After years of mismanagement, poor front office decisions, underwhelming drafts, and offloading their brightest star for what may turn out to be low first round picks, the New York Knicks finally got something right when they drafted R.J. Barrett to play in Madison Square Garden for the foreseeable future. Rumours of private workouts with Vanderbilt guard Darius Garland may have made Knicks fans sweat, but they eventually settled on the right decision when they selected the Duke freshman third overall in the 2019 NBA draft.
Now set up with Barrett, Dennis Smith Jr., and Kevin Knox as a promising young core (as well as hoping Frank Ntilikina steps up to be the player they thought they drafted), New York can sell themselves and their two max salary slots with genuine ambition to prospective free agents that tickle their fancy, namely the likes of Kyrie Irving, Kevin Durant, and recent NBA Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard, along with Klay Thompson and Kemba Walker (in spite of Durant and Thompson’s serious injuries).
Yet with the first real sense of excitement around the Knicks since ‘The Unicorn’ Kristaps Porzingis burst on to the scene, comes the ever-present sense of dread that things seem too good to be true, that this hope must be met with swift and unyielding disappointment, as has greeted Knicks fans relentlessly since the turn of the millennium: Trading away Porzingis, signing Amar’e Stoudemire as the big free agent of 2010 but not pairing him with any teammates of proper quality, the inability to give Carmelo Anthony a squad that could win more than one playoff series, the decision to include a no-trade clause in Anthony’s max contract so he couldn’t be offloaded, giving a past-his-best Joakim Noah a four-year, $72 million contract, trading for José Calderon. The list of calamities and shortcomings is a long and painful reminder of what being a Knicks fan means in the 21st century.
It is therefore natural as a Knicks fan to take every step forward as a prelude to two steps back, to hope for the best while expecting and preparing for the worst. The draft has rarely been a saviour, as the Knicks have only had six first round picks in the draft since selecting Jordan Hill eighth overall in 2009. The lack of vision in the front office has been a hallmark of James Dolan’s ownership: Reckless, feckless, and without a long-term plan. This year looks like the first coherent offseason the Knicks could have in well over a decade. That is, if they can entice two of the biggest free agents to play in MSG come July 1st.
Durant and Irving have long been considered the most likely to join the Knicks since they traded Porzingis to create the two max contract slots, which makes sense. They’re both top-5 calibre players when healthy, and both have championship pedigree. However, Durant suffered an Achilles tear in the NBA Finals and may not be back playing at his best for a year, while Irving is being tempted by the cross-city Brooklyn Nets, and even if he did sign may eat into Smith Jr.’s minutes on the court. His unceremonious exit from Cleveland and his time in Boston have shown that he can sometimes be difficult to work alongside.
Leonard looks set to either stay in Toronto or move to L.A. to rival LeBron James at the Clippers or team up with him and Anthony Davis at the Lakers. Thompson, like Durant, will be out for the best part of a year after tearing his ACL in the Finals, and Walker has affirmed his willingness to remain with the Hornets, even if it meant not taking a supermax contract with the team. When the individual cases are lined out, the pickings begin to look slim for the Knicks.
In a worst-case scenario, the Knicks can’t fill one of the max slots and overpay multiple mediocre-to-good players, while giving a max contract to Jimmy Butler, who would be an excellent contributor to the team but lacks the superstar ability that pushes a good team over the edge into greatness. This sounds eerily like the 2010 free agency, when LeBron, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, and even Joe Johnson rebuffed New York, who were forced to settle for Stoudemire and an underwhelming supporting cast.
In a world where things fall in the Knicks favour, perhaps they sign Durant with the promise to build a roster that can contend when he returns from injury. They don’t overspend on other free agents to remain flexible with their cap, and Durant can take his time to return even if it means another fruitless year. They hope for a lucky draw in the 2020 draft lottery, and Durant returns at full strength with Barrett, Smith Jr., Knox, a high pick in 2020, and maybe an upper-tier player through free agency, along with a younger squad and the potential to use the Mavericks’ 2021 first round pick acquired in the Porzingis trade to move up in the following draft. Durant would then have his stage and supporting cast to prove his credentials as the world’s best player, leading a moribund franchise back from the depths of irrelevance to a championship they have craved since the days of Patrick Ewing.
But these are the Knicks we’re talking about. Nothing has ever fallen in their favour because they’ve never given it a chance. R.J. Barrett is the first positive of a summer Knicks fans hope is full of them, but the fear remains that Barrett could be the only highlight. When it became obvious that Porzingis was the future of the franchise, the Knicks should have begun a rebuild around him and found a way to rid themselves of Anthony. Now both are gone and they have a chance to luck themselves into a quick rebuild. Don’t screw this up New York.