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For Tom Thibodeau, there are different paths to finding an NBA star

Knicks head coach Tom Thibodeau draws up plays

Knicks head coach Tom Thibodeau draws up plays during a timeout in the first half against the Detroit Pistons at Little Caesars Arena on December 13, 2020. Credit: Getty Images/Dave Reginek

The Knicks have shuffled through front office staff, coaching staffs and rosters, trying to position themselves as not just the team with a historic building, but as a destination for star talent to flock to in free agency.

But with the Knicks hoarding more potential salary cap space than any other team for what had been a heralded 2020-21 free-agent class, the dream took another hit Tuesday when Giannis Antetokounmpo announced that he would be signing a max extension to remain with the Milwaukee Bucks for the next five years.

What once looked like a buyer’s market is quickly becoming something far closer to the free-agent class that just came and went last month with the Knicks opting to hang on to their salary cap flexibility rather than spend on less than a franchise-changing star. Antetokounmpo joins the likes of Anthony Davis, Donovan Mitchell, Paul George, LeBron James, Jayson Tatum, De’Aaron Fox and Bam Adebayo who all opted to sign extensions with their current teams with uncertain revenue streams facing the NBA.

Now the market is led by Kawhi Leonard, who isn’t eligible to sign an extension yet with the Los Angeles Clippers but is expected to do so, Rudy Gobert, Victor Oladipo, Jrue Holiday, DeMar DeRozan and, well, Julius Randle. John Collins could become available if he doesn’t sign an extension with Atlanta. The same applies to Lonzo Ball in New Orleans. Almost every one of these players has a team or player option for next summer, increasing the uncertainty.

Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau has insisted the Knicks will not skip a step in the building process, but having been a team president he knows getting a star isn’t easy, but it’s necessary.

"I think it’s critical, when you look at every team in the league, particularly the playoff teams, and there’s a lot of different paths to getting stars," Thibodeau said. "Sometimes it’s the development phase. I think when you look at Jimmy Butler when he came in, he hardly played as a rookie. He played more each year and then would become a top-10 player in the league. It’s a testament to his work ethic and how he approached things. So some guys continue to get better year after year. Sometimes you have to do it through trades, sometimes it’s free agency. But I think you have to be very aggressive in seeking out those opportunities. They just don’t happen by accident."

The Knicks roster that he and team president Leon Rose inherited is not stocked with star potential right now. Rose opted to take the patient approach last month when he passed on getting into a bidding war for the likes of Gordon Hayward or Fred VanVleet. Instead, the Knicks went low-cost, short-term and stocked the roster with young veterans who could be shed from the team after the season.

But that still leaves the Knicks on the outside looking in. The best chance seems more and more that they get involved in a trade for a star since none have come rushing to Madison Square Garden. The Knicks already see the Nets having beaten them to Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving last summer.

"I think the system is set up to help the team that drafted the player to keep him," Thibodeau said. "So there’s a big advantage. It’s hard to get someone to leave. Every play, every situation, is different. So you plan for everything. Being opportunistic is important. Sometimes there’s situations that arise whether it be through free agency or trade.

"But I think every day that has to be a priority for the organization to seek out those opportunities. When you look at what’s going on in the league things can change very quickly. You work every day with your player development, try to improve through the draft, you have free agency and you have trades. I think you have to be very aggressive in each area. Sitting back and waiting sometimes is not a good thing."


The following NBA stars recently agreed to contract extensions and won't be part of the 2021 free-agent class:

Giannis Antetokounmpo

LeBron James

Anthony Davis

Paul George

Jayson Tatum

Donovan Mitchell

Bam Adebayo

De'Aaron Fox


Giannis Antetokounmpo's supermax extension with Milwaukee:

2021-22: $39.3M

2022-23: $42.5M

2023-24: $45.6M

2024-25: $48.8M

2025-26: $51.9M

Total: $228.2M

Average: $45.6M

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