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SportsColumnistsSteve Popper

A lot has changed, so the Knicks may have to rethink their rebuilding strategy

Raptors forward Kawhi Leonard handles the ball in

Raptors forward Kawhi Leonard handles the ball in front of the Warriors' Andrew Bogut during the first half of Game 6 of the NBA Finals on Thursday in Oakland, Calif. Photo Credit: The Canadian Press via AP/Frank Gunn

As the Knicks get ready to embark on the most important two weeks of their best-laid plans for rebuilding, it’s worth taking a look at who was holding the championship trophy and spraying champagne Thursday night.

Saturday's reported trade of Anthony Davis from the Pelicans to the Lakers has created a roadblock on one avenue the Knicks could have taken.

The Knicks hold the No. 3 pick in the upcoming NBA Draft, giving them their third straight lottery pick. They have stashed away approximately $70 million in salary-cap space, enough for two max-salary stars. And that is the centerpiece of the long, painful path to rebuilding.

But as the Raptors celebrated their first NBA championship, there was not a single lottery pick, not one max-contract player — at least until Kawhi Leonard’s free agency kicks in on June 30 — on a roster that outplayed the most star-studded team in the NBA.

Leonard was a No. 15 pick — and traded on draft night. Kyle Lowry was a late first-round pick. Pascal Siakam was selected No. 27 overall. Fred VanVleet was undrafted. They had traded away their top player — a lottery pick — in DeMar DeRozan and fired their coach, Dwane Casey, who wound up being voted coach of the year.

The point is, there are different paths to glory, and the Knicks are on about their 15th version since they last reached an NBA Finals in 1999.

“We’re NBA champions, so if that makes you a superteam, I’ll take it,” VanVleet said. “People don’t view us that way because it’s untraditional. It’s not the glam stars. None of our guys probably, other than Kawhi, are in that big boy club or the fan boy club of the NBA.

“We got guys who had to get it the long way, who had to get it out of the mud, who had to get it against the grain. And we got a team full of them coming from all different places, all walks of life, all different life stories to get to this moment. But we got some talent, we got some talent for sure. And at the end of the day, going out there in the playoffs is about performing at a high level, and we were able to do that over the course of two months.”

The Knicks certainly will be players in the free-agent market, but despite Garden chairman James Dolan’s assurances months ago that stars are coming, the entire market has taken an odd turn before free agency even begins.

Kevin Durant, the top target, suffered a ruptured Achilles tendon in Game 5, almost certainly putting him out of action for next season. Klay Thompson went down with a torn anterior cruciate ligament in Game 6, possibly putting himself in the same situation. That leaves two of the four top free agents in the market eligible for new max contracts and the very real chance that for those riches, the team that signs them won’t get a single game out of them. Maybe the second year is a recovery year with load management.

For the Warriors, that would be acceptable. The team already is loaded with talent — maybe not good enough for the NBA Finals again, but hardly ready to be written off.

For a team like the Knicks that already has endured years of losses, including five straight seasons of at least 50 losses and a pair of 17-65 campaigns, the notion of emptying their salary-cap space and waiting is a hard pill to swallow.

This may all be moot because the Knicks no longer seem so certain that they are front-runners for any of the top free-agent targets. From the moment that they traded Kristaps Porzingis and created this cap space, Knicks front office executives eased back expectations, explaining that it will not be an all-or-nothing summer, that the space allowed them not just the ability to pursue stars in free agency but also to have flexibility. They could use the space to facilitate trades and acquire assets that way.

Does the injury and the Warriors’ failure in the Finals increase the likelihood that Durant will opt in to the final year of his contract and stay with Golden State? Will winning a title for Toronto shift Leonard’s thinking and keep him north of the border?

The sad reality right now is that the Knicks just might wind up with a slow path forward. If, in the end, they land in the place that the Raptors are right now, the pain might be worth the wait. But it certainly would mean more pain. At least, like the Raptors, the Knicks already have gone through their Andrea Bargnani phase.

Baby steps

The Knicks picked up the team option on Allonzo Trier’s contract, giving him a $3.5 million payday in his second season after joining the team last summer as an undrafted free agent.

Trier originally was signed to a two-way deal but never spent a day in the G League. The Knicks rewarded his performance with a full contract, providing the option that put him on the scale of the No. 12 pick last year and will allow him to be a restricted free agent at the end of next season.

While the price tag is high for an undrafted free agent, the Knicks believe that Trier will be a rotation player as they move forward and that the contract will not get in the way of signing the help the team certainly needs.

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