With the free agent market opening Sunday, the Knicks have approximately $70 million in salary cap space available, an enviable position that the franchise worked to put in place. Now, the hard part is getting someone to take their money.
The Knicks are long shots for the services of the top tier free agents, but will chase them starting at 6 p.m. Sunday, hoping for meetings to sell the stars on their rebuilding plan. Each day this week we will look at one of those targets and detail how they would fit and why they would — or wouldn’t — come to Madison Square Garden.
Upside: He is the most unstoppable offensive force in the game, a nearly 7-foot shooter who has the skillset to be a shooting guard. He not only has led the NBA in scoring four times, he might lead the league in nicknames — earning at least five different (Durantula and Slim Reaper are clear leaders). In Golden State though he became more than just a scorer, proving to be capable of fitting in as a playmaker — serving as a seamless part of the best ball-moving offense in the game. And perhaps even more intriguing and unexpected, he decided he wanted to be in the conversation of complete players and went from a marginal defender to a versatile stopper. In his first season with the Warriors, he ranked sixth in the NBA in defensive rating and the next season was sixth in the NBA in blocked shots.
Downside: Ruptured Achilles tendon. Okay, that’s out of the way, but let’s go on. Durant is 30 years old, turning 31 before the start of the 2019-20 season — a season in which he will not play and instead will spend the season rehabilitating. So when he starts earning this massive contract he will be 32 years old with 36,903 minutes played between his 12 years of regular season play and nine years of playoffs. Honestly, that’s all we’ve got. There is no downside to his game outside of the injuries and minutes, and most executives believe he will age well because his game is more reliant on his skill and size than his athleticism.
Why the Knicks should sign him: This seemed so simple when Durant was believed to be bound for the Knicks in the prime of his career — about two months ago — before the Achilles shifted the narrative. Now, with the knowledge that a four-year max deal will be, at best, three years on the court, they still are all in on Durant. Why? It’s simple — a franchise that has been the worst in the NBA for two decades now has a chance to get a superstar, arguably the league's best player, and you don’t pass on that chance. Durant makes every other player’s job easier, particularly the young nucleus the Knicks have put in place with RJ Barrett, Kevin Knox and Mitchell Robinson.
Why the Knicks should not sign him: The Knicks' insistence on not skipping steps brought them to this summer when their cap space would fast track their rebuild and we’ll put aside the debate of whether that is skipping steps since they’d jump from a young 17-65 team to a win now or bust franchise. But what does it say about the plan if the desperation is to grasp for a player who with a four-year max contract will (1) not play in the first season, (2) will likely be subject to the new science of load management in year two of the deal, and (3) will be 34 years old in the final year of the contract. And even from Durant’s side, isn’t that five-year max in Golden State more attractive and not just because of the additional $57 million he can pocket? With the Warriors, he would return in two years and not need to carry the burden for the team, rejoining a roster that is stocked with talent.
Upside: Michael Jordan wants to keep him. Do you need to know anything more if you’re a Knicks fan? There is plenty though. Walker played in all 82 games last season, the third time in his career he has done that and rather than load management he carried the load in Charlotte. A three-time All-Star, Walker was named to an All-NBA team (third team) for the first time in his career this past season. Well-rounded offensively, he has ranked in the top 20 in scoring four times and in assists three times. He has the ability to stretch the floor, averaging a career-high 8.9 three-point field goals per game last season.
Downside: While he is well-rounded on offense, he has never been exactly a defensive stopper and in a point guard driven league right now having a weak point at the top can spoil the David Fizdale claims of being a defensive-minded team. While he is regarded as one of the top point guards in the game, he has lifted the Hornets into the playoffs just twice. He is listed at just 6-1 in a league that is adding more and more point guards who tower over him. The Celtics are also reportedly the frontrunners to sign Walker in free agency.
Why the Knicks should sign him: When the Knicks went 17-65 last season, the message was player development and patience. If that time is past and the Knicks are ready to win it needs to start at point guard and the Knicks don’t have the answer on the roster right now. Dennis Smith Jr. is a constant highlight reel, but has not shown yet that he can be a floor general on a winning team. Walker, even though he couldn’t drag the Hornets into the playoffs last season, has developed into a star at the point. He is a New Yorker and there remains nothing more legendary in New York basketball lore than New York point guards.
Why the Knicks should not sign him: Did we mention he’s from New York? The Rice High School product may take pride in his Bronx roots, but he has spoken openly about his affection for Charlotte, making it home to his family rather than seeking a return to New York. Walker has also talked about taking less than the super max contract he qualified for to facilitate the team adding pieces around him. That may make the salary differences between New York and Charlotte less onerous, but he also has said that the fifth year the Hornets can offer is important to him at 29 years old, aware that this could be his time to lock in his future.
Upside: Even before he led the Raptors to the NBA championship this season, Kawhi Leonard had put himself into the mix as the best two-way player in the league. He is a two-time Defensive Player of the Year, a two-time NBA Finals Most Valuable Player, a five-time All-Defensive Team member and a three-time All-NBA member. But yes, he spent the year on a load management schedule and still managed to play 34 minutes per game in the 60 games he played in the regular season. And when the playoffs began and Toronto really needed him, he played in all 24 games and was on the floor for 39.1 minutes per game. He has hit big shots - the biggest shot in Raptors history to get them past the Sixers in the playoffs - and done it, like everything else, with barely a change of expression.
Downside: There is very little to critique with Leonard, a player who has been low maintenance for nearly his entire career…except that one season in San Antonio. Leonard, whose most famous quote is simply his bizarre laugh, had never caused a ripple of grief for the Spurs and then in the 2017-18 season as he worked his way to rehabilitate from a quadriceps injury, playing just nine games, he absorbed slings and arrows from the organization and even teammates. He then made it clear he wasn’t signing again there and wanted out, preferring to land in Los Angeles, where he grew up and still considers home.
Why the Knicks should sign him: Consider the free-agent market for stars the Knicks believed they were entering a few months ago with Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving joining up at Madison Square Garden to lead the team to glory days that hadn’t been seen in decades for the franchise. Now, Durant is a medical mystery, lost for at least next season and uncertain of his status for the remaining three years of what would be a four-year, $164 million contract, Irving has quickly worn out a welcome in Boston and Leonard’s value has skyrocketed as he has proven capable of lifting a team to a title. The Raptors certainly were closer to that ring before he arrived than the Knicks would be, but he stepped into a difficult situation, replacing a franchise cornerstone in Toronto, and flourished, winning over his new teammates even as he spent a lot of time on the sidelines during the regular season.
Why the Knicks should not sign him: There are no good reasons. The reality, however, is that even though the Knicks expect to make a hard push for Leonard and meet with him quickly when free agency opens Sunday at 6 p.m. Eastern, they find themselves at best third in line for his services. The real competition is expected to be between the Raptors and the Los Angeles Clippers. The Knicks do have a connection with his uncle, Dennis Robertson, who serves as an advisor to him through Robertson’s relationship with Knicks president Steve Mills, and he did rehabilitate in New York during the 2017-18 season. Even if they are third in line, they do believe they are in the mix.
Upside: Irving has a championship ring from his time in Cleveland and is already a star — on the court and even in movies. The Knicks haven’t had a point guard this good since Walt Frazier, a player who is an All-NBA talent with arguably the best handle in NBA history. He is a six-time All-Star who was named second team All-NBA this season while leading the Celtics with 23.8 points per game. He flourished in a secondary role on the Cavaliers behind LeBron James and is certainly talented enough to be the first option.
Downside: You mean besides the flat earth story? Irving’s rep as a player is certainly intact, but his reputation as a teammate didn’t exactly flourish in Boston. It’s as simple as looking at where the Celtics were in the 2017-18 season, heading to the Eastern Conference Finals without him as he was sidelined with an infection in his knee — the result of a 2015 fractured kneecap and two screws inserted in the knee. Then with the return of Irving this season, along with Gordon Hayward back after missing the entire 2017-18 season with a broken leg, the Celtics were eyeing a championship. Instead it was a season mired in controversy, one that began with Irving declaring to the fans that he was intending on spending the rest of his career in Boston and ended with both sides seeming happy to run away from each other.
Why the Knicks should sign him: Here’s the end all before we get to the reasons that Irving could help — he could attract Kevin Durant to a team with two max slots. The two reportedly are interested in pairing up. The Knicks would love to have Durant, even if it means he’s out of action this season, and the Knicks will be all in on whatever makes that happen. Beyond that though, the Knicks have started to accumulate young players that they believe can be part of the rebuild. Unlike Boston where Irving’s arrival and insistence on serving as leader of a team that was pretty good without him, the Knicks are a blank slate and RJ Barrett, Kevin Knox and Mitchell Robinson have no clout to resist any of his mentorship. He’d be the best player, the most accomplished player and unchallenged leader.
Why the Knicks should not sign him: First, they may not get the opportunity. Even as his arrival in New York now seems a fait accompli, Madison Square Garden seems like a longf shot behind Brooklyn and Barclays Center. No one could blame him — the Nets were a playoff team last season and while the Knicks want to preach player development, the Nets already have proved to be capable of it. But that culture is an issue with the Knicks. What if Kyrie wasn’t just unhappy serving as LeBron James’ sidekick in Cleveland and unhappy in the locker room in Boston with a coach who everyone seemed to like and respect before he arrive? What if he derails the Knicks plans before they even start? And the injuries — let’s just say he does recruit Durant and you’ve got Durant out for a season and a player in Irving who has a history of injuries, some freak accidents and enough that you’d be worried that your cap space for the next four years would be tied up in players who spend more time in ice baths than on the court.