff experience and an interior presence off the bench.
The Knicks trotted out Luke Kornet, Lance Thomas, Noah Vonleh and Henry Ellenson at the power forward position, so adding this trio is an obvious and long-awaited upgrade.
In the backcourt, Payton had five straight triple-doubles and effectively played alongside Randle and spearheaded New Orleans while Jrue Holiday was on the mend. Ellington and Bullock are shooters and can be reliable options behind streakier youngsters like Dennis Smith Jr. and Barrett.
Frank Ntilikina and Damyean Dotson have simply not panned out, opening the gate to 25-minute workloads for Payton, Ellington and Bullock in starter or bench roles.
Having Zion, Kyrie and Durant play at Madison Square Garden would have been a dream come true, the perfect mix for a team whose last major free-agent signings were Amare Stoudemire and Jason Kidd past their primes.
But that won’t happen.
Instead, the Knicks have aligned themselves for a competitive season in 2019-20 with versatility for what they can do in the summers of 2020 and 2021. Davis (if he declines his player option), Draymond Green and Kyle Lowry could be part of the 2020 free-agent class. Giannis Antetokounmpo, LeBron James (if he declines his player option) and Davis could be part of the 2021 free-agent class.
If New York can elevate its play and rise in the Eastern Conference, then there will certainly be another opportunity to make a blockbuster move. Picking up these six free agents is the starting block to that process.