Even with the Knicks’ locked-down, no-leaks, top-secret approach to roster-building, it’s not hard to figure out that there is a need and a desire for a star point guard. But discerning where one will come from might be something that even those within the carefully guarded walls don’t know yet.
Until Game 3 of their opening-round playoff series against the Atlanta Hawks, Elfrid Payton was the starting point guard, much to the chagrin of the fan base. Although coach Tom Thibodeau had spent the season defending Payton against the critics, he made the move and went to Derrick Rose as the starter. Rose played well, but it didn’t make a difference against Trae Young as the wide gap between the Knicks’ point guards and the Atlanta star was obvious.
But the Knicks will have a chance for a fresh start. Payton, Rose and little-used former lottery pick Frank Ntilikina are all free agents this summer. Rose is the most likely to be back, but ideally, he would resume his role as sixth man, providing minutes at point guard and shooting guard. Ntilikina, who will turn 23 this month, is bound for the French national team and the Olympics but almost certainly is headed to a new team. Payton certainly would benefit from a chance in another city.
The current roster has two options, and neither seems to fit with a desire to contend right now. Like Rose, Immanuel Quickley is best suited for combo guard work, creating instant offense off the bench. Luca Vildoza was signed to a non-guaranteed contract and is working with Knicks coaches in Westchester. The 6-2 Argentine guard will turn 26 before next season, and while he played well overseas, he doesn’t come with the hype of international lottery picks and actually went undrafted before developing a reputation in Spain.
With plenty of salary cap space — likely approximately $50 million — the Knicks are in position to grab a star. And if it is a trade they are seeking, they have assets they’d be willing to part with: the Nos. 19 and 21 picks in the upcoming NBA Draft as well as the Nos. 32 and 58 overall picks.
But even with Leon Rose leading things, the path to finding a star point guard is not a simple one.
The Knicks find themselves armed with cash in a free-agent market that is not stocked with star power. While they may not rival the success of some of the teams they’d be competing with for the players, the Knicks have shed the dysfunctional label that deservedly trailed them for years and have a better chance to land a star.
The best free-agent point guard is 36-year-old Chris Paul, but it’s hard to imagine him opting out of the final year of a contract that will pay him $44 million. It seems likely he will remain in Phoenix, where he has led the team to a spot in the NBA Finals.
The best fit for the Knicks right now might be 35-year-old Kyle Lowry. He would allow them to keep their other assets in place and would provide a leader in the locker room (alongside Julius Randle) who can defend and score. He shot just under 40% from three-point range this season and averaged 17.6 points and 7.3 assists per game.
Mike Conley Jr. is the next-best free-agent option. He could leave Utah because of luxury tax constraints that would make him a very costly option despite how he combined with Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert to push Utah to the best record in the NBA regular season.
Reggie Jackson might have seemed a reasonably priced option, but is the raise he could get by leaving the Clippers enough to overcome the ties he has built there, relationships that had him in tears after they were eliminated in the Western Conference finals?
Lonzo Ball, a restricted free agent on a crowded Pelicans roster, improved this season, and his father has openly lobbied for a relocation to New York. But it might take a sign-and-trade to keep New Orleans from matching an offer. He does provide some of the skills that Thibodeau treasures with good size, the ability to penetrate and an improved three-point shot.
Spencer Dinwiddie, rehabilitated from an ACL tear, is another possibility. He is expected to opt out of his $12.3 million player option.
If the Knicks want to go for a trade, there certainly is smoke surrounding the status of Damian Lillard in Portland. His longtime talk of loyalty to the organization is being tested by the frustration of trying to rise above the Trail Blazers’ current level, and the team’s awkward coaching search put him in line for public backlash. Will it be enough to push him to force his way out?
If so, the cost certainly will be prohibitive. And even if the Knicks were willing to go all-in — say RJ Barrett and both first-round picks this season — they likely don’t have enough to compete with the package that a team such as Golden State could put together to push for another title with Steph Curry, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson.
Ben Simmons likely is available, but the 76ers reportedly have turned down attractive packages. One report had them rejecting Indiana’s offer of Malcolm Brogdon and the No. 12 pick in this draft.
In the draft, while the Knicks would be willing to package their picks to move up, they don’t have the picks to get in the top four, where they would have a shot at Cade Cunningham, Jalen Suggs or Jalen Green. They could put themselves in range for UConn’s James Bouknight and might even be able to stay put and grab Auburn’s Sharife Cooper.
So what’s the most likely option?
Lillard seems like a long shot right now unless he publicly pushes for an exit. Paul is an outside shot, too. So maybe the best and easiest solution is to keep building with a short-term deal for Lowry, who could keep the team on the current path without the need for a long, pricey contract.