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SportsColumnistsSteve Popper

Knicks, Leon Rose try to remain patient in free-agent market

Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo controls the ball against

Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo controls the ball against the Nets during the first half of an NBA game at Barclays Center on Jan. 18. Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

You could nearly hear the shudder through the Knicks fan base over a 24-hour period as a procession of free agents signed in other locales, somehow everyone else figuring out a way to add talent and spend money while the Knicks' own executives sat with a huge wad of cash and no one willing to take it.

It’s the sort of deja vu feeling that led to Steve Mills being removed as team president and put Leon Rose at the top of the organizational chart. The results were similar, the Knicks left to fill their roster with an assortment of short-term deals, but the desperation was far different.

Last summer, the loaded free-agent class had arrived with assurances even from the owner suite that stars were coming to Madison Square Garden. Instead, the Knicks signed an assortment of journeymen who oversaw a 21-45 season, got in the way of the development of some of the young players and played no small part in the team running through two coaches who are both gone. Did we mention that the Knicks had traded Kristaps Porzingis, the franchise centerpiece, and count on that cap space easing the pain of giving him up?

This time, top targets landed in other places. But it may not be quite the same as it seems. The Knicks did inquire about the top targets, Fred VanVleet and Gordon Hayward (no one thinks Anthony Davis is doing anything but returning to the Lakers). But other than due diligence they were unprepared to put anything close to the four-year, $85 million deal the Raptors gave VanVleet to remain in place. And while they reached out to the representatives for Hayward, they were never going to be in play for a four-year deal and certainly not the $120 million the Charlotte Hornets paid him.

Like the 2019 free-agent class that included Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and Kawhi Leonard, the 2021 class has the potential to be another star-studded affair. The dream for the Knicks — and just about every team — is that Giannis Antetokounmpo is willing to leave Milwaukee. But potential unrestricted free agents include Bradley Beal and CJ McCollum with Kawhi Leonard, LeBron James and Paul George among those holding player options.

So the Knicks wait, holding onto their salary cap flexibility and hoping that this time it will work out. A trade for Russell Westbrook remains a possibility if the price falls low enough and mostly what Rose showed right now was that he would not be panicked.

The Knicks added Alec Burks Friday and brought back Elfrid Payton on a one-year, $5 million deal Saturday. There was even interest in a reunion with Carmelo Anthony, but the Trail Blazers were reportedly finalizing a deal to keep him in place. In addition to Payton, there has been talk of returning some of the players that Rose waived. One who they had interest in, Bobby Portis, signed with the Bucks. Taj Gibson remains a possibility.

In the meantime, the hope is that with Tom Thibodeau in place as the head coach and a new crop of assistants focused on player development the Knicks can make something of the underachieving crop of lottery picks already on the roster as well as the trio of rookies coming aboard — Obi Toppin, Immanuel Quickley and Myles Powell. The allure of Rose and William Wesley will be tested though. There was no rush to get to New York from the players who were on the market so getting something from this coming season or finding a trade to bring in more talent is still a challenge.

But for now, Rose was patient. The Knicks fans will have to be, too.

Wishful thinking

Once the rosters are set in place, the next task is getting ready for the quick turnaround to start the 2020-21 NBA season. While that will be hard for the teams to achieve, it might be harder for the league to manage.

The league released the plan last week to try to play the season through the COVID-19 pandemic and it is puzzling at best. I was skeptical the league could get through the summer restart and am far more dubious that this can work. A reminder - 193,000 cases were found in the United States Friday.

The league has not informed teams of the schedule - only the start and end dates - and the actual game schedule will come out during the first week of training camp, which begins December 1. And even then it will only be the first half of the schedule - leaving the opportunity to make up games missed because of the virus.

Kudos to Adam Silver for the job he did in constructing the bubble for the completion of last season. This seems, let’s say, riskier.

The NBA does not plan to adhere to a division-heavy schedule early, which would at least limit travel at the start. The Toronto Raptors announced Friday that they will begin the season playing their home games in Tampa, Florida, which makes little sense when you consider that their division rivals are all clustered in the Northeast.

What Silver and the NBA, as well as the National Basketball Players Association, have to hope is that playing games all across the nation indoors, out of a bubble, in hotels and without nearly the protections in place over the summer they can somehow replicate the success. Increased testing, a wish for a speedy vaccine and best practices by players and staff who will no longer be under a lockdown sounds like a Christmas wishlist right now. But the league gets the television games on Christmas Day.

New York Sports