The Knicks currently sit in the depths of the NBA standings, and with an early Kristaps Porzingis return likely out of the question, there's little hope for a miracle run at the postseason.
There's plenty to look forward to with young players like Kevin Knox and Allonzo Trier impressing, a high draft pick on the way and, perhaps most importantly, a shot at a major free agent come July. It's no secret the Knicks are going to pursue a franchise-alterer like Kevin Durant or Kawhi Leonard.
But what if they say no?
Falling short of these top prizes shouldn't dissuade New York's faithful; the Knicks are in great position to make substantial moves without breaking the bank or putting all their eggs in one basket. There's some obvious talent following Durant and Leonard on the board: Kyrie Irving, Jimmy Butler, Klay Thompson and Kemba Walker, among others.
But some of these players are 30 or older, and cash-strapping for a B-list star who may want out or get hurt comes with some risk. Aiming to outbid the market on lesser talent, or even flip cap space in a more creative fashion, might be the optimal move for a Knicks team that strikes out on its big targets and wants to pivot back to a gradual and youth-first rebuild.
One direction to go in would be throwing a healthy contract at a near-their-prime talent with upside. Think Terry Rozier or Tobias Harris.
The former is a restricted free agent who will be swamped with contract offers that the Boston Celtics may not be keen to match with a starting spot reserved for Irving (unless he bolts) and serious luxury tax payments looming. He's only 24 years old, and he'd likely vault himself into best Knicks point guard since 2000 conversations quickly. Rozier has showed up in big playoff games, putting up 28 points in Game 6 against Cleveland and averaging 19 points per game against Philadelphia. Plus he can defend and shoot the 3. The Knicks would surely be banking on upside, but barring a ridiculous competing offer, it's more of a calculated risk than others.
Harris, meanwhile, has been having an All-Star season, putting up 21.1 points and eight rebounds per game while shooting 43.2 percent from deep, all career highs. His eight years of NBA experience will make you forget he's only 26 years old. The Clippers could be forced to pass on retaining him if Durant or Leonard show interest, and the Knicks could work out a discount deal selling him on his hometown city and the improving Porzingis-led core. He'd fit in superbly with him as well as either a 3 or 4, and as a player who has steadily improved year after year, there's little reason to expect more.
New York can also outbid on the market on marginal players that may get left behind in the bidding wars. Smaller names will get undersold or overlooked, giving the Knicks an opportunity to secure some great complementary pieces to help mold and support not only their prospects but their culture-building. These are guys like JaMychal Green, a scrappy 3-and-D power forward who played under David Fizdale in Memphis; Garrett Temple, another Grizzly and consistent 3-and-D wing; Wayne Ellington, quietly one of the league's most dangerous shooters who has spent the last few years in the Pat Riley/Erik Spoelstra system; or Ed Davis, a dependable bench big that players and coaches rave about. Even younger players like Elfrid Payton and Richaun Holmes could be options.
As the Feb. 7 trade deadline nears, the Knicks can look into taking on unwanted contracts while also stocking up on draft picks and/or younger players to sweeten the pot.
Take the Nets and Cavaliers, for example. Last summer, they traded for Denver's Kenneth Faried and Darrell Arthur, and in doing so also acquired a protected 2019 first-round pick and a future second-round pick. Cleveland followed suit earlier this season, dealing George Hill for Matthew Dellavedova, John Henson and Milwaukee's unprotected 2021 first- and second-round picks.
This has been a trend among the NBA's lower class, and New York should definitely look into a similar deal if the goal is stocking up on young talent. Possible candidates could be the Miami Heat's James Johnson or the Portland Trail Blazers' Evan Turner. These could net mid-to-late first-rounders, unless they're in the 2020-22 range, in which case who knows? Teams will be ripe to duck the luxury tax or free up cap space for their chances at a big free agent.
The Knicks just need to be realistic about theirs and capitalize.