With a record of 17-65, the New York Knicks just completed a season that tied for the worst in franchise history. It was New York’s sixth straight year without a postseason appearance. Despite the record, there is an optimism around the franchise that hasn’t existed recently.
The reason for the excitement is two-fold. The Knicks enter the Draft Lottery with the top odds at landing the first overall pick (tied with Cleveland and Phoenix as the lottery odds flatten this year). Beyond that, New York is positioned to have more cap space than any other team in the NBA. And to get to spending power isn’t going to involve a complex series of salary cap gymnastics either. It’s a pretty simple path, which we’ll detail in a minute.
Let’s start with the draft pick. Like everyone else, the Knicks are hoping to land the first pick and to draft Zion Williamson. Williamson is considered to be one of those can’t-miss talents that hits the NBA every 5-10 years. Most around the league have Williamson rated as the top prospect since Anthony Davis. He’ll instantly infuse excitement and watchability to even the most moribund of franchises. Even if New York doesn’t win the top spot, they have great odds of staying in the top three. That will deliver one of the top talents in either Ja Morant or R.J. Barrett. Neither is Williamson, but both are expected to be very good pros.
Unlike most of teams at the top of the lottery, the Knicks have far more to look forward to than just the draft. At the trade deadline, New York moved on from Kristaps Porzingis and a potentially sticky restricted free agent situation this summer. Porzingis is recovering from a torn ACL and missed the entire 18-19 season, but he’s still too good of a talent to let simply walk away. But the Knicks had concerns about signing him to a max contract as a restricted free agent. In addition, Porzingis’ big cap hold would have tied up cap space the Knicks would rather have used elsewhere. The contracts of Tim Hardaway Jr. and Courtney Lee would have also cannibalized their cap space.
In dealing Porzingis to Dallas, New York added an exciting young point guard prospect in Dennis Smith Jr. and some additional draft assets going forward. Smith had some ups and downs in his first two years, but is still the player many thought of as arguably the best point guard in his draft class. In addition, he’s under team control for the next two seasons at a reasonable cap number.
The Knicks found gold in last year’s second round with Mitchell Robinson. Off the court concerns caused Robinson to drop, and that was New York’s gain. He was signed to a four-year deal, which tops out at a miniscule $1.8 million in 21-22. Robinson made an immediate impact as a rebounder and shot-blocker and has a developing offensive game. He’s a keeper and someone who will fill a rotation spot on the cheap for years to come.
While the team hit on Robinson, the Knicks last two first round picks on the other hand are looking a lot shakier. Frank Ntilikina struggled through his first two seasons with injuries and inconsistency. He’s got a long way to go on offense to be playable. Ntilikina’s defense, while solid, has never been game-changing as was advertised pre-draft.
Kevin Knox is in a similar boat, but with more hope. He graded out as one of the worst and most inefficient players in the NBA as a rookie. The reason for hope is that Knox was essentially given free rein to take as many shots as he wanted, and from wherever he wanted. Let’s just say the Knicks weren’t exactly prioritizing winning down the stretch of the season. Because of this, they were happy to let Knox fire away. The belief is that Knox can, and will, have the bad shots removed from his game as he ages and the team become more competitive. The skills are all there for Knox, it’s about showing it.
And that’s it. Those four (Smith, Robinson, Ntilikina and Knox) are the only players with guaranteed contract on the New York roster. And that, more than anything else, is the reason Knicks fans are sky high entering the summer.
Let’s be optimistic and say the Knicks do win the lottery and get the first overall pick. The cap hold for Williamson, combined with the salaries of Knox, Ntilikina, Robinson and Smith and some dead money for Joakim Noah, accounts for just $31.5 million. That leaves New York positioned to have as much as $71 million in cap space this summer.
The Knicks can get there fairly easily too. The only real decision point seems to be with Allonzo Trier who played himself from a Two-Way contract to a full NBA deal. All the rest of the free agents will their options declined and will be renounced. That doesn’t mean a few might not be back, as Steve Mills and Scott Perry fill out the roster, but that will happen after New York does their big spending.
The shopping list this summer starts with Kevin Durant. Durant will opt out of his contract with the Warriors and hit the market once again. He’s been linked to New York for more than a year now, just like he was previously connected to the Warriors. The prevailing wisdom is that Durant has completed what he set out to accomplish with Golden State and wants to have his own team again. And that’s what the Knicks can sell him on.
But Durant isn’t going somewhere by himself, and New York is positioned to add a second star. The Knicks will pitch Kyrie Irving first and will hope to draw him away from the division rival Celtics. They’ve got just enough space to fit both Durant and Irving in. That would give them two superstars, a top pick in Williamson and some interesting young talent. They’ll use exceptions and minimum contracts to fill out the rest of the roster. That’s enough to be contender in the Eastern Conference.
What if Irving won’t leave Boston, or goes elsewhere? The Knicks will turn to New York native Kemba Walker, who is far from a bad backup plan. They’ll also likely talk to fellow New Yorker Tobias Harris. They could get involved on Jimmy Butler. Outside of Kawhi Leonard, who has never been realistically linked to New York, expect the Knicks to be in on every top tier free agent.
And of course, New York will be position to look at a deal for Anthony Davis. They could build a package around Williamson (or Morant or Barrett), future picks and any of the young players on the roster. The dream scenario is entering next season with a trio of Durant, Irving and Davis and ring chasers backing them up. That’s an instant title contender.
Barring the dream scenario playing out, the Knicks should keep their powder dry. Don’t overreact and overpay second-tier talent. That tactic hasn’t worked out for in the past. This is the first real chance to rebuild things from a clean base. New York can’t mess it up again.
Guaranteed Contracts (4): Kevin Knox, Frank Ntilikina, Mitchell Robinson, Dennis Smith Jr.
Partial/Non-Guaranteed Contracts (2): Damyean Dotson, Lance Thomas
Potential Free Agents (10): Henry Ellenson (UFA – Team Option), Billy Garrett (RFA – Team Option), Mario Hezonja (UFA), Isaiah Hicks (RFA – Two-Way), John Jenkins (UFA – Team Option), DeAndre Jordan (UFA), Luke Kornet (RFA), Emmanuel Mudiay (RFA), Allonzo Trier (RFA – Team Option), Noah Vonleh (UFA)
“Dead” Money on Cap ($6,431,667): Joakim Noah
First Round Draft Pick(s) (pre-Lottery): Pick #1
Maximum Cap Space: $80.1 million
Projected Cap Space: $71.3 million