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SportsColumnistsSteve Popper

With the trade deadline approaching, it's back to the drawing board for the Knicks

Marcus Morris of the Knicks defends Anthony Davis

Marcus Morris of the Knicks defends Anthony Davis of the Los Angeles Lakers during the first half at Madison Square Garden on Wednesday, Jan. 22, 2020. Credit: Jim McIsaac

At the start of training camp in October, when Knicks president Steve Mills and general manager Scott Perry finally appeared to speak about the seven free agents they had signed with the $70 million of cap space that had been earmarked for stars, they said all of the things you would expect. They insisted that this was one of their plans in place from the start and how excited they were with this influx of veteran talent.

And when Mills and Perry finished off the praise and got to the final words of their rare media session, Perry added a cautionary note.

“And also in building this summer, we were able to maintain the financial flexibility that we want to have as we move forward and build a successful team,” Perry said. “So we expect each and every day to go out and compete and give us a chance to win each and every night with how hard we play and how well we play together. And that’s how we’re going to evaluate our season moving forward.”

The nod to financial flexibility might have seemed an odd sign after a series of compliments for the potential of this group, but it was accurate. The Knicks had signed six of the free agents with full guarantees for only one year.

The latter part of Perry’s comment — how the team would play together — has been answered by the 13-36 record the Knicks brought into Saturday night’s game in Indiana. They entered Saturday tied with the Cavaliers and Hawks for the worst record in the Eastern Conference and the second-worst record in the NBA.

The team has been a disaster, costing coach David Fizdale his job after 22 games and continuing down a path to the bottom of the standings with the coaching change. After getting off to a 6-6 start under interim coach Mike Miller, they have since gone 3-12.

So the first test of that flexibility comes with Thursday’s NBA trade deadline. According to executives from other NBA teams, the Knicks seem open to talking about the veterans on expiring contracts as well as most of their young players.

Of course, the confidence that Knicks executives spoke with in preseason is now tempered by the possibility that just like the players, the executives could be gone by summer. All of the front-office members brought in by Perry and Mills have contracts that will expire this summer. Mills and Perry hold mutual options; to return for another season, they need the team to be willing to bring them back. The best thing they might have going for them right now is that the top target to run the franchise, Toronto’s Masai Ujiri, has a contract that runs through next season.

The most logical trade chip is Marcus Morris, who has been the team’s best player this season, averaging 19.2 points per game and shooting 43.9% from beyond the arc — although he did them no favors with his misogynistic comments Wednesday. He will be an unrestricted free agent at season’s end and will be sought after by plenty of teams.

While Morris has insisted he feels at home in New York and the Knicks like what he brings, it makes little sense to hang on to him. His presence has not changed their fortunes on the court, and if they really like each other, they can re-sign him in the summer after acquiring assets for him now.

A number of teams have shown interest in Morris, and the best fit might be a contender that can use his services this season — the Los Angeles Clippers. While Morris certainly will have suitors in free agency this summer, a team like the Clippers won’t have the space to pay him in free agency unless they can get him in place and take ownership of his Bird Rights.

One trade scenario suggested by a source was sending Morris to the Clippers in exchange for Mo Harkless, who also is on an expiring contract, a first-round pick and/or Landry Shamet. The Knicks might have to add a player to make it work — possibly one of their young point guards or Reggie Bullock.

While some teams have speculated that a first-round pick might be the price, the Knicks need to match up his $15 million salary and don’t want to bring back deals that extend beyond this season.

While a league source said the Knicks' interest in Detroit’s Andre Drummond has been exaggerated, one possible deal that could interest them is sending out Julius Randle, the lone free agent the Knicks signed with a guarantee for next season. The word around the NBA is that Drummond will decline the $28 million player option he holds for next season, and trading Randle could clear their cap for another makeover.

It seems like little coincidence that Dennis Smith Jr. emerged from the bench into prime minutes this week, providing a showcase for the 22-year-old point guard, who has been a disappointment. In talks with scouts from other teams, the prospect of what he could bring was mostly met with head-shaking and talk of a second-round pick at best.

Some teams have expressed interest in 2018 lottery pick Kevin Knox, who has seen a decline in minutes and performance this season.

None of the Knicks has raised his value to bring the sort of returns that justify the cap flexibility the team’s executives boasted about — not to mention where that cap space came from: sending away the last star the team had, Kristaps Porzingis.

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