Today I take a look at New York's easiest path to add talent this summer, and some of the names they might be looking at.
Good morning! I’m taking a break from spitballing star (or star-ish) trades for the next couple days to focus on something we know the Knicks have in their bag, and that’s the midlevel exception. Today we’ll focus on what it is and the sorts of players it can get you, and then tomorrow I’ll focus on the guy who might be the most ideal target for that salary slot.
🙋♂️ Ask Macri 📬
Today’s question comes from Cole, who always sends enough topics to keep me busy through August, so expect to see a few more from him before the end of the summer.
What’re your thoughts on the Knicks’ mid-level exception targets? Assuming Brook Lopez is too expensive, I’d love Donte DiVincenzo, between the Villanova ties with Brunson & Hart and the ability to bring even more shooting, defense, rebounding, and ancillary playmaking off the bench. If we end up trading Grimes, it feels like he could replace Hart’s “7th man” role as Hart steps into the starting lineup. Secondarily, it feels like Grant Williams could be a “winner” that brings a lot of what you described needing from our big men, with his shooting ability adding another offensive wrinkle.
Couple things before we get into possible targets…
First and foremost, I don’t think Quentin Grimes is going anywhere. Between him, RJ and IQ, I have Grimes as the most likely to be back among the three. Call it a gut feeling.
Second, it’s somewhat impossible to know at this point how the Knicks can best utilize their mid-level exception without first knowing what other moves might be in store. For example, if New York moved on from Obi Toppin on draft night, they’d have a glaring need for a new backup power forward. On the other hand, if they pulled off a star trade that sent out multiple rotation wings, then they’d have an obvious hole to fill in that department. The only positions that I think you can rule out at this point are centers and smaller point guards who aren’t well-suited to play alongside a lead guard.
Finally: the term “mid-level exception” gets tossed around a lot, so let’s square away what exactly it means, and more importantly, what it typically gets you. There are actually three different “mid-level exceptions” in the NBA:
One for teams with cap space (typically called the “room” exception), which is set to be $7.6 million. The longest contract you can offer a player on the room exception is two years.
One mid-level is for luxury tax teams (or the “taxpayer mid-level”), set to be about $5 million. This maxes out at three years.
Finally, there’s a mid-level for teams above the cap but below the tax (the “non-taxpayer mid-level”), which should come in at $12.2 million. This maxes out at four years. If a team has less than $12.2 million worth of cap space before they hit the luxury tax, they still have access to part of this exception so as not to trigger the tax.
This last figure - the non-taxpayer mid-level - is what the Knicks are likely to have this summer. Based on the most recent projections courtesy of the Athletic’s Danny Leroux, New York is one of just four teams, along with the Blazers, Wolves and Kings, that will be able to use the entire $12.2 million this summer, with five percent raises moving forward on whoever they sign. This isn’t to say that the Knicks will be one of the teams with the most to spend, as there are also eight teams projected to have at least $20 million in cap space, including a few with quite a bit more.
But those eight teams - Houston, San Antonio, Utah, Orlando, Charlotte, OKC, Detroit and Indiana - figure to exist on the fringes of the playoff race at best and deep in the lottery at worst. A player looking to get paid but who also wants to be part of a playoff team might rather come to New York than one of the cap space teams. If the money is close, that could matter.
Of course, the Knicks aren’t the only team that both a) made the second round of the playoffs and b) can offer a free agent an eight-figure annual salary. In many circumstances, Bird rights enable teams to re-sign their own free agents even if they’re in the tax (i.e., have a payroll of at least $162 million) or are skirting the tax to the point that they don’t have access to the full mid-level.
For example, Milwaukee’s payroll is bananas, but they can still offer a sizable contract to one of the players Cole asks about in today’s question, Brook Lopez. Lopez is coming off of arguably his best season, finishing second in Defensive Player of the Year voting while posting a new career high in efficiency. He’s vital to what the Bucks do on both ends of the court, but is also 35 years old. Paying him his market value (both in dollars and years) would not only mean spending on the center’s inevitable decline, but for the Bucks, it would result in subsequently difficult trade-offs to avoid the lead apron a year from now.
All this is to say that Lopez could be available if the Bucks decide they simply can’t stomach the financial burden, but that would only be possible for the Knicks via sign & trade or if Lopez decides to take a pay cut and sign for three years and $38.5 million. In either case, Mitchell Robinson would be sent packing - either to Milwaukee in the first scenario or another team in the second. Given how vital interior spacing is for Giannis, the first option seems unlikely. As for the second, would the Knicks really go through the trouble of finding commensurate value for Robinson on the trade market, all so they could sign someone 10 years his senior? I don’t see it.
One way or another though, even at 35, Lopez will get paid more than $12.2 million next season (and from the sound of Jake Fischer’s most recent post for Yahoo Sports, it sounds like Houston may be the team to give it to him).
In that sense, Lopez is like a lot of players in the game today: not good enough for the max, but too important to settle for an annual salary that equates to less than 10 percent of the cap. Josh Hart is another one, as we’ve seen from the projected numbers on his next contract. At the same time, if a player is too ordinary, then teams aren’t going to pony up their full mid-level to get them on board.
This “too rich/not rich enough” reality has resulted in very few teams dedicating their entire non-taxpayer midlevel to one player in recent years. Last summer, for example, only one player got the full three years starting at $10.5 million: P.J. Tucker in Philadelphia. After him, a few players got most of a team’s full mid-level - Malik Monk got $9.7 million annually for two years in Sacramento, Kyle Anderson got $9 million a year for two years in Minnesota, Gary Payton II got $8.7 annually over three years from Portland, and Delon Wright got $8 million annually over two years in Washington - but nobody else topped the taxpayer mid-level starting at $6.48 million. Instead, many teams divided up their non-taxpayer mid-level among several players. One year earlier, only two players got the full three years and $30 million: Reggie Bullock in Dallas, and Alec Burks in New York. One player - Alex Caruso - got four years on the non-taxpayer midlevel, but at an average salary below the full $10 million.
Tucker, Monk, Anderson, GPII, Wright, Bullock, Burks, Caruso…these are all low end starters or high end backups on good teams. Sometimes (like with Monk and Caruso, I’d argue) they outplay their contract, but not by much. The goal is to get a solid rotation player who you can trust to play meaningful minutes in April, May, and in a perfect world, June. Nothing more, and hopefully, nothing less.
Speaking of June basketball, there are three impending free agents currently playing in the Finals who could get someone’s full mid-level in early July. That’s where we’ll start our rundown of the prime candidates for New York:
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