The Knicks have been careful — other than the owner — to soften expectations for their summer makeover. While James Dolan went on the radio last week and confidently expressed his belief that the stars of free agency will come and have already indicated to the team of their intentions, team president Steve Mills and general manager Scott Perry have tried to explain all of the optimistic paths that the Knicks future can take.
In the hours after trading away Kristaps Porzingis, a deal that allowed the team to open up two max salary cap slots, the front office executives tried to temper the talk of Kevin Durant or Kyrie Irving and instead look at the big picture — and relieve the pressure that will press firmly on their shoulders this summer.
“I think this is still in line with what we’ve talked about from the beginning,” Perry said. “We talked about building with young players, building through the draft. We get back an exciting young player in the deal. We get back two future draft picks and then the fact that we do have some financial flexibility. I think if you study teams over the course of building like we’re doing, financial flexibility is an important part of that so that you can be opportunistic as you move forward.”
“We believe we haven’t reset our plan,” Mills added. “What we did were the things that were consistent with our plan. A byproduct of what we did created $68 million worth of room. We’re going to be prudent in how we use that room because we’re still consistent in building this team through the draft and with young players and when there is an opportunity to add a free agent, that certainly is one of the tools that we have in our tool box.”
Even if Dolan had cautiously held his tongue it might not have eased the pressure from the fan base who seemed willing to go along with a season that seems bound to be the worst in franchise history and even to trade away the franchise centerpiece in Porzingis. Financial flexibility is hardly the return that the fans consider a fair return for their patience.
But the reason for the caution from the front office is that even armed with $74 million in cap space the decision is not in their hands. If Durant opts to stay with Golden State, shuttle down the coast to Los Angeles, join on in Brooklyn or, brace yourself, join Porzingis in Dallas, it’s his choice no matter how much cash the Knicks are desperately waving at him.
So we asked players and agents what makes the decision in the end if everyone has the cash, granting anonymity to them in exchange for what we hope is honesty. And some of it was what you would expect like a winning organization or a glamorous city, but also things as simple as the state of the art practice facility. Does Kyrie want to come home to New York? If so, players warned: Put a stop to all of the old friends with hands out as soon as you arrive.
Armed with some of that information and the probable cap space from spotrac.com here is a look at how the teams are regarded by the players they are chasing.
30. New Orleans Pelicans (cap space $19.9 million): A dismal arena and a star who openly is asking out, the least attractive spot in the NBA. The food is delicious though.
29. Detroit Piston (no cap space): Cold, gray and the move to a new arena only accentuated how few fans come to those games. No surprise that they have boldly made deals — trading for Blake Griffin is the only way he’s leaving L.A. for Detroit.
28. Memphis Grizzlies (no cap space): They could create space by waiving Avery Bradley’s partially guaranteed deal and if Jonas Valanciuna really disliked the blues. Players seem more intent on leaving than rebuilding, but Valanciuna is unlikely to find $17 million someplace else. So capped out with a miserable roster is a lonely place.
27. Orlando Magic ($22 million): A longer playoff drought than the Knicks and a second-class status in their own home state, but with a likable coach in Steve Clifford and a practice facility that players rave about, moving up the charts.
26. Cleveland Cavaliers (no cap space): Look at the Cavs and then remind yourself, they are actually over the cap. Life after Lebron hasn’t exactly been all sunshine and there are few selling points in the rust belt for players. Even the practice site is nowhere near downtown.
25. Minnesota Timberwolves (no cap space): If Jeff Teague somehow opted out of his $19 million they could have room for an addition, but who’s braving the snow for a very uncertain franchise where the owner meddled and drove out the coach who’d brought them to playoffs?
24. Phoenix Suns ($28 million): A warm climate through the summer, a core of young talent, what’s not to like? The owner hasn’t exactly endeared himself, the team doesn’t even have a practice facility and there are already rumors that the first-year coach could be in trouble.
23. Charlotte Hornets ($6.2 million): The number could rise if Kemba Walker leaves, but if he leaves maybe they should just shut down the whole operation.
22. Washington Wizards (no cap space): All their money is going to John Wall, who isn’t expected to play next year.
21. Oklahoma City Thunder (no cap space): Paul George opted in, Kevin Durant left, so who can tell? But it’s a great crowd in a small market.
20. Utah Jazz ($22 million): Talented core, very good coach countered by snow and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints more prominent than the arena. Players who get here like it.
19. Indiana Pacers ($48 million): It’s like a colder Oklahoma City, a small market that is a well-run organization. Nate McMillan does a great job as a coach and Victor Oladipo will return to lead a young core.
18. Sacramento Kings ($37 million): Who’d have thought it, but they are rapidly climbing up the rankings. A young core, lots of money and a new arena.
17. Portland Trailblazers (no cap space): If they had the money you’d think someone would like to join the talented backcourt. But no one has.
16. Denver Nuggets (no cap space): I’m going to just say it’s coach Mike Malone and the young talent led by Nikola Jokic that makes them a draw and nothing to do with the mountains of the legal pot.
15. San Antonio Spurs (no cap space): They are a shadow of the team they were, but Gregg Popovich is still there and players around the league love him.
14. Chicago Bulls ($23.8 million): Look, it’s still the house that Jordan built even if the Madhouse on Madison seems a little like an asylum for different reasons lately. But there is young talent, a great city, a great arena and a state of the art practice facility across the street from the arena. I didn’t think I’d say this, but maybe they could use Phil Jackson.
13. Toronto Raptors (no cap space): The Kawhi Leonard free agency will be a test of just how alluring the city is. The Canadian dollar and the frigid winters are countered by one of the best crowds in a beautiful city that was enough to convince DeMar DeRozan to pass up a chance to go home to Los Angeles — before he was traded.
12. Milwaukee Bucks ($19 million): The priority is keeping their own talent in place as they have compiled the best record in the league. But they could shuffle the decks around Giannis Antetokounmpo and add another star. New arena, a likable young star and the likely coach of the year has revitalized the city.
11. Boston Celtics (no cap space): Keeping the core intact — and using them to try to ply Anthony Davis from the Pelicans in a trade — is the goal. The playoffs may tell what the future holds, but even Brad Stevens seems to be having trouble keeping all the talent happy.
10. Atlanta Hawks ($53 million): Dead crowd even in a remodeled arena, but players enjoy the nightlife in the city. Trae Young is a solid draw now, too, as he has picked up his play as the year has gone on.
9. Philadelphia 76ers ($41.2 million): They are in pursuit of their own free agents — and there are a lot of them. If they opt to keep Tobias Harris, Jimmy Butler and J.J. Redick then this is your team for years to come. Butler seems the most likely to depart — but joining on with Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid isn’t a bad way to spend the next five years.
8. Miami Heat (no cap space): They may be in cap space limbo now, but remember who started the super team trend. Miami is as enticing a city to live in for players as any in the league.
7. Houston Rockets (no cap space): No state tax and if you can pry the ball from James Harden, Mike D’Antoni’s system lets you put up numbers that pile up like a pinball machine.
6. Brooklyn Nets ($54 million): That number drops if they opt to keep D’Angelo Russell, but they have finally gotten on the right track. Kenny Atkinson makes players better, there is a young core, a shiny new practice facility and all the kale you can eat.
5. Los Angeles Lakers ($43 million): Magic Johnson, LeBron James and the whole “I love LA” vibe seemed like a perfect draw — and then Paul George and Kawhi Leonard showed no interest. The year has been a disaster, but LeBron will be leading the free-agent push and Klutch Sports has already been signing up potential targets.
4. New York Knicks ($74 million): All the talk about the Garden as the mecca — it should have holy water flowing from the beer taps to make up for everything else. A practice site a miserable commute from the arena, the dysfunctional history that has lasted most of these players lives. But it’s New York City, a chance to name your teammates and so much money.
3. Golden State Warriors (no cap space): Over the cap already and that number could skyrocket if they keep their own free agents, Durant, Klay Thompson and DeMarcus Cousins. But they get this spot for consistently attracting talent to take low cost deals to be a part of the magic. Ownership, front office, coach and a new arena in downtown San Francisco make this the place to be.
2. Los Angeles Clippers ($59.7 million): A free agent will walk into a room with the exuberant owner Steve Ballmer, players coach Doc Rivers and maybe Jerry West is in the room. What’s missing? Their own arena. Rumors abound that Kawhi Leonard is heading to the Clippers, which gives them the best two-way player in the game.
1. Dallas Mavericks ($52 million): In Mark Cuban they have an owner who set the trend of pampering his players, they have an elite coach and no state tax. Oh, and you pair up with Luke Doncic and Porzingis.