As the Knicks shuffled their way around the NBA Draft on Thursday night, trading away the No. 19 pick, shifting back from 21 to 25 and even backtracking in the second round to pick up an extra selection, they weren’t acting like a team in the early stages of a rebuild.
Efforts to move up were made and rejected, so if the Knicks still were building youthful pieces around their base, they might have gone ahead and made those picks at 19 and 21, trying to fill holes and focus on development. But they didn’t.
So what does that portend for Monday, when the NBA opens the free-agent market? The strategy on display Thursday might have been an indication that the time has come for the next big step forward.
Since becoming team president in March 2020, Leon Rose has taken a patient approach, hanging tight to the team’s cap flexibility and accumulating draft picks to add to the stockpile he inherited.
(The Knicks still have six first-round picks and nine second-rounders in the next four drafts, which would shift to five firsts and 11 seconds if the Charlotte future pick acquired when Rose sent the No. 19 pick eventually translates to a pair of second-rounders.)
But coming off a 41-31 season, the No. 4 seed in the Eastern Conference and a playoff berth after seven seasons with a coach who treasures every regular-season game as much as Game 7 of an NBA Finals, the Knicks do not want to take a step backward.
With some teams wiped out last season by injuries and COVID-19 absences, the task undoubtedly will be harder this season. To maintain their momentum, the Knicks have to get better.
Which brings us to Monday. When Rose and his right-hand man, William Wesley, made the shift from agents to executives, relationships with the stars was the key item on their resumes. In his previous life running the basketball division of Creative Artists Agency, Rose represented Chris Paul and Kyle Lowry, two of the possible free-agent prizes when the market opens.
Do you believe that after winning Coach of the Year honors for exceeding expectations, Tom Thibodeau will go into the season with a roster that currently has Immanuel Quickley, Luis Vildoza and Miles McBride as the starting point guard options?
Or do you believe that when Rose bided his time Thursday, he did it with a pretty good idea that he might be able to land Paul, Lowry, Lonzo Ball or Collin Sexton?
Paul has a $44 million option for the coming season, but even at 36 years of age, he could opt out and seek a lower-priced deal for next season but in a longer-term package — think three years and $90 million to wrap up his Hall of Fame-bound career.
Russell Westbrook’s trade to the Los Angeles Lakers takes one contender out of the mix, and in Paul’s case in particular, it might come down to only the Suns and the Knicks pursuing him.
Lowry, an unrestricted free agent, has not absolutely severed ties with Toronto, where his number likely will hang in the rafters someday, and his list of suitors likely is much wider than Paul’s, including New Orleans, Miami and Philadelphia.
But the Knicks have more money to spend than any other team (aided slightly by dealing away this year’s No. 19 pick). What they have is a handful of cheap roster assets — Quickley, Obi Toppin, Mitchell Robinson and Kevin Knox — as well as the four players drafted Thursday.
It was not Rose’s problem or responsibility, but the prize of the Kristaps Porzingis deal, once hoped to be a lottery pick from Dallas, became the 21st pick Thursday (along with a 2023 first-rounder). Rose traded that No. 21 pick for the 25th spot, where the Knicks got Quentin Grimes and Detroit’s second-round pick in 2024. That’s not the sort of return on deals Rose wants to be known for.
Rose and his front office have locked down without commenting before or after moves. Even rival executives say it’s hard to get a read on what the team is planning. But even without a public declaration, it’s clear that if Rose was brought here with a willingness to build slowly, last season changed all that.
The Knicks want to win now, and it’s not going to be easy. Even with last season’s improvement, Julius Randle and RJ Barrett need another veteran to help carry the load, and that’s the job that begins for Rose on Monday.