It was March 2 when Leon Rose stepped onto the Madison Square Garden court for the first time as Knicks president. He’d been there many times before, but not in this new role. He made the rounds, greeting employees and reporters and casting an eye on the roster he’d inherited warming up on the floor.
He got to watch a Knicks victory that night and five more games before the season was abruptly cut short by the coronavirus. Since then he’s hired a new coach, restructured the front office and done little to convince anyone that the Knicks’ fortunes this season will be any different from what they’ve been through two decades of near-constant struggles.
The chance to change that will begin Monday when the NBA, still trying to finalize plans for the 2020-21 season, is expected to open the door for trades. Two days later, the NBA Draft awaits; the Knicks hold the No. 8 overall pick and have two more picks in the top 38 spots. And the free-agent market will open Friday, with the Knicks in possession of as much as $42 million in cap space and the bankroll to pay when other teams are fearful of the revenue drop the league is facing.
It all sounds good. But those things have happened to the Knicks before — lottery picks, cap space, trade prospects — and the standings are littered with the failures of team executives before Rose. The next week will be the first step in determining where Rose’s tenure is headed.
The 21-45 team that Rose inherited could be drastically different when training camp opens in two weeks. The Knicks have seven potential free agents. Moe Harkless is an unrestricted free agent who certainly will depart. Five of the players are on low-cost team options. In a normal summer, all five might be on their way out in the makeover.
But the Knicks have little time to ready for the coming season, and Rose’s most ambitious move has been naming Tom Thibodeau as head coach, a move that signals winning — and quickly — will be the priority. The decisions will be intertwined with the rush to remake the roster, and the cap and patient approach may quickly blow up.
The Knicks haven’t exactly been a prime location for free-agent stars — hello, Kevin Durant! — so to get a star in place, Rose may have to find another path to respectability.
The possibilities are available. Russell Westbrook wants out of Houston. Chris Paul doesn’t fit the rebuild in Oklahoma City.
It seems simple — the Knicks need talent and have the cap room to absorb the contracts. Westbrook, who just turned 32 years old and has undergone seven surgeries, undoubtedly would raise the talent level. But he also comes with a massive three-year contract, a shaky outside shot and a need to dominate the ball. Paul was spectacular for the Thunder this past season but has two years and $85.5 million left on his deal. Did we mention he’s 35 years old?
Either of these players would be a huge risk for Rose but also would provide an immediate semblance of respectability to the Knicks. Paul, even at his advanced NBA age, would make sense from the point of helping to develop the young players who have shown only the slightest hints of potential. And if Rose works the numbers properly, with room still possible for another max contract, he could help lure another star next summer.
If either of these players comes without costing the Knicks their own high draft pick and the few pieces they want to build around — RJ Barrett and Mitchell Robinson might be the only pieces — there might not be a reason to not take the gamble.
Although Westbrook and Paul might prefer a contending team, the Knicks can absorb either player’s contract. That’s a huge plus, particularly for the Thunder if they want to avoid someone else’s big contract.
The Knicks do have Julius Randle with only one fully guaranteed year on his contract to try to clear out in a deal. But even Frank Ntilikina and Dennis Smith Jr. will be up for new contracts next summer, so including them might be attractive for Rose.
In a draft with no clear stars, the Knicks could trade up from No. 8, but according to sources, they are not enamored of guards LaMelo Ball and Anthony Edwards, two of the players predicted to go among the top three spots. Tyrese Haliburton, a more mature prospect, also has been left off their wish list. So staying put at No. 8 — or trading back for more assets — makes sense.
Alabama’s speedy point guards Kira Lewis Jr. or Killian Hayes could be the pick, but wings such as Isaac Okoro, Patrick Williams and Devin Vassell might be the likeliest path.
Of course, Rose spent decades as an agent. He could be throwing out a well-crafted smokescreen.
The Knicks struck out last summer in a star-filled market and already have an eye on next summer’s crop of free agents, which will be led by Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo. But for now, the Knicks have money to burn and little to chose from. With Anthony Davis and Brandon Ingram expected to remain with their current teams, the top unrestricted free agent in this class is Toronto’s Fred VanVleet, who has been a key to the Raptors’ success but still projects as a part of a good team, not a star to lift a team like the Knicks.
Other names worth watching for the Knicks include Christian Wood, Davis Bertans and Jerami Grant. The Knicks could gamble the way they did last year, offering up a one-year overpay to have an expiring contract as a trade chip.