NEW YORK — New York Knicks president Steve Mills and general manager Scott Perry did not want to talk about free agency on Friday. At a press conference for draft picks RJ Barrett and Ignas Brazdeikis, Mills said they were “here to celebrate and enjoy having these guys join our team.” Perry said they were excited about their player development program. Nine days before the player-movement madness (officially) begins, the Knicks’ cap space — enough for two maximum contracts — was the elephant in the room.
There were small hints, however, that provided a window into the organization’s thinking. Mills said the team will be “opportunistic” about adding to the team. He did not directly say that fans should temper their expectations for the summer, but he implied that New York wouldn’t spend its money just to spend it.
“I think we’re asking [fans] to continue to be patient,” Mills said. “We laid out a plan with staffing on board, then David [Fizdale] joined us, that we were going to build this team the right way. We were going to draft well and we were going to be diligent about how we build this team and not take any shortcuts.
On the first day of February, the Knicks put massive pressure on themselves to win big in the offseason, trading franchise player Kristaps Porzingis to the Dallas Mavericks in order to gain financial flexibility. The challenge now is, if they fail in their pursuit of A-list free agents, they must remain responsible. Too many times, this franchise has overpaid big-name players on long-term deals. Too many times, it has operated without a coherent plan. When Mills said New York would be diligent and avoid shortcuts, he essentially promised that things would be different now.
If the Knicks don’t land Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, the list of other stars they will chase is short. New York doesn’t have a better idea of what Kawhi Leonard is thinking than anybody else around the league does, and it does not want to sign a second-tier player to a top-tier contract.
Should the Knicks sign zero or one max deals, they would use their enormous cap space on short-term contracts. Instead of targeting “second draft” types as they did with Noah Vonleh and Mario Hezonja last summer, though, they would aim higher. Next season would then be about becoming more competitive and seeing improvement from the likes of Barrett, Kevin Knox, Mitchell Robinson and Allonzo Trier. In 2020, they would try free agency again.
It is indisputably a good thing that the Knicks appear determined not to be pressured into doing something irresponsible. It is dangerous to bet too much on one free-agency period, and, if you are a normal rebuilding team, there is nothing wrong with a slow-and-steady approach.
New York, however, is not a normal rebuilding team. The inherent risk involved in playing the free agency game was the exact argument against trading Porzingis before the end of his rookie contract, a move that wouldn’t have been necessary if it hadn’t signed Courtney Lee to a four-year deal in 2016 and signed Tim Hardaway Jr. to a four-year deal in 2017. The front office should absolutely not do anything desperate in an attempt to justify the Porzingis trade, but it will be impossible for fans to separate the trade from whatever happens in late June and early July. When Mills and Perry made that deal, they knew it would raise expectations.
At Friday’s press conference, a reporter asked Barrett if he has big enough shoulders to carry the franchise. The 19-year-old handled it like a pro.
“Carry? I wouldn’t say ‘carry,'” Barrett said. “I’d say it’s going to be a great group of guys that are going to be together, and we’re all excited to play for coach Fizdale and this is the biggest stage. So, yeah, I’m excited to be here, I’m excited to play, but I haven’t even played a game yet, so how are you going to ask me a question like that?”
If the timing of the question was poor, though, it wasn’t just because Barrett has yet to play a professional game. It is because we don’t know what the Knicks will look like when he does. If free agency goes well for New York, it will seem hilarious that Barrett was asked about carrying the franchise. If it doesn’t, then the answer to that question could become extremely important. As has been the case for years, the Knicks’ path to contention is hazy. The next few weeks will be illuminating.