Unlike many recent offseasons, the Knicks are not going to be big spenders this July. Might they still get a difference maker on the open market?
Good morning! May is here, which means we can now officially say the draft lottery is happening later this month (May 17, to be exact) and that teams can begin negotiations with free agents next month (well, with six hours remaining in the month of June, but still). All that is to say we have a lot of ground to cover in that span of time. I’m going to save the draft stuff until we know where the Knicks are picking, but I figure we can get started on free agency a little earlier, because in all likelihood, we know how much New York is going to have to spend, and while we don’t know exactly what their needs will be, we have a pretty good idea of the couple directions they’ll look. I’ll get into all that in a bit. But first, if you’re not a full subscriber, the beginning of a new month is as good a time to get in as any:
For the first time in a long time, this year’s KFS Free Agency Preview is going to be a rather muted affair.
That’s because unlike 2015 (RoLo, Aaron Afflalo & Derrick Williams), 2016 (Joakim Noah and Courtney Lee), 2017 (Timmy), 2019 (deep breath…Julius, Mook, Bobby, Reggie, Elf, Taj & Wayne), 2020 (Burks, Noah & Rivers) and 2021 (Fournier & the retreads), the Knicks are not slated to have any cap space to spend.
As we’ve discussed in recent weeks, that doesn’t mean they can’t get under the cap if they try. They have a roster stocked with contracts that are essentially expiring. If they make a point to move off of this money to go after a particular target, they can find a way to do so.
But that target is going to be Jalen Brunson, if anything. Unlike all those years in the past, when the Knicks were reportedly hot for LaMarcus Aldridge, Kevin Durant, Kevin Durant again, Kyrie Irving, Kawhi Leonard, Gordon Hayward, Fred VanVleet, and (briefly last summer) Chris Paul, New York is unlikely to be linked with any of the biggest names this July. Part of it is due to their cap situation, but that’s getting the chicken mixed up with the egg; no one in the league is counting on Bradley Beal, James Harden, Zach LaVine or Kyrie Irving going anywhere. One or two of those guys will inevitably flirt with one of the cap space teams, but that’s mere coincidence. If any of those players want a different situation, they won’t be limiting themselves to teams with money to blow.
You can toss two more All-Star caliber talents into the category of “staying put” in restricted free agents Deandre Ayton and Miles Bridges. After them, Brunson is arguably the top name on the board, but as we’ve discussed, the Knicks aren’t currently in position to sign him and will need to either move salary or engage in a sign and trade to do so.
After Brunson, there arguably aren’t any unrestricted free agents who are clearly worth more than what the Knicks have to offer, which is their $10.3 million midlevel exception. Heck, you can make an argument that the next best unrestricted guy on the board is New York’s own Mitchell Robinson, who like Brunson, is the rare 25-and-under talent that hits the open market.
That makes for a very interesting summer. Only five teams - Orlando, Detroit, Indiana, San Antonio and Portland - are almost certain to go into the summer with cap space, with the specific amounts still up in the air depending on what they do with non-guaranteed contracts, cap holds, trade exceptions and the like. Figure each of those teams having at least $20 million in room though. The Thunder can also open up space, although they have enough cap holds that they’re more likely to operate over the cap. Ditto for Memphis thanks to the cap hold of Tyus Jones - much more on him in a bit - and their two first round picks.
Other teams can have space if they want - for example, the Kings could have a little more than $10 million in space even accounting for their first round pick, assuming they relinquished all of their cap holds1 - but that doesn’t really benefit them given how they can get just as much or more from the full midlevel exception they have to spend. Other teams are in a similar boat.
After the cap space teams, there are 12 teams in addition to the Knicks who are slated to have access to their full non-taxpayer midlevel exception of $10.3 million: Charlotte, Chicago, Cleveland, Houston, Miami, Minnesota, New Orleans, Sacramento, Toronto, Washington, and assuming they don’t go the cap space route, Memphis and Oklahoma City. Other over-the-cap teams have money to spend in the form of the taxpayer midlevel ($6.3 million) or bi-annual exception ($4 million), but if you put it all together, for free agents looking to change teams and get a 2022-23 salary starting above $10 million, there will likely be fewer than 20 such slots available on the open market once all is said and done (one each for the full midlevel teams and multiple slots from the cap space teams, who could of course lessen that total number by handing out bigger deals than ones starting at $10 million annually).
This means one of two scenarios will play out for the Knicks:
They maneuver to become an under the cap team in order to sign a player - his name might rhyme with Halen Hunson - using cap space, or…
They’ll wind up with a pretty decent player using their midlevel exception.
Last thing before we get to Part I of New York’s wish list: the Knicks don’t have to use their entire midlevel exception on one player, as it can be divvied up between multiple contracts. This might happen if the front office decides it’s important enough to ink Jericho Sims to a deal longer than two years and they stay above the cap. The reason is because the midlevel is the only salary cap exception which allows a team to sign a player beyond two seasons. Realistically, this might decrease their spending capacity from $10.3 million to around $8.5 million, which is still more than the taxpayer midlevel that most of the non-cap space teams will be left with.
With all that as the backdrop, let’s get into the list, which I’m presenting in a few different parts. There is a very distinct fork in the road for the Knicks this summer regarding the center position. On one hand, they can re-sign Mitchell Robinson and be set at center between him and Sims. On the other hand, they can let Robinson walk, either for nothing at all, in a sign and trade for a trade exception and maybe some draft compensation, or in a sign and trade for a current player.
In the last scenario, while it’s possible the Knicks could get back a starting center in the sign and trade, it would be odd that the incumbent center on Robinson’s new team was inadequate enough for them to want to spend big bucks on Mitch but would be acceptable to start for the Knicks. I’ll get into some specific possibilities here later in the week when I tackle another segment of this list: Who might the Knicks sign with their midlevel if Mitch leaves?
For today’s purposes, let’s assume Mitch stays. Even with that assumption though, it’s still hard to know what the Knicks will prioritize in free agency without knowing whether they can work out a sign and trade for Brunson (or Malcolm Brogdon or Collin Sexton, for that matter).
Even if they acquire one of these lead guards though, there’s still a chance that point guard could be high on the priority list. We know Kemba Walker won’t be here. I’m also pretty sure that Point Burks won’t be in the Day One plans next season, and if anything, they’ll guard against that possibility even more (assuming he’s even here and isn’t dealt away). That brings us to Derrick Rose, whose contract and salary makes me increasingly skeptical that he’ll remain, and won’t instead be shipped to a contender. Last but certainly not least is Immanuel Quickley, whose point guard bona fides were on full display late in the year…and yet, I can’t help but think the franchise still prefers him in a role alongside another ball-handler than as a lead guy.
OK, enough preamble…let’s get to the list of non-centers, which is going to be broken into two parts: obvious candidates for the midlevel, and less obvious candidates. Today’s Part I - obvious candidates for their full midlevel - is exactly one player long.
You’ll see pretty soon why that is.
1. Tyus Jones
2020-21 salary: $7.5 million
Anticipated Cost: 4 years, $44.4 million
2020-21 stats: 73 games, 23 starts, 21.2 minutes, 8.7 points, 52.4 eFG%, 39.0 3P%, 2.8 3PA, 4.4 assists, 2.4 rebounds
Key stat No.1: 7.04 assist to turnover ratio - 1st among all NBA players who averaged at least 20 minutes (2nd: Chris Paul - 4.59)
Key stat No.2: 14-of-46 on pull-up 3-pointers; just 1.0 attempt per 36 minutes
Key stat No.3: 41 percent of all shot attempts from the short midrange - 1st among all rotation guards & wings (converted 47 percent of these looks, which ranked in the 76th percentile among combo guards - his fifth time in six seasons in the top quarter at his position in this stat).
Role: Point guard, starter or backup
If the Knicks can’t hit a home run with Jalen Brunson, Jones would be a pretty good ground rule double.
In a lot of ways, Jones is like the poor man’s version of Brunson, and even that might not be giving him enough credit. Like Brunson, Jones does almost all of his damage from the midrange and is extremely effective from this area. Also like Brunson, he rarely turns it over, but to an absurd level of stinginess never before seen in the league.
Seven times in recorded history has someone who played at least 1000 minutes averaged at least 7.0 assists and no more than 1.5 turnovers per 36 minutes; four of those times have been accomplished by someone who grew up in the Jones house (his brother, Tre Jones, also did it this season). Tyus has now pulled off this sharing & caring ratio in three of the last four years, including this season, when his 7.04 AST/TO rate was the best in NBA history among players dropping dimes as frequently as him.
There are also some key differences. One reason - the main reason Brunson is going to get a very large raise this summer - is that Brunson has shown himself capable of supporting an offense for stretches at a time. As I wrote last week, he averaged 20 points a night in the 17 regular season games Luka Doncic missed this season, and even more in the first three playoff games against the Jazz.
Jones also had ample time to run the show, as Ja Morant missed 25 games this season. Jones started all but two of those games2, but despite an uptick to over 30 minutes a night, he still averaged just 12.7 points. On the bright side, his efficiency remained the same and he maintained his ridiculous AST/TO ratio while nearly doubling his dimes.
But these numbers bury the most important stat of all, which is that during those 23 games Jones started, the Grizzlies went 19-4. Even more audacious was Jones’ individual on court net rating during those starts: plus-13.7, with offensive and a defensive ratings that would have led the league.
This leads us to the other big difference between Jones and Brunson. While an otherwise solid defense can do just fine with Brunson on the court, every metric supports the notion that Jones is a major asset on that end of the court. Memphis gave up 3.7 fewer points per 100 possessions with Jones on the court according to Cleaning the Glass - the fifth time in six seasons his teams have been at least one point per 100 stingier when he played.
He’s not much bigger than Brunson, but he moves well, is rarely out of position, stays engaged off the ball, and shows decent toughness for his size. He sometimes shies away from contact though, and his minuscule foul rate that has been lower than any NBA rotation player for two straight seasons can be interpreted as both a positive and a negative.
He’s also very smart, which worked well within a Grizzlies scheme that often had five guys on a string. Watch him here angle his coverage at the last minute as he knew Jaren Jackson Jr was coming to help from the corner:
In short, Jones is the walking definition of solid but unspectacular. He might be the best backup point guard in the league, but there’s a reason that’s all he is. It’s a rarity for an NBA team in 2022 to start a lead guard with so little in the way of shot creation or off the dribble gravity. He has one of the lowest usage rates in the league for a point or combo guard who played at least 1500 minutes, and the guys who were lower weren’t the initiators for their teams:
You can see that most of these players make up for their extremely low usage with higher end efficiency, although what Jones lacks there, he makes up for in a lion’s share of his team’s assists when he’s on the court. As a pick and roll point guard, he’s damn solid, and while those possessions may not end with him shooting it all that often, they generate good offense nonetheless. In the end, much like Brunson, we’re talking about one of the more unique players in the league.
Ultimately, New York’s pursuit of Tyus Jones is going to come down to four factors, plus one wild card:
Does he want to start? If so, he’s highly unlikely to get that opportunity anywhere else outside of New York and maybe Washington.
Is Memphis willing to pay him? There’s no reason why they shouldn’t, especially since they only have to beat or come close to the full midlevel, but perhaps they have their eyes on a bigger fish and we just don’t know it.
Do the Knicks get Brunson or another bigger name? If so, they probably don’t need Jones.
Are the Knicks higher on Immanuel Quickley’s starting point guard potential than we realize? I almost didn’t put this one on here because if they were, they’d have shown it with their actions last season.
And finally, the wild card: Jones played for Tom Thibodeau once already in his career, during his second, third and for the first half of his fourth season. Due to a lack of playing time over his first two seasons under Thibs - shocking, I know - Jones reportedly considered asking for a trade that summer, but Thibs reportedly “reasserted his support of Jones and his development,” and reassured him that “his minutes and opportunities would increase.”
They did, slightly, from 17.9 minutes in his third season to 20.3 minutes in the 39 games he played in his fourth before Thibs was fired. Even that number is skewed by injuries to Jeff Teague and Derrick Rose during that 2018-19 campaign though. Even after Thibodeau’s reassurance, Jones role was more or less the same when everyone on the roster was healthy.
Now, in fairness to Thibs, in the three years Jones has been in Memphis, he’s averaged 18.2 minutes, 15.8 minutes, and then this season, 17.1 minutes in games he’s come off the bench. It seems like Thibodeau correctly pegged Jones’ role as an NBA player, with the only difference over the last three seasons being that he was playing behind one of the NBA’s rising stars so nobody seemed to mind.
Still, might there be some hard feelings? Money talks and bullshit walks, so if New York shows Jones the love with their checkbook, maybe it’s all water under the bridge.
All things considered, even with this and the other significant questions surrounding this possible marriage, I have Jones as easily the most likely non-center, non-Brunson addition for this offseason. Everyone else is a distant second, and we’ll get to the rest of that list…tomorrow.
Reminder that cap holds are placeholders on your cap sheet that count against the cap even though no money has been handed out yet. They allow you to keep an impending free agent on your books so you can go above the salary cap to pay him.
He was injured himself in the two he didn’t start.