With their seasons over, it is the time of reflection for the Knicks and Nets. There are questions — contractual problems, roster decisions, draft study and cap considerations.
The most important question is the simplest.
The Nets certainly are closer to a championship level in terms of talent. As odd as this may sound for a franchise drenched in dysfunction for decades, the Knicks possess a modicum of stability, even if it is fleeting and that stability has them mired in mediocrity. So who would you rather be?
The Nets could be a championship team if everything goes right, but what are the chances? What are the chances that Kyrie Irving buys into the demand for accountability that Sean Marks and Steve Nash finally expressed in their postseason news conference? What are the chances that Ben Simmons is healthy both mentally and physically and ready to play every night? How much longer can Kevin Durant carry the franchise on his slender shoulders?
The Knicks could contend that they were on the way two years ago when they were 41-31 and earned a playoff berth for the first time in eight seasons, when Tom Thibodeau was the Coach of the Year and Julius Randle earned an All-NBA spot. And even in the struggles of last season, when fans were crying for Thibodeau to be fired and Randle to be — fill in the blank with your wish: traded, benched, released — they could point to RJ Barrett and a roster of young, developing pieces as beacons for hope.
Dysfunctional stars on one side. Young team banking on player development and hoping that will attract a star. Would you have guessed a decade ago which one would be which?
It will be very difficult for either of these teams to change its path right now.
Irving can — and likely will — opt out of the final year of his contract and try to negotiate a longer and more lucrative deal with the Nets. He has sworn his allegiance to Durant, which seems to be about the only thing that can be counted on for Irving. Simmons already has the long-term deal and has to hope that not only is his back healed when the season begins but that his head is ready for the trips to not only Philadelphia but also Madison Square Garden and Boston and any city with a loud fan base who won’t let him forget what drove him out of Philadelphia.
And if the Nets want to move on, the options aren’t great. If they let Irving walk, they have no cap space to replace him with a player of his stature. Can you picture a team willing to negotiate a trade for Irving or Simmons at this point? A sign-and-trade of Irving if he opts out sounds good, but find a team that not only will commit a long-term deal to him but will give up equal value to make it work. If the adage “availability is the best ability” is the key, the Nets haven’t been as star-powered as it might appear.
“We’re looking for guys that want to come in here and be part of something bigger than themselves, play selfless, play team basketball, and be available,” Marks said at his end-of-season news conference. “That goes not only for Kyrie but for everybody here.”
Well, before Knicks fans feel too good about themselves, what do you think the value is right now on the trade market for Randle, their best player? Some executives at the NBA Draft Combine speculated that the Knicks would have to add an asset to the contract, and even with that, wouldn’t land a star in return. They also are capped out thanks to last summer, when they had the most cap space in the league and came home with Evan Fournier, Kemba Walker and extensions for Nerlens Noel, Alec Burks, Derrick Rose and Taj Gibson.
The Knicks at least have the No. 11 pick in a draft that most experts believe is deep not in star power but in players who will be solid rotation pieces. Will they find a player there or package together some of their future picks or young players to move up? Will they move back out of No. 11 and continue to add assets? Both are possible, but at some point they have to turn those picks and young players into someone who can lead them out of this NBA middle class.
It’s hardly a secret that the organization has interest in Utah’s Donovan Mitchell, but with his contract locked, the Jazz have no need to appease a desire to return to his hometown. If Mitchell really wants out, Utah can send him to the highest bidder. Jalen Brunson is an unrestricted free agent with long family ties to Knicks staff and seems a perfect fit. But besides clearing cap space, the Knicks would have to lure him from Dallas, where he flourished this season under Jason Kidd for a contending team.
After the Mavericks were eliminated Thursday, owner Mark Cuban told Bally Sports Southwest’s Marc Stein, “We can pay him more than anybody. And I think he wants to stay, and that’s what is most important.”
It’s hard to tell what Knicks president Leon Rose is thinking; he rarely has spoken publicly, and the entire Knicks front office at the lottery and combine last week opted for a vow of silence. But in speaking with MSG Networks’ Mike Breen on the last day of the disappointing season, Rose said, “We have to stick to the plan, we have to build one block at a time, be patient. We feel like we’re set up, you know, really well as far as like, we’ve got 13 draft picks over the next three drafts, four first-round picks. With regard to opportunities that may come along, we’re very flexible. We want to show patience. We want to show prudence in making those decisions and continuing to develop what we have.”
The Knicks’ roster of young players is a promising start but still needs an upgrade. Bragging about eight players under 24 years old doesn’t mean as much when you compare the level of talent to that of teams equally set with young talent under contract but with a much higher ceiling, teams such as Boston and Memphis.
The decision about which team you’d rather be at least comes with this bit of positivity: Neither one of the franchises is the Lakers.
Draft combine notes
It’s hard to project anything for the Knicks at No. 11 — or higher if they trade up — because not one of the top prospects played in the scrimmages, most didn’t even participate in measurements and a handful of those projected in the top seven didn’t even show up for media interviews.
But some officials on hand from teams were impressed with players in the Knicks’ range. Multiple draft experts said that at No. 11, they should get a solid rotation piece, mentioning the likes of Dyson Daniels, Jeremy Sochan, Bennedict Mathurin, Ousmane Dieng and Mark Williams.
Seton Hall’s Jared Rhoden opened eyes by taking an invite from the G League Elite Camp and earning a spot in the NBA Combine, where he impressed again. Some scouts liked speedy NC State guard Terquavion Smith and New Zealand Breakers guard Hugo Besson as a late first-rounder or early second-rounder.