While the NBA free-agent market doesn’t open officially for business until 6 p.m. Thursday it’s hardly a mystery that the Knicks have already plotted out their first and biggest move — bringing Jalen Brunson to Madison Square Garden.
Now, as free agency opens, what’s next?
The Knicks are adding an upgrade in Brunson, but that’s not enough to bring them into the upper echelon of the NBA. The Knicks have assets and they have options. Already, they were linked to San Antonio’s Dejounte Murray before the All-Star guard was sent to Atlanta for a package centered around three first-round picks.
The Knicks just happen to have 11 first-round picks over the next seven drafts, including four next summer and they can turn their attention elsewhere because there is still a need for more talent right now. Donovan Mitchell has been a target since this front office took over, but remains a long shot with the Jazz still trying to build around him and other suitors ready to offer better talent back than the Knicks possess.
With Brunson taking up much of the cap space the next look for the Knicks will be to explore the trade market with the draft picks, as well as the likes of Julius Randle, Evan Fournier and Cam Reddish to try to secure another piece. It may not happen this summer, but the Knicks are open for business even as the free-agent market is just opening up.
The Knicks have spent the last week clearing salary cap space to be able to fit in the 25-year-old Dallas Mavericks point guard — a player with close family ties to the Knicks and a skill set that fits their most gaping need, a floor leader to bring the team back into playoff contention.
While talks are not allowed to begin until Thursday evening and contracts can’t be signed until July 6, the Knicks cleared the room under the cap for Brunson and certainly have an inside track on his intentions with his father, Rick Brunson, named last month to Tom Thibodeau’s coaching staff, and Knicks president Leon Rose having served as the elder Brunson’s agent and that task for Jalen Brunson has fallen to Rose’s son, Sam, since the elder Rose left Creative Artists Agency to helm the Knicks front office.
It may be due diligence and avoiding tampering charges, but Brunson is reportedly meeting with a contingent from the Mavericks including owner Mark Cuban and coach Jason Kidd Thursday in New York.
But if that seems a fait accompli it hardly means that the work is done for Rose and the Knicks front office. The team has cleared approximately $30 million in cap space and can up that by waiving Taj Gibson and his $5.2 million non-guaranteed contract, signing him back later. Brunson’s deal — if no sign-and-trade agreement is in place — can only be for four years as opposed to the five years he could have gotten from Dallas, but the Knicks are expected to go approximately $27 million per year — much more than the $22.5 million per year that the Mavericks were reportedly topping out at in their offer.
The Knicks could still try to work a sign-and-trade with the Mavericks despite some hard feelings from Dallas that have carried over from the opening round of the playoffs when Knicks executive vice president William Wesley sat in the front row at a Mavericks playoff game. Working with the Knicks on this would not have any effect on any possible inquiries by the NBA into tampering.
The salary cap for the 2022-23 season is expected to be approximately $123.5 million. If the Knicks start a deal at $25 million and escalate, that could leave them with approximately $10 million to pursue another free agent and still maintain the $1.8 million cap hold on their own unrestricted free agent, Mitchell Robinson. With the market drying up for Robinson now and the Knicks dealing away his backup, Nerlens Noel, in a deal that will be consummated July 6, the Knicks are expected to bring him back. With comparable centers signing deals in the $10-12 million per year range and few interested teams able to clear that space for an offer, the Knicks should be able to come to terms with Robinson.