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Knicks’ plans include tightening budget, short-term deals

Knicks president Steve Mills addresses the media during

Knicks president Steve Mills addresses the media during a press conference at Madison Square Garden on May 8. Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

Shortly after midnight last July 1, Ron Baker announced on Twitter that he was re-signing with the Knicks. It was a two-year deal with a $4.5-million player option, which he has picked up for this season, and a no-trade clause. True story.

Less than a week later, the Knicks signed Tim Hardaway Jr. to a four-year, $71-million offer sheet that some might say includes an unofficial no-trade clause. Hardaway’s own team, Atlanta, reportedly would have been willing to match the offer — if it had been roughly $25 million less.

Those two free-agent deals were the first ones given out after Phil Jackson was fired. They raised eyebrows and some concerns about how the Knicks would do business under president Steve Mills.

But Mills, who later hired Scott Perry to be the general manager, and the Knicks are taking a much different approach now. Save now, spend later — as in next summer.

Mills and Perry have said things will be quiet for the Knicks in free agency, which began at midnight Sunday. When Enes Kanter picked up his $18.6-million player option, it left the Knicks with the $8.6-million midlevel and $3.4-million biannual exceptions and only two or three open roster spots. They plan to keep spending to a minimum, relatively speaking.

After the Hardaway deal, the Knicks made a point of giving out only one-year deals or acquiring players whose salaries come off the books in 2019 at the latest. That will continue to be the plan.

If they use either or both exceptions, it’s possible they could be put toward re-signing Michael Beasley and inking second-round pick Mitchell Robinson — on very short-term deals. Kyle O’Quinn, who opted out of his contract, also could return for the right price.

The Knicks will inquire about other free agents, but Mills said this past week that “if” the Knicks sign anyone, it will be “to a one-year deal.” Another alternative is a two-year contract in which the second year is a team option. If the Knicks gave out anything more than that, it would be surprising and imprudent.

They should have the cap space to sign at least one player to a maximum contract next summer. They’re hoping to clear much more than that for a free-agent class that could include Kyrie Irving, Klay Thompson, Jimmy Butler, Kawhi Leonard, Kemba Walker and Kevin Love.

That means jettisoning veterans with multiple years on their contract. It’s no secret that Courtney Lee’s and Joakim Noah’s days are numbered in New York. Lee will be moved via trade before next summer. Noah could be waived and have his contract stretched by Sept. 1 to limit the salary-cap hit for next season.

The Knicks would much rather trade Noah, who has two years and $37.8 million left on his contract. If they were to accomplish that, Perry immediately would be in the running for Executive of the Year.

If the Knicks really believe they have a shot at an Irving-Kristaps Porzingis pairing, they have to save now and spend later. They haven’t made the playoffs in five years and haven’t advanced past the first round since 2000.

“We feel like we’re going to put ourselves in a position where stars are going to want to come to us,” Mills told ESPN radio this past week.

Mills added that Porzingis “is a magnet.” Irving told Porzingis last year that he would love to play with someone like him. The Knicks haven’t had a free-agent draw in a long time, so they have to take advantage of that.

That could lead to a difficult decision that could have long-term ramifications. The Knicks could sign Porzingis, who is recovering from a torn ACL, to a five-year extension this summer for more than $150 million. If they wait until next summer, they could have an additional $10 million to use in free agency. It makes sense for the Knicks to wait, but Porzingis and his camp might not agree or want that.

There has been some acrimony between Porzingis and the Knicks in the past, but with Jackson and coach Jeff Hornacek gone, it has lessened. Mills and Perry have been working to repair the relationship with Janis Porzingis, Kristaps’ brother and agent. New coach David Fizdale has said he will go to Europe and spend some time with Porzingis and his family.

Keeping Porzingis happy while also trying to build a contender are the ultimate goals for the Knicks.

This is another rebuilding year. With Porzingis out indefinitely, the Knicks aren’t in position to win this season, and might not have been even if he were healthy. But now they have a built-in reason to work on developing young players, build a foundation and get another high lottery pick next year. That’s all part of the plan to make the Knicks as attractive as possible to marquee free agents next year.

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