Give the New York Knicks credit: They appear to have learned from their “money-to-burn” debacle in 2016.
However, that doesn’t mean their plan B this offseason is guaranteed to pay off.
When the salary cap jumped an unprecedented $24 million in 2016, the Knicks quickly came to terms with Joakim Noah on a four-year, $72 million contract. That deal backfired to the extent that they’ll be paying him $6.4 million over each of the next three seasons not to play for them.
The Knicks could have made the same mistake this summer after they whiffed on Zion Williamson in the draft and the Kevin Durant-Kyrie Irving tandem in free agency. Armed with more than $70 million in salary-cap space, they could have attempted to splurge on second-tier free agents such as Nikola Vucevic, Bojan Bogdanovic or Malcolm Brogdon.
Instead, they spread the wealth, handing out short-term deals to Julius Randle, Bobby Portis, Taj Gibson, Wayne Ellington, Reggie Bullock, Elfrid Payton and Marcus Morris. Other than Morris, who inked a one-year, $15 million contract, their other free-agent signings either have a mostly nonguaranteed salary in the final year of their respective contracts (Randle, Gibson, Ellington, Payton and Bullock) or a team option (Portis).
Even better, Randle, Portis and Payton still possess enough youth to be considered “upside” signings. Taking relatively cheap fliers on young pedigreed talents is rarely a bad thing.
Structuring those deals in that way was undeniably smart, too, as New York will maintain long-term financial flexibility and get a much-needed jolt in the interim. Although the Knicks aren’t likely to contend for a playoff spot this season, they should drastically improve on their 17-win campaign, as my colleague Daniel O’Brien wrote last month.
This plan isn’t foolproof, though.
For one, the Knicks might not have enough minutes to go around.
Between their seven major free-agent signings and their core of young players—RJ Barrett, Dennis Smith Jr., Kevin Knox, Mitchell Robinson and Frank Ntilikina—head coach David Fizdale is looking at the possibility of an 11- or 12-man rotation (depending on when Bullock is able to return). That’s before factoring in 25-year-old swingman Damyean Dotson or 23-year-old guard Allonzo Trier, both of whom are set to become restricted free agents after this season and deserve further looks.
Although the 34-year-old Gibson and soon-to-be 30-year-old Morris may provide more of an immediate impact, neither should figure into New York’s long-term plans. It’s likely they’ve been signed with the expressed purpose of training the new guys for half a season before being flipped to contenders for modest draft considerations by the deadline. We’ve seen this trend among middling teams for a few years now, and it’s a smart one: Might as well use your cap space to collect some assets along the way.
It’s imperative for the Knicks to figure out whether Dotson, Trier, Ntilikina, Knox and Smith are potential building blocks for the future, but they’re all likely to lose touches and minutes to the slew of newcomer veterans. At least for a while.
FiveThirtyEight currently projects Smith as the only Knicks player who will receive 30 minutes per game this upcoming season, while Barrett (28), Randle (28) and Knox (25) aren’t far behind. A whopping 11 players are projected to play 10 or more minutes, not including Bullock, who underwent surgery in late July for a cervical disk herniation.
That leaves Fizdale with a tricky juggling act.
With only 240 minutes to distribute across regulation, some players are bound to be unhappy with their playing time on any given night. That could create an unhealthy environment where teamwork and camaraderie devolve into an “I’m-gonna-get-mine” mindset permeating throughout the organization. Other than Randle, the free agents who signed with the Knicks this summer are playing for their next contracts this season. Getting relegated to a low-minutes role off the bench could adversely affect their earning potential in 2020 or beyond, which sets the stage for a potentially explosive situation.
Even if Fizdale manages to keep egos in check and distributes minutes equitably, the Knicks are also relying on a buyer’s market at the trade deadline.
In Portis ($15 million), Morris ($15 million), Gibson ($9 million), Ellington ($8 million) and Payton ($8 million), the Knicks have plenty of salary-matching fodder on their books. They could package some of those players together to eat a hefty salary in exchange—especially if it came with additional draft compensation or a young prospect—or they could flip any of them in a one-for-one swap.
Contenders may want a backup big like Gibson or a shooter like Ellington, especially with the title race as wide-open as it seems to be this year. Perhaps the Knicks will be able to flip some of their veterans for a future first-round pick or a prospect in need of a fresh start.
The Knicks could also target teams in need of long-term salary relief, too. Since most of their free-agent signings largely come off the books after this season, teams looking to duck a hefty luxury-tax bill may be willing to shell out valuable assets for some of New York’s shorter-term contracts.
Then again, other teams may decide to play a game of chicken.
Knowing that New York signed many of these players only to dangle them on the trade market six months later, teams may be reluctant to give up much more than a second-round pick for any of them (other than Randle). The Knicks should prefer that over losing them for nothing in free agency either in 2020 or 2021, but that likely won’t move the needle much on their long-term outlook.
Other teams were far more adept this offseason at facilitating salary dumps for draft compensation.
The Los Angeles Clippers acquired a lottery-protected 2023 first-round pick from the Miami Heat in the Jimmy Butler sign-and-trade just for taking on Moe Harkless’ $11.0 million salary. (And Harkless isn’t dead weight, either!) They later flipped that pick as part of their package for Paul George, which in turn helped seal Kawhi Leonard’s arrival in free agency.
The Memphis Grizzlies snagged a top-four-protected 2024 first-round pick from the Golden State Warriors for absorbing Andre Iguodala’s $17.2 million salary and helping the Warriors duck hard-cap issues. Regardless of whether they buy Iguodala out or flip him for assets later on, they’ve already added a lightly protected future first-rounder just for renting out one year’s worth of cap space.
It’s impossible to give the Knicks’ offseason a definitive grade until we see what happens between now and February.
If their chemistry doesn’t turn caustic and they can flip some of their free-agent signings for notable draft compensation or young players, they’ll deserve plaudits. It would be a marked departure from their typical offseason modus operandi, which could help restore faith in their front office’s ability to cobble together a long-term vision.
But if the Knicks’ chemistry does implode or they fail to pick up major assets on the trade market, they’ll effectively have wasted a year’s worth of cap space. That won’t punish them to the extent that Noah’s ill-advised contract did, but a failure to capitalize on assets—whether it’s draft picks, free-agent signings or cap space—hinders a team’s championship window nevertheless.
Smith, Barrett, Knox and Robinson won’t be on cheap rookie deals forever. By the time they come up for new contracts, the Knicks will need some semblance of a long-term supporting cast in place.
The next six months will go a long way toward revealing how successful they are in that mission.