Knicks executives have arrived in Las Vegas, their work in free agency complete, with six new faces signed up to try to change the fortunes of the team. But it isn’t the Summer League schedule that will determine whether they actually did their work right.
We already know it didn’t quite work out the way the team pictured months ago. That’s when they were intent on signing the top stars on the free-agent market, with the Kevin Durant-Kyrie Irving combination providing star power the organization hadn’t seen in a long time.
Now word has filtered out through the organization that team president Steve Mills and general manager Scott Perry decided to call off the possibility of meeting with Kawhi Leonard because his schedule — putting off a meeting with them after sitting down with the Clippers and Lakers in Los Angeles on Tuesday — didn’t match up with what they had on their schedule.
The Knicks had a sense that among the teams remaining in the mix for the services of Leonard, perhaps the best two-way player in the game, they were fourth behind the two L.A. teams and the team he just brought a championship, the Raptors. That is understandable and probably correct.
League rules prohibit the Knicks from signing or talking about any prospective deals until Saturday, but a league source confirmed that the Knicks walked away from the meeting. Was that the right thing to do?
The Knicks had their sales pitch in place for months — New York, Madison Square Garden, a relationship with Leonard’s uncle, Dennis Robertson, who is an influential force in Leonard’s career. And they had whispered last month that they would make a hard push at signing Leonard.
Now, did they really cancel that out so they could assure themselves of not getting beat out on the signing of some combination of Bobby Portis, Taj Gibson, Elfrid Payton, Reggie Bullock and Wayne Ellington?
The team had $70 million in cap space available, so they could have made their first and most expensive strike — Julius Randle, whom they gave a three-year, $63 million deal, with the third year a team option — and still had the money left to pursue Leonard.
Is there a chance they could have lost out on the remaining quintet of players whom they signed? Sure. But the thing with canceling the meeting is it goes against everything the organization has preached in how they do business these days.
The Knicks have talked about sitting with these star free agents as a chance to introduce themselves and sell themselves. And that matters. There remained a possibility even Thursday morning that Leonard would return to Toronto on a short deal — either a one- or two-year stay — so he could re-enter the market with a chance to sign an even bigger contract. The Knicks could find themselves back in the mix for him at that time.
So did they really need to nail down the pieces whom they signed if it was a long shot to get Leonard? Instead, they paid huge prices for role players and marginal talent.
Think of it this way — to sign Portis, who figures to be the backup to Randle and Mitchell Robinson, the Knicks paid a two-year, $31 million price. Even with the team option on the second year, that’s a $15 million payday. Last year’s player in that role, Noah Vonleh, signed a one-year deal worth $2 million with Minnesota. Payton was handed a two-year, $16 million contract with a second-year team option. Emmanuel Mudiay signed a one-year deal believed to be a veteran’s minimum deal with Utah.
Are those upgrades really upgrades? And if they are, was the chance of losing out on them enough to make it worth passing up a meeting with Leonard? It’s debatable that this group of free agents is better than the team the Knicks had at the start of last season — Mudiay, Vonleh, Tim Hardaway Jr., Enes Kanter, Courtney Lee and Mario Hezonja, and not even counting a rehabbing Kristaps Porzingis.
The Knicks figure to be better than last season’s team just by the addition of first-round pick RJ Barrett, who likely is the best player on the roster. But are these signings a difference in the future for the franchise? Are they worth giving up a chance to sit down with Leonard in an attempt to sell their plan?