The Knicks’ main goal in free agency this summer is to not mess things up for free agency next summer.
As of now, this year is all about developing young players and clearing cap space to be in position to spend in 2019 when a free-agent class that features Kyrie Irving hits the open market.
So everything team president Steve Mills and general manager Scott Perry do will be geared toward opening up maximum salary-cap room next year when Kawhi Leonard, Klay Thompson, Jimmy Butler, Kemba Walker and Kevin Love also could be free agents.
“We are not going to be players this year,” Mills said on ESPN Radio’s “The Stephen A. Smith Show” Thursday. “If we sign guys it’s going to be for a one-year deal because we are going to have room for a max contract in the following year. We’ll be able to make room for a max guy.”
The Knicks probably won’t have much money to play with anyway when free agency starts at midnight on July 1, especially if Enes Kanter picks up his $18.66-million option for next season. The deadline for Kanter’s decision is Friday.
Presuming Kanter opts in at that large number — he has said repeatedly he loves New York and playing for the Knicks — they will have the $8.6 million midlevel and $3.4 million biannual exception for free agency and very few open roster spots.
Kanter would give the Knicks 12 players under contract, including Trey Burke and Troy Williams, who have partial guarantees. It grows to 13 when first-round pick Kevin Knox signs.
That leaves the Knicks with two open roster spots. One is expected to go to second-round pick Mitchell Robinson. The other could go to free-agent forward Michael Beasley, who played with the Knicks last season.
The Knicks will need scoring with Kristaps Porzingis sidelined indefinitely after tearing his ACL five months ago. Beasley averaged 13.8 points in 22.3 minutes last season. He enjoyed playing for the Knicks, and has spent some time with new coach David Fizdale.
A Beasley return, for part of the mid-level exception, could happen. But the Knicks can’t go beyond a one-year deal or a two-year contract with a team option for the second year or it will cut into next summer’s cash.
For that reason, Joakim Noah and Courtney Lee are on borrowed time since they make more than $32 million combined in 2019-20. Trading Lee will be much easier than Noah, who may have his contract stretched to lessen the cap hit next summer.
The Knicks continue to be in search of athletic, multi-positional players, preferably ones who play defense. They also could use another big man since Kyle O’Quinn has opted out and may not return.
Other free agents the Knicks could pursue include Derrick Favors, Julius Randle, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Rodney Hood. But they all could be out of the Knicks’ price range and/or want multiple years. Randle and Hood are restricted free agents.
Mario Hezonja, Nemanja Bejilica, Trevor Booker, Jerami Grant, Kevon Looney and Luc Mbah a Moute could be more obtainable at the right price. That’s the key for the Knicks. They have to be smart with their spending, and give short-term contracts to keep their flexibility for 2019.
Finding players (and agents) who agree to those terms is another matter. But if the Knicks are serious about maximum flexibility they will stick with their plan and not overspend or give out multiyear deals that impact 2019.
That means Perry and Mills have to operate differently than most Knicks executives have in the past, present company included. Mills gave Tim Hardaway Jr. a four-year, $71-million contract last summer when the Knicks were basically bidding against themselves. Perry was involved with the Kings last year when they signed George Hill to a three-year, $57-million deal. Those were not team or cap-friendly deals.
The Knicks’ management team, however, has preached that they want to build something sustainable and do it the right way. They plan to grow around Porzingis, their franchise player, the right way — through the draft, by developing young players, and adding franchise changers in free agency.
This isn’t the summer to do the last part. The Knicks are banking on that for next summer.
Knicks’ Needs in Free Agency
1. More scoring. With Kristaps Porzingis recovering from a torn ACL, the Knicks need another scorer. They could re-sign Michael Beasley or give a one-year deal to another free agent who wants to prove he deserves a big contract next summer.
2. Size matters. Minus Porzingis, the Knicks don’t have much size, especially if free agent Kyle O’Quinn bolts. Versatile forwards, including Julius Randle and Derrick Favors, could be on their radar but their price probably will be too high.
3. Defensive players. The Knicks are looking for versatile two-way athletic players to play in David Fizdale’s fast-paced position-less system. Jerami Grant, Luc Mbah a Moute or Montrezl Harrell would fit that description.