The Knicks Offseason Manifesto

Putting all of the offseason questions in one place, we can arrive at a little clarity for where the Knicks should go from here.

So there I was on Thursday night, sitting in front of a blank screen, waiting - praying, in fact - for an idea to come to mind that I could springboard off of and fill the space of my weekly column for SI.com.

It’s now been a full six weeks without basketball, and ladies and gents, I’m struggling. Any content creator who tells you they aren’t feeling the lack of, you know…actual basketball, well…they’re full of shit. Times are tough.

With the recent announcement that Cleveland’s Brock Aller will soon take on a prominent role within the organization, the Cavs have been on my mind a lot, especially since sinking NBA ships have historically liked to trade deck chairs on their way to an icy death. And then it hit me:

Leon Rose is going for stars. Kevin Love was once a star. I wonder if it makes sense for the Knicks to trade for Kevin Love?”

Just as I was about to get going, I stopped and had another thought:

Wait a minute…trading for Kevin Love is the stupidest f—— idea in the world. What the hell is wrong with me?”

Laptop closed. Back to square one.

Or was I?

Becoming a better team is certainly a valid path for the Knicks, as I’ve written about many times. Kevin Love makes them better. So that checks out. Kevin Love is also incredibly expensive, but I’ve been pretty steadfast that getting a star in 2021 is a pipe dream. By the earliest summer they’ll realistically need space (2022, in my estimation), Love will be expiring. He might be hard to dump, but that’s if they even need to - and what a wonderful problem it would be to have. Already I was reconsidering writing the piece.

Spoiler alert: I did.

The reaction was as I expected, like an audible wet fart in a crowded elevator.

Unlike the elevator though, you can breath easy. I’ve been going insane in quarantine, but I haven’t gone that insane. I ultimately fell back on my good sense and concluded that, no, trading for Kevin Love is not a wise decision (absent Cleveland getting some religion and attaching assets to take on the contract). It’s way too much money for what he provides, both on and off the court.

But it was a conclusion I arrived at only after thinking it through fully, which leads me to today’s topic: if Leon Rose is going to try and make the team better, he (and we) need to re-examine all possible pathways, because not a single one is the obviously correct one. This is a place the Knicks haven’t been in over 35 years.

From the moment Patrick arrived in New York until the day they traded him, the goal was simple: acquire a second star by any means necessary. That was simple enough.

Starting in 2000, the goal should have been tearing it all down and starting from scratch, but Scott Layden went the other direction, and the goal very quickly became escaping Layden’s mess of mediocrity. Isiah came aboard, and his idea of getting the franchise out of quicksand was to grab a shovel.

What do I think of that, you ask?

Enter Donnie Walsh, and with him, a clear imperative to get as far under the cap as possible for 2010. Amar’e was signed, and we were back to the Ewing goal of getting the second guy (or the first, as it were). For three seasons, it was all about seeing how far Melo could take them. From the moment it became clear that the answer was “not far enough,” the M.O. for the next half decade should have been to follow in Hinke’s footsteps and lose as many games as possible (They got it right twice).

That brought us to KD, and the rumors, and the trade that shall not be named, and last summer, which finally brings us to this: what the hell is the priority now?

Should it be to tank by any means necessary? That means bottom-three all the way, as anything above a bottom-three record equals a four percent less chance at whichever of Cade Cunningham, Jalen Green or Evan Mobley pops the most in the next year. Those percentage points matter, no?

Or is one more all-out assault on basic basketball competence worth what comes with it? It probably means another year where the team is a laughingstock, thus further removing them from the consideration of any prospective free agents in the years to come (or, for that matter, being deemed an “acceptable” trade destination for an unhappy star). Plus, how much would another lost season hinder the development and/or mindset of the core pieces already here?

Then again…are those core pieces even worth having that discussion for? If they aren’t, then what good is all the cap space in the world if you don’t have anyone on the roster who will attract a star?

So maybe the solution is to get incrementally better. The rising tide of respectability lifts all ships, no?

But won’t that require some longer-term investments in players, and thus, a decrease in financial flexibility? Or is that not necessary, and the problem last summer wasn’t that they signed a bunch of guys to one-year deals, but that they signed the wrong guys to one-year deals, both because of on-court fit and off-court apathy?

If longer contracts are signed, that further compromises cap space. OK, no biggie…as long as whoever they sign is easily movable. But how the hell are we supposed to know who will be and won’t?

Or, a better question: Is Leon Rose signing guys who future free-agent stars want to come play with? Or are the contracts he inks and the trades he makes more of a proffer of overall organizational competence than carrots on a stick? After all, didn’t Kawhi, KD, Lebron, Kyrie, Paul George and AD show us over the last two seasons that superstars don’t care one bit about who’s on the roster before they arrive, as long as you can make the moves necessary to put a winner around them afterwards?

If that’s the case, then why should New York even bother with the sad-sack free agent class and instead just trade for two years of Chris Paul? Paul has been more responsible for instant organizational facelifts than any player this century besides LeBron James himself. If they just need to prove a baseline level of competence (with the added benefit of helping develop the kids), wouldn’t that be the easiest way, especially with Paul’s contract off the cap in two years?

Hell, why even stop at Paul? Why not get another older vet who we know can still bring it when it counts, form the basis for mid-tier playoff squad for the next two years, and then just wait for the right star to come knocking in 2022 or 2023?

(This, friends, is how you arrive at writing a thousand words on Kevin Love)

Here’s the point of this little thought exercise: No single plan stands out as having the highest probability outcome. Each one has its pitfalls. Every way forward - tanking, signing young free agents, trading for old stars, finding middle ground between two different options, etc. - comes with drawbacks, and a significant chance of extending the franchise’s abyss.

With all that said, here’s where I’m at, once and for all: either…

Tank Properly…

That means a few things:

  • Drafting a rookie point guard and giving him the reigns to make mistakes for 30 minutes a night

  • Letting RJ Barrett explore being a primary option (and once again giving Kevin Knox the reigns, except at power forward 75 percent of the time). This means Rookie Point Guard X, RJ & Knox all have usage rates over 25 and no one else approaches 20. Speaking of which…

  • Trade Randle. Just do it. For whatever. Doesn’t really matter.

  • Force Mitch out of his comfort zone. Short rolls, elbow jumpers, corner 3’s…everything he’s thus far avoided but which could bring him to a different category of center someday.

  • Retain Bullock and Ellington and sign a veteran floor-spacing big. Anything to get more shooting and thus give the ball-handlers room to maneuver. There’s bad basketball that will always be bad (see: this year’s Knicks), and then there’s bad basketball that will someday resemble good basketball if the players get enough reps and the ancillary talent increases. We’re gunning for the latter.

    If it’s Gallo, make sure he’s comfortable sitting the last two months if a few too many wins pile up by March.

All of this will be incredibly ugly at times, and there may be repercussions, not unlike the pouty nonsense we saw from Trae Young in Atlanta this season. But it’ll be up to Leon Rose to assure all parties that it’s for the greater good - something Steve Mills and Scott Perry weren’t able to sell to the big guy they dealt away.

That’s one option.

…Or, Be Best Team You Can Be

I’ve written about so many different possible ways to make it happen that I’ve lost track of which is which.

The logic is simple: Free agents don’t want to come to losers. That much we know. As for trades, we know stars direct where they want to go even when they’re under contract. More importantly, the more you win, the better your assets look.

That said, there are numerous pitfalls to any path that tries to get the Knicks good quick…

  • You can’t overpay guys to the point that they’re no longer assets. Christian Wood is an entirely different guy on Tim Hardaway Jr’s contract than he would be on Marcus Smart’s pact (and even that might be dicy).

  • Speaking of overpays, if the Knicks go this route, they’re going to need to look long and hard at Fred VanVleet (assuming he even wants to come). Is there a limit to what they pay FVV annually? $20 million? $22 million? $25 million? More? Will there need to be a fourth year? A player option? These are real questions that, depending on the answers, get us back to the conversation about Paul. Speaking of whom…

  • No star is coming here to play with CP3. He’ll be 36 in May of 2021 and (assuming he stays healthy) will have crossed the 38,000 minute mark by that point. Even the Point God has an expiration date. If you’re trading for him, you’re doing so in the hopes that he gives the organization instant credibility and that he whips the kids into shape to the point that they become the drawing cards in a season or two. And we haven’t even talked about what the Thunder will ask for in return.

Without a real point guard, there is no universe in which the Knicks are even a .500 team next year. Considering all the variables, VanVleet and Paul are the only semi-realistic options (I shudder to think at the Pelicans’ asking price for Jrue Holiday).

Goran Dragic would be a tempting fallback plan, but he’s exactly one year younger than Paul, and really, does he make enough of a difference to make this path a more palatable option than tanking? Or does it relegate New York to the in-between zone they want to avoid (their league-wide perception doesn’t change, their young assets don’t appreciate in value, and they’re too good to get a prime pick)?

The best of these choices is getting FVV on a semi-reasonable deal, and then build out the roster from there with savvy pickups and smart trades. Play the market on Wood. See if Gallo would be willing to take a $5 million partial guarantee on the second year, and make the guarantee date July 4 or 5, 2021. Don’t fret signing older guys as long as the money and years are reasonable. Take a page from Brock Aller’s book in Cleveland and ink distressed assets, like he once did with Rodney Hood for $3.4 million before flipping him for two second rounders. Moves like this will be available this summer.

That’s it. Either get a real point guard and team-build like an adult, or lose as many games as you can under the best possible conditions. I see no other path forward that makes sense. If you want to get even further into the weeds on this, Jeremy Cohen and I hashed it up on today’s pod. Give a listen.

End of the day, I’m picking Option A. If you pick B, you’re banking all your hopes on one of three scenarios:

  1. AD, Kawhi or Giannis being impressed enough to come to New York in the next three seasons.

  2. There’s an eventual trade sweepstakes for a true difference-making, best-player-on-a-championship-team-level-player who’s still in his relative prime, and that the team in question likes your assets the best. Other than Embiid, I don’t see a logical candidate for this, and I still say Philly is more likely to trade Simmons if it came to breaking up the duo.

  3. You marry 1 & 2, sign or trade for a sub-top-banana-level star, and hope that that’s enough to attract one of the top guys in free agency.

I don’t hate the odds that a Knicks team of, say, VanVleet, RJ, Mitch, this year’s rookie, and some other fun stuff puts one of these plans into motion…but I like the odds of landing one of the Cunningham/Green/Mobley trio and having one of those guys be a true first banana a little more. Plus, tanking in 20-21 doesn’t preclude a pivot to one of the above immediately after.

Neither plan is perfect, and maybe there’s something I’m not seeing. If you have any thoughts, shoot me an email to KFSMailbag@gmail.com. I’ll respond to every one, either in a mailbag column here or on a future episode of the pod.

We’re in this together friends. Let’s give Leon Rose all the help he can handle.

That’s it! See you with another newsletter very soon!