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SportsColumnistsSteve Popper

Knicks, Kevin Durant have some big decisions to make

Kevin Durant of the Warriors reacts after sustaining

Kevin Durant of the Warriors reacts after sustaining an injury during the second quarter against the Raptors during Game 5 of the NBA Finals at Scotiabank Arena on June 10 in Toronto. Credit: Getty Images/Gregory Shamus

When 6 p.m. arrives on June 30, officially opening the floodgates on free agency, the Knicks remain hopeful that the huge pile of salary-cap dollars they can wave will entice the top players to consider becoming part of their rebuilding plan.

And that’s no small feat, convincing a star with his choice of suitors to head into the pressure cooker that is Madison Square Garden and join a team that hasn’t won a championship since before he was born. Actually, before his parents were born.

After the Knicks shambled through a 17-65 season and traded their best player, Kristaps Porzingis, with this free-agent market as the prize at the end of it, reality has set in — on both sides.

The Knicks still will make their pitch and believe they have a shot at the top free agents — Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard and Kyrie Irving. But Irving seems to be leaning toward Brooklyn and Leonard is expected to choose between his two favored locales, Toronto and the Los Angeles Clippers. 

That leaves Durant, who presents a difficult decision for both the Knicks and Durant himself.

With a ruptured Achilles tendon, he will miss the entire 2019-20 season, and that is just the beginning of the problem. 

Durant was the prize of free agency and was believed to be bound for the Knicks, a notion that NBA team executives throughout the league voiced as a near certainty with tales of how he was unhappy with Golden State and how agent/business partner Rich Kleiman was a Knicks fan who would trade Durant’s legacy for a spot in the front office of the team he grew up cheering for.

Then Durant suffered a strained calf muscle in the playoffs, made what seemed like a heroic comeback in the Finals and fell victim to a devastating injury that makes everything uncertain again.

If Durant makes the decision to opt out of the final year of his deal with Golden State, the choice for him seems simple: Sign a max contract with the Warriors — five years and $221 million — rehabilitate and then step back into a team with the talent to support his recovery and ease him into the Hall of Fame.

After a foot injury early in his career, he came back to become the best offensive player in the game, left Oklahoma City to the full-throated anger of his critics to join the powerful Warriors and now must concede the reality that nothing is certain. Will he ever be the same player, the unstoppable offensive machine and a drastically improved defensive player? It’s impossible to say. 

And for that reason, the caution flag must rise for the teams that are courting him — still courting him — in free agency.

The Warriors can get five years of Durant. The rest of the teams can max out at four years.

So for that four years and $164 million, the Knicks would have him sit out the upcoming season. The second year certainly would be a recovery season, with talk of load management and rust in his game. The fourth year would be played at 35 years old, the sort of season most teams offering these deals consider the price of doing business, a season in which you wonder why you paid all that money and exactly when  that deal will be off the books.

So maybe year three is worth it, a year when the Knicks' young players are ready to contend and it all comes together. 

Honestly, for the Knicks, who have been the worst team in basketball over the last 20 years, one year for $164 million might feel like a bargain if that year ended in a championship. But it is a question that they must ask themselves: Just how much is that star worth if it comes wrapped in bandages?

The Knicks are willing to go all in to recruit a shortlist of stars, a list that maybe ends with these three. If they can’t get whom they want and if they can’t stomach the risk, they won’t give that money they have squirreled away to a second- or third- tier free agent. There will be no four-year max deal for the players a level below these franchise-changing players. 

“I think we're asking them to continue to be patient,” Knicks president Steve Mills said Friday at the news conference to introduce their draft picks, RJ Barrett and Ignas Brazdeikis. “We laid out a plan when Scott [Perry] came on board and then David [Fizdale] joined us, that we were going to build this team the right way. We’re going to draft well and we're going to be diligent about how we make this team and not take any shortcuts and follow a path.''

Recruiting trip

When the Knicks considered drafting Barrett, there was no need to recruit, but Mills didn't stop at interviewing him as part of his visit to the team. He hosted him at a dinner and a night at his apartment, with Barrett's agent and Mills’ wife joining them.

“I think it’s important people understand how much time we spent with RJ,” Mills said. “We spent a lot of time when we were in Chicago [after the Draft Lottery]. We had a chance to meet with his dad. He came and spent two and a half days. Scott and I took him out to dinner twice.

“He came to my apartment to watch the NBA Finals together. We spent a lot of time getting to know each other and understanding that he had the things that we were looking for. But I think we had the things he was looking for. So we spent a lot of time getting to know each other. We knew him as a basketball player. We were looking into who he was as a person and as a competitor. So that was important to us.”

Rookie race

Barrett came to Duke as the top-rated prospect in the incoming class, but he was surpassed by Blue Devils teammate Zion Williamson, who was the No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft. 

So the next prize for one of them is Rookie of the Year, and the two former teammates and good friends will be among the favorites for it.

“I’m not going to say that I don’t want it,” Barrett said. “I’m definitely going for Rookie of the Year for sure. It’s going to be a battle. But I’m confident enough that I can get it.”

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