With the season down to three more games, the Knicks are turning their attention to the summer — as if they haven’t had their eye on the summer rebuild all season long.
Who would want to stare closely at the product on the floor in what likely will be the worst season in franchise history? The Knicks would need to win all three remaining games to surpass the 17-win season from four years ago. So they have been studying the potential draft choices and preparing to play fantasy basketball with the $74 million of salary-cap space they have accumulated to chase down Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving or whatever star talent they believe can change their long-suffering fortunes.
Knicks president Steve Mills and general manager Scott Perry sent out a letter to season-ticket holders this past week talking about what the team — and the fans — have endured and about the plans for what is to come.
“We can honestly say that the future of the New York Knicks is extremely bright,” said the letter, which was signed by both executives. “Through our trade of Kristaps Porzingis, Tim Hardaway Jr., Courtney Lee and Trey Burke to Dallas, we enhanced our organizational plan by acquiring a young dynamic player in Dennis Smith Jr., a veteran leader in DeAndre Jordan and two additional first-round picks.
“We now have seven first- round draft picks over the next five years, and we remain committed to adding young talent to a team that is currently one of the two youngest in the NBA. In addition, we have created a tremendous amount of financial flexibility, which has put us in a position to potentially sign up to two max free agents.’’
And it is there that the future rests — unless it doesn’t. Since making the Porzingis trade, Mills and Perry have been cautious about putting their fate solely on the whims of the free-agent class — well aware that although there is plenty of conjecture that Durant-to-the-Knicks is a done deal, all it takes is a Hamptons meeting with the right combination of suitors and it all goes up in smoke.
When Garden executive chairman and Knicks owner James Dolan, appearing on “The Michael Kay Show” on ESPN New York radio, addressed the issue, he assured anyone listening that stars are coming.
“No, look, New York is the mecca of basketball,” Dolan said. “We hear from people all the time, from players, representatives. It’s about who wants to come. We can’t respond because of the NBA rules, but that doesn’t stop them from telling us, and they do.
“I can tell you from what we’ve heard, I think we’re going to have a very successful offseason when it comes to free agents. The thing about the team now is that it’s very young. It’s the youngest team in the NBA. You take a look at some of the players that we have and they won’t be the centerpiece of the team, but as complements to the centerpiece of the team, we’re developing them right now.”
When he was asked if that means that the top available talent will come, he didn’t hesitate.
“Yes, I do think that,” he said. “I think we offer a pretty good situation for them. One is a lot of them love New York. A bunch of them live in New York in the offseason. They know the team. They know [David Fizdale] really well. They know Steve and they know Scott. I think they’re fairly confident about the organization.
“Players who are free agents want to go to a winner and they want to get paid. We’re definitely going to pay them. And we think with them combined with the kids that we have that we can build a winning team.”
This letter was the first time since then that Mills or Perry publicly commented on the possibility of obtaining two max slot stars, but even in this optimistic plea to the fans they remained cautious in their wording, adding the disclaimer that the money is going to the stars only if they buy into what the Knicks are building. Of course, if they don’t, they probably aren’t going to come here, with plenty of other teams willing to pay them.
“The commitment we are making to our fans is that we will not skip a single step in the development process of our players,” the letter concluded. “We will continue to focus on the draft in an attempt to replicate the type of players we added last summer. Most importantly, we will use our cap space diligently and only on players who believe in our plan and are committed to building the New York Knicks into the championship team that you deserve.”
Mudiay’s last stand
As the Knicks were working on the court at the morning shootaround Friday, Emmanuel Mudiay stood off to the side, in conversation with Perry. They figure to have a more substantive conversation soon, and most likely, it will end with a handshake and best wishes for the future.
Among the assortment of former lottery picks the Knicks assembled on the roster as reclamation projects, no one lifted his value more than Mudiay. It is the increase in value and the huge cost it would take for the Knicks to retain him that makes him unlikely to return.
Mudiay put up career bests in points (14.8) and field-goal percentage (.446) while playing the most games and minutes per game since his rookie season in Denver. But he comes with a cap hold of $12.8 million, which the Knicks assuredly will renounce to make room for two max salary slots for stars to come to the Garden.
“I think about these guys’ careers from the standpoint of, we’re not going to the playoffs,” coach David Fizdale explained as to why he had to give Mudiay the night off Friday to recuperate from multiple bumps and bruises. “This kid has now established himself and put himself in position to have an offseason where multiple teams are going to want to talk to him. I don’t want to risk that after he’s done so much to get to where he is. With the shoulder and the hamstring, we all thought it was just better and it’s the right thing to do by him to give him a game off.”
While the Knicks have praised Mudiay effusively throughout the season and, most importantly, gave him the starting point guard job over Frank Ntilikina, he knows his future likely is somewhere else. But he appreciated the opportunity to recoup his value.
“First off, I feel like I owed them a lot, especially the organization because they gave me a chance,” Mudiay said. “He let me go out there and be myself, so any time I was going through something, I always thought about something that he would have done for me.
“I think I improved, but at the same time, like I said, Fiz put me in a great position to just go out there and be myself, play my game. I feel like I gave myself a little more life and the confidence went up extremely this year.”
Mudiay isn’t ruling out a return to New York, but he understands that with Dennis Smith Jr. and Ntilikina under contract and the possibility of a player like Kyrie Irving coming to New York, the choice may not be his.
“That’s a conversation that we all are going to have, I guess, at the end of the season,” he said. “So if it happens, it’s great. That’s a good thing. I love everybody in this organization. At the same time, I know you’ve got to wait for those [stars] to make their decisions as well.
“I think it’s going to be a pretty interesting [free agency] just because there are great players in it as well. You want to see where people are going to land, see where it goes from there, really.”