The Knicks had made field trips to the NBA Finals, coaches trying to teach their young players what it is like to play at the highest level of the game. But Monday, the lesson was on display for the franchise’s management as it wasn’t just the heroic efforts of the defending champion Warriors to survive another day, but the sight of Kevin Durant dropping to the floor and then being helped off the court with an Achilles injury.
The best-laid plans are a very fragile enterprise.
At the start of training camp last season, the Knicks laid out their plan, insisting that the building project would be conducted the right way. Remember when Knicks president Steve Mills said: “Our process and feel with how the team and season is going and how we’re going to build this team hasn’t changed since we talked about it a year ago . . . We’re committed to not missing any steps. It’s a step-by-step process. We’re focused on guys we have on this roster. How we can build them, develop them and continue on from that point.”
They spent the season talking about the first step — player development. Maybe the kids will be all right and maybe they won’t, but they did give huge minutes to rookies Kevin Knox and Mitchell Robinson. And they took another step in clearing cap space by trading Kristaps Porzingis, sacrificing the centerpiece of the rebuild for a complete teardown.
That brought the Knicks to this summer. The third pick in the draft in place, and $74 million in cap space ready to be flashed at the prizes of the free-agent market was the last step of the rebuild. But as Durant grasped at his leg — the initial diagnosis of an Achilles injury awaiting Tuesday’s MRI to determine if it is a complete tear — the Knicks' summer plans took another hit.
If it is a complete tear, Durant likely will miss the entire 2019-20 season and that will put a decision on the table for him and potential suitors like the Knicks. Durant can simply not opt out of the $31.2 million player option with the Warriors for next season and put his free-agent decision off for another year. But if he opts out even with the possibility of a missed season, there is a new wrinkle to what was a simple choice of trying to recruit a player who is the best scorer in the game and arguably the best player.
If the Knicks were to offer Durant the four-year max deal, it could mean that they are paying out $160 million for what really amounts to three seasons on the court. While it may seem hard to swallow paying out $38 million next season for Durant to watch and rehab, think back to the situation at the start of the Spurs' dynasty when David Robinson missed nearly an entire season, allowing the team to draft Tim Duncan. So is it worth the price if the result is drafting Duke's RJ Barrett at No. 3, Durant in the wings and another top pick coming aboard next summer?
The odd thing about Durant's injury is that it may have shifted some thinking around the league. There were plenty of executives who wondered about his dedication to the Warriors. Now those folks can consider what he did, pushing himself onto the court clearly not ready to play, and even balance it against the approach that Kawhi Leonard took a year ago in San Antonio with his own injury.
“When you're on this level of greatness and everybody's kind of poking and producing trying to narrate your story and tell you who you are, who you should be, what decisions you should make constantly over and over and over again, it's part of what comes with this territory,” Stephen Curry said after Game 5. “But it's just, when you get to know somebody and see how genuine they are and how committed they are just to playing basketball and having fun and living life a certain way, you root for those type of guys."
Durant and the Knicks have been rumored to be bound for a union this summer with much of the league convinced the two sides had a done deal. Still, with the Nets, Clippers and Lakers all expected to court Durant in various combinations with another star, the Knicks already were planning to make a strong push at Leonard, too.
Now, another hard choice has arrived for a team that can point to many examples of stars taking their money and being limited by injury than by leading them to greatness. Durant might be lost to them, Leonard can spurn them for a market with more attractive options, and even the Anthony Davis trade market open to them with Davis’ willingness to stay in New York long-term seems unlikely with other teams able to package together a better deal.
It’s the problem with tearing down for a rebuild. No matter what you can imagine in a board room, there are no sure things in reality.