Finally, it’s time.
With the NBA Draft process out of the way, the Knicks now enter the final phase of a long-awaited offseason: free agency.
The official opening of free agency has been moved up by the NBA this year, so the waiting won’t take as long. In the past, free agency opened on July 1 at 12:01 a.m. ET. Teams would take advantage of the time zones by moving their operations to Los Angeles and meeting with free agents at 9:01 p.m. PT on June 30. This year, the NBA decided to stop the midnight madness by creating a new start: June 30, 6 p.m. ET.
At that moment, the expectation is that the Knicks are planning to be first in line to talk to Kevin Durant, who, despite his Achilles injury, is still believed to be their top priority. Kawhi Leonard, fresh off his second NBA championship and Finals MVP, is also very high on the list, as is Kyrie Irving.
The days leading up to free agency always involve swirling rumors that violently change directions like a storm. A player who might have been “95 percent” locked into one team, suddenly is having second thoughts. A player who expected to re-sign with his team has now cut off talks and is looking to see what else is available to him in the open market. A team that seemed all-in to bring back a player on their roster is now ready to let him walk.
Back in 2010, I was covering the NBA for Newsday and, like a host of New York-based and other national reporters, I followed LeBron James everywhere he went. He held his meetings in Cleveland but also made appearances before that in other places.
The night before he was to announce his plans on “The Decision” show, I received credible information from multiple sources that LeBron was going to choose the Miami Heat. I reported it that night and immediately was flooded with calls from people close to him warning me that LeBron is known to change his mind more often than Daryl Morey changes his roster.
Basically, I was told, your information may be wrong and you could look really bad.
I didn’t sleep a wink that night. I trusted my sources, but you really never know what a player might do if he has a last-second change of heart.
I’ll share a secret with you: I was hoping to be wrong only if he chose the Knicks. But deep down, I knew I was right. Several hours later, LeBron confirmed my story to the world when he took his talents to South Beach. It was the most anxious, thrilling and exhausting 24 hours of my sports writing career.
With that experience, I welcome you to the 2019 NBA Free Agency season.
This stuff can really mess with your emotions. And with so many teams involved for the most prolific free agency class in almost a decade – both teams in the New York and Los Angeles market, plus the defending champion Raptors, the five-time finalist Warriors, the Celtics, the 76ers just for starters – the entire league seems gripped by every move about to be made.
There’s a lot to keep up with and if it makes you crazy as a fan, how much more does it add to the anxiety of someone running a franchise with $70 million in salary cap space to spend?
“We have a sense of where guys are thinking, what agents are thinking, but reality is that NBA players make their decisions toward the end of what they want to do,” Knicks president Steve Mills told MSG’s Bill Pidto last week. “And we’re accustomed to the ups and downs of that decision-making process, we’re accustomed to dealing with it and we’re ready to deal with it, either way.”
Bill Pidto sits down with Steve Mills about the Knicks Draft picks and what the Knicks are looking for in free agency.
So much is riding on the decisions of KD, Kawhi and Kyrie in the eyes of the fans. Landing one – or two – of them changes a franchise dramatically. Durant’s presence, despite the understanding that he won’t be available for a season, would have such a resounding impact not just on perception, but on decisions to build the roster going forward.
But if these players opt to go elsewhere, what then? Do the Knicks start throwing money at the next wave of free agents? Everyone asks the same question: What is Plan B?
I discussed this in April with Knicks general manager Scott Perry. During an interview we aired back then on MSG Network, Perry said, “We always have a Plan B, C, D and E, if you will. We’re going to be prepared for whatever comes at us. We’re going make this team better and we’re going make the right decision based on whatever transpires this summer. And I think the key to establishing the flexibility we have is the ability to maintain that.”
Don’t ignore that last line. It reads like rhetoric, but it’s actually a hint that Perry offered under the disguise of corporate speak. What he basically said there, in April, was there would be no plan to use up the cap space by locking in long-term with second-tier free agents.
And Mills actually followed up on Perry’s thought in this April interview by adding, “Plan A was always to develop our team organically, through the draft and develop our players. That was always our Plan A. And as we look at what happens in free agency, the one thing that we will do is we will only bring players here if they really buy into what we’re trying to do and how we’re trying to develop our team and how we’re trying to develop our organization.”
This conversation didn’t happen after Durant’s injury or after the latest rumors of free agency. This conversation happened in April, days after the regular season ended. Both insisted to me, as I pushed the free agency narrative, that the cap space was only one part of their plan to build the team.
But make no mistake, it’s a very big part. What comes of the first week of July – the moratorium ends on July 6, when teams can begin to officially sign free agents – will set the tone for the next year and many years to come. The Knicks could either become a team looking to build a championship-caliber lineup and accelerate the process of winning or they could remain a team focused on adding and developing young talent to grow into a championship-caliber lineup.
They are set up to do either, which speaks to the level of health the team is enjoying right now with the cap space, the roster of six players under the age of 23 and the possession of six first-round picks over the next four years.