INDIANAPOLIS — Since trading Kristaps Porzingis and freeing up the cap space to chase a pair of max contract free agents this summer the Knicks front office executives have been careful to not put their entire future on that plan, couching the cap space with vague promises of financial flexibility being as good as landing the prizes of the free agent class.
But Madison Square Garden executive chairman and Knicks owner James Dolan, appearing on “The Michael Kay Show” on ESPN New York radio Tuesday evening all but promised the Knicks will win the free agent wars, veering close along the border of tampering in the process.
Asked if he felt that the incident Saturday in which he confronted a fan who shouted for him to sell the team would cause free agents to steer clear, Dolan said that the team has already heard from players and their representatives expressing a desire to join the team.
“No, look, New York is the mecca of basketball,” Dolan said. “We hear from people all the time, from players, representatives. It’s about who wants to come. We can’t respond because of the NBA rules, but that doesn’t stop them from telling us and they do.
“I can tell you from what we’ve heard I think we’re going to have a very successful offseason when it comes to free agents. The thing about the team now is that it’s very young. It’s the youngest team in the NBA. You take a look at some of the players that we have and they won’t be the centerpiece of the team, but as complements to the centerpiece of the team, we’re developing them right now.”
Certainly landing some combination of Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, Kawhi Leonard and Kemba Walker would help ease the need for the young player to produce at much higher levels than they have in this season. The Knicks fell to 13-55 Tuesday night after losing to the Pacers in Indianapolis, 103-98. Emmanuel Mudiay led the Knicks with 21 points.
Asked if he thought the best available free agents would come Dolan didn’t hesitate.
“Yes, I do think that,” he said. “I think we offer a pretty good situation for them. One, is a lot of them love New York. A bunch of them live in New York in the offseason. They know the team. They know [David Fizdale] really well. They know Steve [Mills) and they know Scott [Perry]. I think they’re fairly confident about the organization.
“Players who are free agents want to go to a winner and they want to get paid. We’re definitely going to pay them. And we think with them combined with the kids that we have, that we can build a winning team.”
When the Knicks traded Porzingis to clear the cap space the reaction around the NBA included many wondering if the team already knew they had stars coming in the summer. What felt like conspiracy theory talk then seems a little more rooted in reality with Dolan’s comments. And if they can get them, Dolan had bold predictions for what will follow.
“Certainly going to be in the playoffs,” Dolan said. “I would expect we will make the playoffs and hopefully we’ll go far. I’ve got a lot of confidence in our guys. The thing to watch, maybe the reason people are still coming to our games, the kids are really interesting. When you combine that with top of the league players, you start looking at a pretty good team.”
Of course the Knicks have chased the prizes of free agency in the past and come up empty. Durant already passed them up in free agency in favor of the Golden State Warriors. Three times LeBron James has shifted franchises and each time left the Knicks in the lurch — including in 2010 when Dolan was part of a team of Knicks officials sitting down with him. Dolan opened up on that meeting, too.
“I don’t know why LeBron didn’t come, but he was obviously never interested in coming to New York for whatever reason,” Dolan said. “When we did the presentation to him during the Donnie Walsh years he was not engaged at all. I guess what was going on was he was already going to Miami. He was going through the motions. Not everybody wants to come here, but we’re going to do well. Time will tell. What will help is a Ping-Pong ball for us.”
The Knicks did have a star in place in Porzingis, but after drafting him the years after were filled with one All-Star berth, a devastating knee injury and, most of all, contempt for the direction of the franchise. The Knicks dealt him ahead of the trade deadline last month and Dolan said he believed the Knicks did all they could to make him comfortable in New York.
“I don’t want to talk for him. He has to explain — or not, it’s up to him — about why he didn’t want to be here,” Dolan said. “I thought our guys tried really hard to integrate him into the organization, to make him feel welcome.
“Fizdale even went out to see him [in Latvia]. I don’t want to put words into his mouth. So for whatever reason, when he came in and said to us, 'I don’t want to be here, I’m going to leave at the first chance I get, I want to be traded,' that sort of cast the die on what we had to do. I think the guys, that Steve and Scott did a great job turning that position, right, into something that we can build on.”
It wasn’t the first time the Knicks considered trading him. Phil Jackson, before he was ousted as team president, tried to deal him.
“He did,” he admitted. “Phil didn’t get along with KP and his brother. That was clearly heading in a very bad direction. Not that Phil was wrong. Phil grew up in a time and played basketball in a time where players no matter what stayed together and no matter what followed the coach. Times are different now."
In an odd turn that may be less about tampering than attacking another franchise Dolan said that a story that surfaced earlier this season with Bill Simmons on his podcast claiming that sources told him that Dolan was seeking offers to sell the team was an effort to “destabilize” the Knicks in the eyes of free agents — including one unnamed one that he said was a friend to Simmons.
“Bill Simmons, what was his source? In the NBA?” Dolan said. “There are teams that do not want us to get free agents, some in particular. He’s very close friends with the GM of one team. What they’re trying to do is destabilize us, because they know we’re favored. They don’t want to be on the back end of that.”