Yesterday, the Knicks missed out on multiple max-level free agents. Ordinarily, this doesn’t come as a huge surprise but yesterday felt different as Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving both decided to call Brooklyn their new home instead of “The Mecca.” The Knicks have lost out on the chase for NBA superstars before to marquee free agent destinations like Miami and Los Angeles before but it almost feels like a referendum losing to a neighboring borough. Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant were supposed to be Knicks, there was no way they would sign with the B team who hasn’t been in the city for even 10 years yet, right? Fans and media alike fed into the narrative that the only challenge KD had left to conquer was being “the man” in New York. If he led a 17 win team Knicks team to a title one day, surely nobody could question his legacy. As for Kyrie, surely his family ties to the tristate area would draw him to MSG as he uses his fancy handles to cross up opponents on the Garden floor.
Except neither scenario ever ended up becoming true or even come close to it. Finding the next savior of the Knicks has been folklore for a while now and the question of carrying the franchise was even recently asked to the Knicks #3 overall pick, RJ Barrett. The mature 19-year-old replied, “I haven’t even played a game yet, so why are you going to ask me a question like that?” The truth is that nobody in their right mind would want to be the next Knicks messiah. More NBA players would tell you they would rather slay a dragon. Not even Kyrie Irving, who so badly wanted his own team that he asked for a trade to be separated from LeBron James, would perk up at the thought of being “the man” for New York. Both players, as flawed as they are, are smart enough to realize that great players need other great players around them to win.
Another sign the Knicks were in trouble recruiting Durant to New York was that they had to look for non-basketball reasons to lure the former MVP and NBA champion. According to SNY’s Ian Begley, the Knicks pitch to Durant was “centered around opportunities to make money outside the parameters of his NBA contract”. If money was the pivotal turning point for KD’s decision, he would’ve never said no to Golden State’s 5 year $220 million deal. The Knicks have similarly used this pitch before in 2010 with LeBron offering the King his own personal TV chef and all the financial opportunities NYC had to offer. Both times, this pitch failed miserably.
There’s no indication to believe the Knicks even were Durant’s second choice, which begs the question: What is the Knicks plan and why are they so bad at attracting free agents? Simply put, I believe the Knicks plan is to keep on this path of hoping and praying a superstar free agent one day says yes to their money. Yesterday, it was Durant and tomorrow it will be Giannis Antetokounmpo. Is there any reason to believe the Greek Freak in 2021 will provide a different answer than Durant did yesterday? Not really. But before they can sign a future max free agent, they will need to get a seat at the table first (and by all indications, the Knicks were not granted meetings with Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, Kawhi Leonard, or even the Bronx’s own Kemba Walker). The only way to get a seat? Show that you can win with your own talent and coaching. The Knicks don’t need to look farther than the Nets to learn how.
With the advent of super teams such as Miami’s Big 3 and Golden State’s 73 win team + KD, tanking has gained a fandom in the NBA as a smart way to build a team. We’ve seen it work in Philadelphia and not so much in Phoenix. Tanking works great if you can nail all your top 10 picks like the Thunder did selecting Durant, Westbrook, and Harden but not so much if you miss on picks like the Knicks have with Frank Ntilikina and potentially Kevin Knox (if he doesn’t significantly improve). Fans (myself included) were laughing at Brooklyn’s decision to compete this year rather than capitalizing on the first draft pick they owned for themselves since 2013. Probably because they were forced to, Brooklyn learned to be scrappy and find talent wherever they could find it. They traded for draft picks like Caris LeVert, signed players like Spencer Dinwiddie off waivers and Joe Harris as another under the radar guy before they became more household names and eventually role players Durant and Irving were intrigued by.
Another team who has been really great at acquiring talent through any means necessary and someone the Knicks can look at for guidance is Utah. The Jazz have quietly assembled a very strong contender in the Western conference by drafting extremely well (Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert) and getting talent in the building from places unknown like a Joe Ingles. The word “culture” is oven overused in sports but whatever it is, it doesn’t look like the Knicks have it just yet. Teams like Brooklyn, Philadelphia, and Utah who have all had different paths to being relevant today as they do share one commonality: a strong head coach. No matter what you think of Kenny Atkinson, Brett Brown, or Quinn Synder, they all have a unique style that rubs off on their organization. Time will tell if David Fizdale will have that same impact in New York but Fizdale will have to be the one giving the Knicks an identity.
The Knicks are fresh off 17 wins, so the good news is there’s not much else they can do except improve that total. And yes, it appears they have grown a bit wiser this summer as they did not sign Terry Rozier or past their prime veterans with broken shoulder to max deals. It looks like they got a good young player in Julius Randle and a bunch of one year deals with team options for Bobby Portis, Taj Gibson, Reggie Bullock, Wayne Ellington, and Elfrid Payton. This is a step in the right direction but shouldn’t be reason for celebration just yet.
It very much looks like the Knicks are being careful with their cap space (which is good) so they can chase another star in free agency in 2020 (unlikely with Anthony Davis and Draymond Green as the only guys available) or 2021 (more likely with Giannis, Bradley Beal, Paul George, etc.) More importantly, the Knicks must find guys who they want to keep on their team for more than just a couple of years. It’s not enough to have some nice trade-able contracts and flexibility with your roster. You need guys on the roster that free agents will want to play with.
So yes, that means RJ Barrett better become a future All-Star and guys like Kevin Knox and Mitchell Robinson achieve their potentials. But it also means the Knicks have to be scrappy and find ways to acquire sleepers via free agency, drafts, and the waiver wire. Once they have a proof of concept like Brooklyn did showing Kyrie and KD that they can without them, only then can the Knicks hope to have better luck with free agents. After acquiring Kawhi Leonard, the key piece to Toronto’s championship team this year, Masai Ujiri said something simple yet profound: “That’s why we play sports, is to compete for championships. We have been doing this for how many years? You can’t keep doing the same thing over and over.” More than half of the league at the time did not share the same goal as Ujiri but with the new lottery odds discouraging tanking, more teams like New York will be looking for new ways to win. But hopefully for Knicks fans, the team doesn’t keep trying the same pitch for summers to come.