This offseason is going to require a lot of discipline from the Knicks’ front office. It’s essential they never lose sight of their ultimate goal of making the Knicks a perennial championship contender. There will be opportunities in free agency to make the team better, but not every incremental improvement brings a team closer to perennial contention. Some improvement, depending on how it is achieved, can actually take a team further from long-term contention.
Confused? Allow me to explain.
The obvious part of this game is the contracts the Knicks hand out in free agency this summer. The Knicks can liquidate all their cap space, sign a couple of good NBA players like Fred VanVleet and Davis Bertans to long-term lucrative contracts, and surpass 35 wins with an outside chance of an Eastern Conference playoff run.
It would be a respite from the doldrums of the sub-30 win seasons the team has suffered through the last three years, but it would destroy their potential cap space in 2021 when the franchise might have a real chance to acquire players with higher ceilings than any players available this offseason. It would be a small gain now for a big loss just a year later.
What if the Knicks also trade some of their draft picks for a borderline All-Star to join VanVleet and Bertans? Could 40 wins be possible? Sure. But then many of the team’s future assets would be gone that would be needed to elevate a 40-45 win team to a 55-win team. The team would be better but any real avenue to become a title contender would be gone.
In other words, mission failed.
This next part is really going to annoy a large section of Knicks fans. The Knicks do not want to be so good next year that they elevate themselves into the back end of the lottery, where they have little to no chance to land a top pick in the draft. It doesn’t mean the Knicks should tank. If the Knicks’ young players play well enough to get the team 35-40 wins, it means the team has organically improved, which would be an undeniably good thing.
If the team, however, gets to 40 wins because of a bunch of veterans on cap-clogging long-term contracts, or with one-year mercenaries that won’t be with the team long term, what was the point? Is a 40-win team that much more attractive to 2021 free agents than a 32-win team if the players that got the team to 40 wins are entering free agency? No, it isn’t.
The 2021 draft, though a year away, has the potential to be special. On the most recent episode of The Bank Shot, my Knicks Podcast (link here), The Athletic’s draft guru, Sam Vecenie, told me there could be anywhere from three to seven players in next year’s draft that could be the best player in the 2020 class. Cade Cunningham has the potential to be one of those generational players at the top of the draft.
The Knicks need to have a reasonable chance to land one of those top players. They could be ranked 7th-9th in the lottery odds, which would give them a decent shot at moving into the top three. The Bulls and Hornets did exactly that in the 2020 NBA Lottery. Landing a true superstar in the draft can change a franchise’s trajectory faster than just about anything.
Every move the Knicks make from here on out has to maximize their chance of acquiring not just one, but two stars. Until a team has two stars, it is not going to be a true title contender. One way the Knicks can acquire a star is being in the top 10 of the lottery draw next year. Might the Knicks’ bad luck continue? Of course. But maybe, finally, it won’t. You have to be in the game to win it.
So, what do the Knicks do this offseason to maximize their long-term potential?
- Do not trade for a star player. Not yet. The Knicks are too early in their rebuild process to liquidate assets to trade for a star. A move like that should only be made after the Knicks find their first star via the draft or free agency.
- Do not trade up in the draft. This is not the draft to trade up due to the lack of high-end stars, but a trade down for extra picks, especially in the 2021 and 2022 drafts, should be considered. The Knicks should just pick the best players available when they select, even if it is a “draft and stash” player” The Knicks are not at the point where fit matters, spare perhaps selecting a true center.
- Acquire free agents that will allow the young players on the roster to thrive. The Knicks need a point guard that can run the offense, set up his teammates, and spread the floor with a steady three-point shot. They also need other shooters to put around RJ Barrett and Mitchell Robinson. These players should not be players that constantly want the ball or want to score. They need to complement the development of the Knicks’ youngsters above all else.
- Do not sign more than one player that eats into 2021 cap space. The Knicks MUST maintain room for at least one max free agent next summer. If the front office thinks they need one specific veteran to get the most out of the young players on the roster that costs multiple years (cough, Fred VanVleet, ahem), they should consider signing him as long as the contract is reasonable and could be moved later. They should also use some of their space to continue to acquire future draft assets.
- Use the 2020-2021 season to give Tom Thibodeau an up-close look at the young players on the roster, so better-informed decisions can be made regarding the young players in the 2021 offseason. Thibodeau did the exact same thing in his first year with Minnesota.
This plan would feature one more developmental season with Tom Thibodeau at the helm focusing on the youth on the roster, which would be wisely supplemented by the right veteran additions in free agency to put them in a real position to succeed. With spacing and a real floor general, the team should know whether players like Kevin Knox, Frank Ntilikina, Mitchell Robinson, RJ Barrett, Ignas Brazdeikis, and Dennis Smith Jr. are future stars, good players worth keeping, or players best left to join other rosters.
Mitchell Robinson may hit restricted free agency next summer, and the Knicks would have to decide how much they want to pay him. Frank Ntilikina and Dennis Smith could be offered long-term contract extensions after their fourth seasons. RJ Barrett and Kevin Knox would have one more season under their belts to determine how good they might become. The Knicks would also know about the players they selected in the 2020 draft.
It would set up 2021 as one of the most important off-seasons in team history. They would theoretically have the chance to draft a star player in loaded draft, sign a max free agent, and extend Mitchell Robinson long-term while he has a reasonable cap hold. It also wouldn’t be an all-or-nothing gambit such as 2019, where the franchise sacrificed their own young star in part to secure the cap space to sign two superstars in free agency. It would be a far more responsible approach with multiple fallback options if “Plan A” doesn’t work out.
This approach is going to require discipline, but it should be a path both Leon Rose and Tom Thibodeau are willing to take. Both are in their first seasons leading the Knicks, and should have sufficient leeway to dedicate the season to player development, while showing moderate improvement in the team’s record. If the Knicks leave 2020 winning 32 games with certain young players performing well, and knowing exactly what they have on their roster moving forward, it would be a successful season.
It’s the right thing to do when prioritizing the long-term fate of the franchise. One more year in the developmental stage could do a lot to set the Knicks up for bigger steps in future years. Knicks fans have been through 20 years of pain and they have stayed loyal. One more year is not a lot to endure given the potential future pay-off. For a fan base that has shown a lot of patience, it is needed to get the Knicks where they want to go.
Follow John Schmeelk on Twitter: @Schmeelk