The 17-65 season, they could endure. The dealing away of franchise centerpiece Kristaps Porzingis, they could explain. And the embarrassments of the early stages of what they hope is a rebuild could be survived.
But like everyone else, Knicks executives Scott Perry and Steve Mills heard the team’s principal owner, James Dolan, go on the radio two months ago and confidently speak of his certainty that the franchise will land a pair of free-agent stars this summer. So with the salary-cap space cleared by the Porzingis trade providing the money, the pressure is on the front office to deliver.
The two, speaking on a phone call Wednesday, insisted that nothing has changed from the plan — not even with Dolan promising the fan base the stars that have been speculated about for a year now.
“We’re just excited about being here in the summer,” Mills said. “Jim’s comments, Jim wants us to be successful and Jim wants to see us do well. A lot of people talk to him and he’s just commenting on what people are telling him or saying to him.
“We feel good about the summer. We feel we’re in a position that it gives us an opportunity. We hope we get lucky and we land free agents. And if not, we’ll keep building the way we’re building. The space gives us an opportunity to be flexible in terms of how we deal with trades. We can take guys into our [cap] room in the trade process, it gives us the flexibility to continue to build the team the way we’ve been building it. But it gives us an opportunity to make it better in a way with free-agent or trade prospects.”
Perry has spent two seasons as general manager trying to repair the damage left over from the Phil Jackson regime. He agreed with Mills.
“What I look at is this summer presents an opportunity for us to get better," Perry said. "And so whether we get better through whatever the free-agent signings may or may not be, whatever the drafting process yields us, whatever potential trade may come our way, our goal is to get this team better over the offseason so there’s a better product on the floor next season. And that’s what we’re committed to.”
They didn’t — and can’t — mention the possible targets. Dolan did not, either, when he spoke on "The Michael Kay Show," but he did say, “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 prizes of free agency this summer likely will include Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard, Kyrie Irving, Kemba Walker and Klay Thompson. If you look for a common denominator among them, it is that they all can make much more money by staying with their current teams. Another, aside from Walker, is that their teams are all still playing with championship aspirations. That makes the sales pitch for Mills and Perry, along with coach David Fizdale, a tough one.
“There’s a word you used,” Mills said. “I understand it, you talk about pressure. I always feel pressure to build this team and turn this team into success. But that pressure doesn’t lead me to make decisions that are inconsistent with what I believe we should be doing. So I don’t feel pressure to deviate from our plan if we don’t get two big free agents. I don’t feel that kind of pressure. The pressure is for us to continue with the process and build this team the way we’re saying we’re going to build it.”
Mills quickly pointed out, as he did in the immediate aftermath of the trade, that Porzingis wasn’t traded to create this opportunity but because he told the team that he didn’t want to be with the organization. But whatever the impetus for the trade, it took away one of the selling points the Knicks had in place: a star talent rehabbing from injury who could lure players to join him. Now if, for example, Durant and Irving would opt to leave their teams for less money, what exactly are they joining?
The Knicks lost 65 games, matching the worst record in franchise history. To create this cap space needed to fit two max contracts, the Knicks would have to part with much of the current roster. It would mean that players such as Emmanuel Mudiay, DeAndre Jordan and Noah Vonleh are gone and what is left are some rookies, second-year players and whatever the upcoming NBA Draft holds.
“The bottom line is somebody, whoever it is, if they don’t want to be a part of what we’re trying to build or being around us, then we have to move forward,” Perry said. “There’s nothing personal about it, but a matter of fact. We’re going to move forward with players that embrace the culture that we’re building, that embrace this city, this organization, what we’re about. Obviously, our long-term goal is to become champions one day. That’s our entire thinking.”