Coming Up Roses, Part 3
Jeremy Cohen takes a look at the Knicks options in restricted free agency
Jeremy Cohen has been taking us through the Knicks options this offseason over the last several weeks, and today, he explores the treacherous yet tantalizing path of restricted free agency.
Let’s talk restricted free agency.
Ah, young love.
I have two main issues with restricted free agency:
You’re unlikely to get elite players because of matching rights.
If you get a restricted free agent, you probably overpaid for him.
Restricted free agency is designed for teams to protect their talent. While the Knicks would have been able to lure players if all free agents were merely “free agents” instead of categorized as restricted and unrestricted, the measure has protected small (and large) market teams. This ties in with the importance of having draft picks, drafting properly, and developing well. You don’t have to worry about poaching other players if you develop your own talent from within. It would appear that the Knicks have finally gotten the message. Can New York steal away a restricted free agent? Should they try?
The most prized restricted free agent available is Brandon Ingram. The former Blue Devil will be 23 this September and is coming off a breakout season in New Orleans. Ingram averaged 24.3 points, 6.3 rebounds, and 4.3 assists on 46.6/38.7/85.8 shooting. His true shooting percentage has increased annually, finishing at 59.0 in his first year in New Orleans.
I’ve mentioned that the Knicks could offer Ingram a “bad” contract, which would be offering a pro-player deal: shorter term deal, player option, and a trade kicker. Based on how Ingram has been trending, I don’t feel you could overpay for him. He fits the Knicks’ core perfectly. Then again, what team with cap space wouldn’t want a young All-Star?
The Pelicans aren’t going to let Ingram walk. He was one of if not the best asset they received. If there are financial woes, New Orleans will unload Jrue Holiday or JJ Redick before Ingram frees himself.
So with all of that said, if you’re New York, and if you believe the Pelicans will match no matter what, why are you throwing your hat in the ring? No NBA player is allowed to sign for six days due to moratorium rules. Unrestricted free agents can officially sign after that and restricted free agents can officially sign offer sheets. New Orleans could wait until the last moment to sign the offer sheet, leaving New York’s money tied up for eight total days. That’s quite a long time to have more than half of your cap space walled off for a player you don’t even expect to come to your team.
If I’m Leon Rose, I’m letting the Hawks or the Pistons pull that move. The only reason you do it if you’re the Knicks is if you want to lose more games next year, which I doubt the team wants to do. The optics of tossing money to Ingram, knowing he will be retained by New Orleans, and then having a crapload of cap space but all the best free agents have been signed would be terrible.
What other restricted free agents are out there?
The Athletic‘s John Hollinger wrote the following in a recent article:
Meanwhile, Knicks fans might want the cap to go even lower. Even with a cap dip, they’ll still have plenty of room ($33 million) to offer an irrational offer sheet to somebody’s fourth-best player. One serious possibility they should look into with all that room is extending Moe Harkless’s contract, which they can do until the first day of free agency.
What stood out to me most wasn’t the point about Harkless but the “irrational offer sheet to somebody’s fourth-best player.” Quite frankly, only one player comes to mind, and that’s Malik Beasley. Turning 24 this November, Beasley is likely Minnesota’s third-best player but the semantics are irrelevant.
Beasley was en fuego in 14 games with the Wolves, averaging 20.7 points and 5.1 boards per game while shooting 47.2/42.6/75.0 before the shutdown occurred. He finally got his chance to be a starter and was breaking out, which is exactly why the Wolves will not be letting him go.
Minnesota does, however, have some onerous financial commitments. Karl-Anthony Towns and D’Angelo Russell will earn a combined $58,117,050 next season, and that doesn’t even begin to account for James Johnson’s $16,047,100 expiring deal, or Jarrett Culver’s $6,104,280, or whatever salary their first round pick will earn. Before they know it, Minnesota has over $85,000,000 in salary committed to only five players.
Similar to the Pelicans, I imagine that the Timberwolves would prefer to match any offer sheet presented to Beasley and then dump James Johnson if money becomes that tight. I also fear that even if the Knicks were to sign Beasley, he would essentially be the new Tim Hardaway Jr.: good in a tertiary role but overpaid if he’s not supporting two stars. In the end, it’s largely moot, as Beasley is unlikely to be a Knick.
And, while we’re on the Wolves, we can probably assume that Juancho Hernangomez isn’t an option either. Minnesota will probably retain the big and I’m skeptical that he’s interested in joining a team that didn’t give him brother Willy adequate playing time, especially with Scott Perry remaining as general manager.
I also can’t tell you how many Knicks fans I’ve seen on Al Gore’s Internet who fawn over Bogdan Bogdanovic. And you know what, I can’t blame those people! He’s a smart, versatile, and highly skilled playmaker who can shoot and score.
The Kings will not let Bogdanovic go. They declined the fourth-year option on Harry Giles and traded Trevor Ariza’s non-guaranteed contract for Kent Bazemore’s expiring contract. And while that Buddy Hield contract is going to hurt, especially if he continues to come off the bench as a sixth man, Sacramento has some wiggle room next year with Cory Joseph’s non-guaranteed deal. Bottom line here is that Bogdanovic is unlikely to leave Sac-town.
Fun anecdote about Dario Saric. There was a time, maybe two years ago, where I thought, “Summer 2020 is probably going to be terrible. The Sixers will be paying Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid max deals, so maybe the Knicks can throw Saric an offer sheet?” How quickly basketball changes.
A big who can has averaged above 35 percent from deep on over four attempts per game in his NBA career? Who’s an above-average passer, a solid secondary ball-handler, and can do well on the glass? That guy could be available?
The Suns traded down five spots in last year’s draft and received Saric in the package. He started 50 of his 58 games played with Phoenix. The Suns may have to pick between Saric and Aron Baynes, who is an unrestricted free agent.
I find it tough to believe that they would be willing to let Saric leave. With that said, after returning from a suspension and injury, Deandre Ayton and Saric posted a net rating of -5.5 in 290 minutes together. Ayton and Baynes, meanwhile, had a positive net rating of 13.8 in 52 minutes together. The sample sizes aren’t the greatest in length but indicate that a Saric-Ayton pairing isn’t positive whereas Ayton-Baynes is trending in a direction that isn’t negative. Nevertheless, I don’t see the Suns letting Saric go, but it wouldn’t surprise me if Saric’s salary is depressed by the market and lack of teams with cap space.
One potential under the radar restricted free agent who would make sense and wouldn’t break the bank is Semi Ojeleye. I mentioned “the Jazz 100” around the time of Walt Perrin’s hiring, an intense shooting drill that Utah (and other teams) use to work out prospects. The gist of it is that prospects engage in a heavy workout and then take 100 three-pointers from various spots on the floor. Players who shoot above 50 are considered average while players who hit 70 or more are highly enticing.
The Jazz don’t comment on how prospects have performed, which makes Perrin’s quote pretty fascinating.
“Semi had a really good workout,” Perrin said. “He shot the ball really well in the 100. He’s a player that, right now, you have to start out as a small ball four.”
That might not seem like much, and Perrin is known to be candid with prospects, but mum is the often the word when it comes to the Jazz. Lest we forget, Jazz general manager Dennis Lindsey said that anyone caught leaking information about the Donovan Mitchell workout would be fired.
The Celtics have the option to pick up Ojeleye’s 2020-21 team option and make him an unrestricted free agent in 2021 or decline his team option and make him a restricted free agent in 2020. This is why I started this Ojeleye segment by saying “potential” in regards to his availability. He’s under contract for a measly $1,752,950. Even without Gordon Hayward’s monstrous salary affecting life for Boston, picking up his team option and assessing his free agency status in 2021 makes more sense for the Celtics.
And last, but certainly not least: what about the Knicks’ own restricted free agents, Damyean Dotson and Allonzo Trier?
We can rule out a Trier return. It’s tough to see the Knicks wanting Trier back given his constant DNPs and it’s equally tough to see Trier wanting to return.
Dotson, however, provides a more spirited debate. The Knicks were among the worst teams in terms of spacing this past season. It would seem ludicrous for them to let Dotson, a career 36.1% shooter from deep, go when they have team control. After all, Dotson was connecting on 50% on his threes over the last 12 games he appeared in, all while taking 4.2 attempts from downtown. What’s more, Dotson was held out of 11 of the team’s last 15 games, and was subbed in for garbage time during two of those four games played.
Dotson and Frank Ntilikina has been a positive combination for three straight years. That’s right, the duo has provided a positive net rating every single year. If you don’t think that’s impressive, you have clearly not been watching Knicks basketball.
Were the Knicks trying to suppress Dotson’s value on the open market? I doubt it but I obviously can’t say for certain. He’s incredibly athletic but his off-ball defense hasn’t improved to where it needs to be. While Dotson’s torrid stretch late this past season was exciting, let’s face it: we’re still talking about a 36% outside shooter. This team’s spacing is so pitiful that it makes a player hovering around league average look like a demigod.
If I had to guess, the Knicks would prefer to find a shooter in the second round and sign that player to a cheap contract versus pay anywhere from 4-6x more than what it would cost to keep Dotson. I don’t see the issue with matching any (affordable) offer sheet and dealing Dotson but I’m skeptical the Knicks would do that. Despite having plenty of cap space on hand, New York would probably rather cut bait for free than pay to retain Dotson and then try to flip him later. A sign-and-trade would, in that case, be an optimal solution.
So what should the Knicks do?
David Griffin, the Pelicans’ EVP of basketball operations, told The Athletic‘s Mike Vorkunov that Brock Aller “can rank the order the value of every piece of paper in the NBA. Not in terms of how good a player they are, but in terms of how useful their contract is.” If there’s an executive unlikely to believe in restricted free agency, it’s Aller.
This is why I didn’t include any salary cap scenarios because I just don’t see any of these players as being realistic targets. Then factor in having your money tied up for eight days, and that you could lose out on signing other free agents while you wait, and it’s simply not worth it.
If I’m the Knicks, I stay away from most (if not all) of the restricted free agents. We as fans need to understand that the Knicks are unlikely to make any moves with long term ramifications. In other words? I would be surprised if any contracts longer than one or two seasons were on the books by the end of the off-season. An offer sheet for restricted free agents must be for at least two seasons, so having salary that you must overpay to acquire strikes me as an unlikely and unnecessary commitment.
Such a move would force New York to explore the unrestricted free agent market, which has better talent overall and relies upon one thing: a player’s agreement. There’s no need to worry about if a team will or will not match an offer sheet. You have more control in unrestricted free agency if you’re looking to sign players away from other teams than you do in restricted free agency. Overpaying for similar talent you could develop for cheaper is not a sound strategy, especially when your top dog is not currently in the building.