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Analysis: Knicks have no choice but to stay flexible for future

Knicks president Steve Mills speaks with the media

Knicks president Steve Mills speaks with the media during the 2018-19 Season Tipoff press conference in the lobby of the Hulu Theater at Madison Square Garden on Sept. 20, 2018. Photo Credit: James Escher

For nearly every team in the NBA, Sunday marked a time of optimism. Only one team felt the need to issue a public apology to the fan base.

If you wanted to debate the way the start of free agency had gone for the Knicks, the statement from team president Steve Mills gave a pretty good hint of how they felt about it.

 The predictions and promise of the stars that the $70 million of salary-cap space could bring had raised expectations, creating visions of a quick resurgence from the basement of the NBA. Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard and Kyrie Irving were at the top of their wish list, with room for two stars to guide the young players who had struggled through the worst season in franchise history.

But before the starting bell had even sounded, that Plan A was gone — not just gone but departed just a borough away to the Nets.

The problem for the Knicks isn’t just that Durant and Irving opted to choose the Nets over them, but just what got the Nets to that position and where it left the Knicks now.

The statement from Mills read, “While we understand that some Knicks fans could be disappointed with tonight’s news, we continue to be upbeat and confident in our plans to rebuild the Knicks to compete for championships in the future, through the draft, targeted free agents and continuing to build around our core of young players.” 

We’ll skip all of the optimistic proclamations from James Dolan and Mills and David Fizdale throughout the last year as the 17-65 season wore on.

Plan A went to Plan B. It wasn’t a shock. The fallback plan hinted that if the stars could not be secured, the Knicks would not spend wildly on second-tier free agents, instead seeking short-term contracts that would allow them to maintain their financial flexibility.

To find the start of the financial flexibility, you have to go back to a time before Plan A, when the plan was to build around Kristaps Porzingis. That pre-Plan A went bad when the Knicks could not make Porzingis happy. They shipped him to Dallas in a deal that helped clear the cap space that would bring the stars; even if it didn’t, it would allow the Knicks to move on to Plan B.

When they gave up Porzingis, however, they couldn’t have imagined that this plan would include a roster of players coming on board that resembled an expansion draft. They're  solid veteran pieces, but not players who you would imagine would push the franchise forward.

The Knicks signed Julius Randle to a three-year contract, with the third year a team option. All of the other five players signed — Bobby Portis, Taj Gibson, Reggie Bullock, Wayne Ellington and Elfrid Payton — have a team option after the first year, clearing the way for as much as $60 million in cap space next summer. 

Do they really want to put the fans through this again next summer?

The 2020 free-agent class appears to have nowhere near the possibilities that this one presented. The Knicks' front office kicked the can down the road a year, and maybe that could work. They have said all the right things about rebuilding, about a patient approach, avoiding skipping steps. And all they have to do is look at the Nets to see how it could all come to fruition.

What the Nets did was take a bare cupboard and, with careful scouting, find players such as Caris Levert and Jarrett Allen late in the first round. Led by coach Kenny Atkinson, they developed them and other players, including D’Angelo Russell, and became an attractive enough destination to convince Irving and Durant to sign on.

The Knicks have had four lottery picks in the last five years — Porzingis, Frank Ntilikina, Kevin Knox and RJ Barrett. Porzingis is gone. Ntilikina seems bound to follow him soon. Knox had a rookie season that showed flashes of potential befitting the ninth overall pick, but even with those tools, it was hard to see the progress. Mitchell Robinson, Damyean Dotson and Allonzo Trier also have shown some potential. 

But was it anything that made them more than a 17-win team? Was it anything that convinced any of the top free agents to even give them the courtesy of a meeting? Is the group of six free agents who wiped out the cap space better than the players the Knicks had through the 17-win season — Tim Hardaway Jr., Enes Kanter, DeAndre Jordan, Emmanuel Mudiay, Noah Vonleh? 

They had to give away Porzingis to rid themselves of Hardaway’s contract. They couldn’t turn any of those other expiring contracts into anything useful. Does that change this season with these players? Will they be able to flip these players into a deal if something comes up?

Doesn’t it feel as if the Knicks just bought themselves another year of wishing and hoping? Doesn’t it feel as if the Knicks might be apologizing again in a year?

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