Under Contract (12): R.J. Barrett, Ignas Brazdeikis, Reggie Bullock ($1 million guaranteed), Wayne Ellington ($1 million guaranteed), Taj Gibson ($1 million guaranteed), Kevin Knox, Frank Ntilikina, Elfrid Payton ($1 million guaranteed), Julius Randle, Mitchell Robinson (non-guaranteed), Dennis Smith Jr., Kenny Wooten (Two-Way)
Free Agents (5): Damyean Dotson (restricted), Maurice Harkless (unrestricted), Jared Harper (restricted – Two-Way), Theo Pinson (restricted – team option), Bobby Portis (unrestricted – team option)
Projected Cap Space: $46.7 million
Projected Exceptions: Room ($5 million)
Projected First Round Draft Picks (pre-lottery): #6, #27 (via LA Clippers)
Analysis: The New York Knicks are starting over in just about every possible way. With the exception of Scott Perry, the old front office is out. Leon Rose is in as President of Basketball Operations, and he’s brought in experienced front office members like Brock Aller and Walt Perrin to help him.
On the sidelines, the Knicks have hired Tom Thibodeau as their new head coach. Thibodeau brings a track record of success to the role, as he’s only had one losing record in a full season as a head coach. New York hopes that Thibodeau can help reverse a streak of seven consecutive losing seasons.
With new leadership in place, it’s time for the Knicks to rebuild the roster yet again. As it stands today, New York has an ill-fitting mix of young players with upside and veterans who are best suited to be role players. That combination put David Fizdale and interim coach Mike Mitchell in difficult spots last year. The kids needed to play for development, but at many positions they were blocked by veterans with no upside.
Fortunately for the future, the old front office had the foresight to sign most of those players to one-year, or pseudo one-year, contracts. That’s where the decisions start this offseason.
The first order of business is deciding a path. Do the Knicks want to maximize their cap space? Or are they rolling that space over to the 2021 offseason? Picking a path will guide the immediate decision-making.
By mid-October, Rose has to decide if he wants to fully guarantee contracts for veterans Reggie Bullock, Wayne Ellington, Taj Gibson and Elfrid Payton. If the Knicks move on from any of these players, they’re on the hook for just a $1 million guarantee. In addition, Bobby Portis has a $15.7 million team option that has to be exercised by mid-October as well.
You can make a case for any of these players to be back. Bullock and Ellington add shooting to a roster that is woefully short in that particular skill. Gibson is a Thibodeau favorite from both his Chicago and Minnesota tenures. Payton is the closest thing to a starting-caliber point guard on the roster. And Portis, despite some inconsistency, is still only 25 years old and fits as a stretch 4.
What the Knicks should do is move on from each player, at least initially. In a market where only a handful of teams have cap space, New York should be able to beat any reasonable offer to re-sign any of these veterans. Essentially, if the Knicks can’t find a better way to spend their cap space, they can bring back these players to at least give Thibodeau some veterans to work with. At the very least, expect Gibson to be back in New York, given his relationship with Thibodeau.
What’s next is what’s really important, especially if the Knicks go the cap space route. There are no quick fixes in this year’s free agent class. New York could throw big offer sheets at some restricted free agents, but it’s unlikely to land them anyone of consequence. The unrestricted market doesn’t offer the kind of high-end talent that would vault the club into playoff contention.
Sure, the Knicks could spend big on players like Montrezl Harrell, Christian Wood or DeMar DeRozan (if he declines his player option), but what would that really accomplish? Those players are all good, but none of them are taking this roster to the playoffs. Not even two of three would get New York there. That’s the sort of approach that has cost the Knicks over and over again.
That means Rose and crew should take a page out of the crosstown Nets playbook. The goal should be to accumulate assets and target undervalued free agents. While the Knicks could make teams like the Timberwolves and Kings sweat big offer sheets for players like Malik Beasley or Bogdan Bogdanovic, it’s not worth it. Anything short of a massive overpay, and those incumbent teams will match.
Instead, New York should focus a tier or two down. Kris Dunn, Jevon Carter or De’Anthony Melton are all restricted free agents and could be gettable with a well-crafted offer sheet. All would help clear up the point guard picture as well.
If the Knicks want to spend big money to fill their lead guard hole, they could throw a big offer at Fred VanVleet. It’s likely going to have to take a near-max contract to pull VanVleet away from Toronto, but New York can offer that and the starting point guard job.
The other option at point guard is to simply guarantee Payton’s contract for $8 million and let him start. The reason the position is such a spot of need is because neither Frank Ntilikina nor Dennis Smith Jr. have panned out. Thibodeau will love Ntilikina’s defense and emerging playmaking, but he’s yet to shoot even 40% in his NBA career. Smith looks completely lost and New York was supposed to the change of scenery he needed to get his career going. It’s unlikely either is the starter the Knicks need.
On the wing, R.J. Barrett had an inconsistent rookie season, but the roster wasn’t conducive for anything beyond that. Barrett was working with less space than he had at Duke. All too often, he’d drive and kick just to see a shot clank off the rim from a poor shooter. Or he’d be forced into a tough look with the defender all over him. With better talent around him, the hope is that Barrett’s scoring will improve, and his playmaking will show up as well.
Kevin Knox is another story entirely. After an inefficient, yet encouraging, rookie season, Knox was one of the worst players in the entire NBA last season. He couldn’t shoot, didn’t rebound and his defense was abysmal. Knox only just turned 21, so he’s too young to give up on entirely, but this is a make-or-break next season for him.
And that’s about it for wing players for the Knicks. You can kind of see why the idea of bringing back Bullock and Ellington is worth considering. There are also a few undervalued free agents like Pat Connaughton, Josh Jackson, or Glenn Robinson III that could really help New York.
Up front, Mitchell Robinson looks incredibly promising. Robinson shot an absurd 74.2% while averaging 9.7 points, seven rebounds and two blocks in 23 minutes per game off the bench. Project those numbers out to per-36, and you’ve got a double-double player who blocks three shots a night. If Robinson doesn’t start next season, it’s because Thibodeau is giving veteran priority to someone like Gibson as starter in name only.
Next to Robinson is Julius Randle. At this point, we know what Randle is. He’s a scoring big man that can hold his own on the glass and do some creating for others. If he plays like he did in New Orleans, where he took 72% of his shots in the paint, Randle has value. If he’s the jump-shot happy version (over 40% of Randle’s attempts were jumpers) New York got, then he’s an overpaid mess.
The Knicks will have a high draft pick and no one on the roster should prevent them from taking the best player available. Barrett is the closest thing, and he’s adaptable enough to fit with just about anyone. Because New York can use a lot of everything, they should go in to the draft completely open-minded.
Rose and Thibodeau are starting with kind of a blank slate. If they go the cap space route, New York could target a few players who fit Thibodeau’s style well and are young enough to grow with Barrett and Robinson. The Knicks should also have enough cap space to eat a bad contract or two to help teams out of the luxury tax in exchange for draft picks.
This approach will allow New York to put a competitive team on the court, while collecting assets for the future. Rose and crew have to avoid the sort of quick fix approach that has plagued the franchise in the past. Maintaining flexibility for what looks like a terrific 2021 free agent class is paramount. By building up their base, the Knicks could be poised to be a destination in fairly short order, just not this offseason.