It has seemed a given throughout the NBA that Kevin Durant and the Knicks will unite in a still-hard-to-understand marriage next month when he hits free agency. Whispers abound in the league that this is a done deal, that Durant — the best offensive player in the NBA and arguably the best player — will come to Madison Square Garden to change the long-struggling fortunes of the franchise.
Yet the Knicks must wonder if they will be jilted in free agency again. You can recite the names of the stars who left them waiting at the altar in years past — including Durant three years ago.
But the thing is, unlike the chase of Durant and LeBron James before him, there is another option.
Kawhi Leonard’s status is just as filled with uncertainty as Durant’s, maybe even more so. And like Durant, he can lay claim to being the best player in the game.
This time the Knicks are not pushing all of their chips — or max salary slots — into the pursuit of one player. According to a source with knowledge of their plans, the team is expected to push hard for Leonard when free agency begins at 6 p.m. on June 30.
While Durant’s flirtation with New York has been immersed in talk of branding deals and production opportunities, the Knicks’ front office is enamored of Leonard’s two-way skills.
Leonard is a star without seeking the spotlight. He is a polite but bland interview. The only controversy of his career came in his parting with the San Antonio Spurs. He had maintained that he wanted to spend his entire career with them, yet his most notable quote in the aftermath of that was a laugh that went viral.
There has been precedent for silent stars in New York. It is hard to recall what Derek Jeter sounded like from his playing days with the Yankees. Eli Manning has spent 15 seasons giving monotone interviews while collecting a couple of Super Bowl trophies. While he was available in every postgame session, it was hard to pry anything of interest from Patrick Ewing in his days with the Knicks.
If Durant is a soap opera and Kyrie Irving is a viral meme brought to life, Leonard is a National Geographic documentary without a word spoken.
When Leonard came to New York in February, he was asked what he thought about the city and how the fans still were coming out and shouting their support even as the Knicks were slogging through the worst season in franchise history.
“Yeah, they still come out and support the team even with a losing record,” he said. “That’s what you want, I guess, from an organization if you’re playing for them.’’
He has never had to test that in his career. In his eight seasons in the NBA, not one of his teams has failed to make the playoffs, and he has been to three Finals. Certainly joining the 17-65 Knicks, or whatever is left on the roster if the Knicks pay out two max contracts, is not the easiest path to winning.
The Clippers have been the favorites to bring Leonard aboard, with rumors abounding of his desire to return home to Southern California. They have a talented young nucleus that made the playoffs this season. Leonard could be a difference- maker and help create a team that could challenge for the championship — just as he has done in Toronto this season.
The Raptors took a gamble on a trade for him. Even with the possibility that he will be one-and-done, it has paid off; he has brought them to a 3-1 series lead in their first Finals.
Toronto — the city, not just the franchise — certainly is doing its part to keep him north of the border.
The troubles the Spurs had in dealing with Leonard’s nagging quadriceps injury have been alleviated in Toronto. The Raptors created a load management program and stuck to it, allowing him to rise in the playoffs. He has not missed a postseason game, even if on some nights, he looks like Willis Reed hobbling onto the floor.
If Reed’s iconic moment was making his way out of the tunnel at MSG (Game 7, 1970 Finals) and hitting a pair of stiff-legged jumpers, Leonard already has been the subject of murals and posters across Canada for his four-bounce buzzer-beater against Philadelphia that decided the Eastern Conference finals.
The streets of Toronto are adorned with huge images of Leonard. Bars and restaurants have signs welcoming him with “KaWine and Dine,” promising him that he can eat for free if he stays with the Raptors. A twitter hashtag has emerged — #kawhiyoushouldstay — with fans pleading their case. There have been rumors that Leonard has bought property in Toronto, creating the belief that he will stay for at least another season or two.
It certainly will be a hard sell for the Knicks.
Leonard does have connections to the area — he spent much of his rehab in New York during his final season with the Spurs, working out in New Jersey while staying close with his uncle, who lives in South Orange.
But he has been a part of the postseason every year. That’s certainly the same consideration that Durant will have to make — whether to leave a championship contender for a chance to be the centerpiece of a rebuild.
Asked during his trip to New York what would go into his decision, he said, “Just playing the season right now. Just talk to people, just see what I want to do.”
Leonard’s skills on the court certainly give the Knicks reason to pursue him. That boring, safe quote explains why the Knicks would love to have him as their next franchise player.