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Sliding doors: How the Knicks did and did not botch free agency

NEW YORK — This is not how things were supposed to play out for the New York Knicks.

For much of this past season, there was a steady drumbeat of anticipation that this summer would finally represent a sea change for the franchise. This was the offseason things were supposed to be different.

But it hasn’t been.

Even worse, Knicks fans were forced to watch as Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving — the tandem rumored to be eyeing Madison Square Garden as home — decided to set up shop across the bridge in Brooklyn.

In the wake of their disappointment — and following an apology to their fans — the Knicks spent little time mourning their loss. Instead, in the span of about 20 hours, New York went out and spent $92 million in guaranteed money on short-term deals for six players: guards Elfrid Payton and Wayne Ellington and forwards Reggie Bullock, Julius Randle, Bobby Portis and Taj Gibson.

But the question remains: After missing out on their primary targets, was this a prudent course of action by the Knicks, or not?

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Amin Elhassan says the Knicks have something to be excited about after signing Julius Randle to a three-year, $63 million deal.

The case for New York’s moves

For weeks now, the Knicks have been communicating the same message: They were going to chase the top-tier free agents. And if none of them was going to come, they were going to avoid handing out long-term contracts to lower-tier players.

It was a path that seemed informed by mistakes of years past (see: Joakim Noah in 2016 and Tim Hardaway Jr. in 2017). And from the moment free agency began, the Knicks seemed determined to stick to it.

When the franchise knew it wasn’t getting anything more than a conference call with Durant and his business partner, Rich Kleiman, on Sunday, general manager Scott Perry made sure he was on a plane to Los Angeles to conduct several meetings with free agents the Knicks hoped to land in the event no stars arrived, including Randle and Bullock.

That helped allow the Knicks to line up all of these moves less than 24 hours into the free-agency period, setting up a roster that is now two deep at every position. They also brought in multiple veterans (Bullock, Ellington, Gibson) with strong reputations to help mentor New York’s plethora of young talent, led by RJ Barrett, Kevin Knox and Mitchell Robinson.

While they’re not All-Stars, the veteran additions should help the Knicks be more competitive. If there is anything events of recent free-agency periods have taught us, it is that players are interested in going to proven, good situations, where a positive direction is clear. Even the Los Angeles Lakers team LeBron James joined was coming off a 35-win season, more than double the win total of last season’s Knicks.

As painful as it might be, the Knicks should look at the Nets as a blueprint. In the span of three years, Brooklyn went from a team with no young players, no draft picks and no hope into one beating New York out for Durant and Irving. The Nets did that by hitting a lot of singles and doubles, slowly improving their team and their position, setting themselves up to make the splash they did in free agency this week.

Are the Knicks going to be a playoff team next season? No. As a result, they should still get at least one more bite at another high lottery pick to continue remaking their roster. But even as that remains the case, they can start to take steps in the right direction. And in doing so, they can stop trying to rush the process along.

The idea that playing in Madison Square Garden — or any of the other tropes presented through the years –would lure players to New York has been proved false. Here is what will draw players to New York: competent management, a burgeoning talent base and winning basketball.

With their moves Monday, the Knicks maintained salary-cap flexibility, given their young talent a group of veterans to lean on and coach David Fizdale a roster he can mold into a recognizable style of play and identity that could prove attractive to players in the future.

Does that make losing out on Durant and Irving sting any less? No, of course not. But it does provide a road map for the Knicks to finally get themselves out of this never-ending abyss — a process that should have started in earnest years ago.

Now it’s time to see if they can follow the directions.

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Richard Jefferson contends that the Knicks missing out on Kevin Durant might be the best thing for them.

The case against New York’s moves

Back in March, Knicks owner James Dolan was confident.

“Look, New York is the mecca of basketball,” Dolan told The Michael Kay Show. “We hear from people all the time, from players and representatives about who wants to come. We can’t respond because of the NBA rules, etc. But that doesn’t stop them from telling us, and they do. I can tell you, from what we’ve heard, I think we’re gonna have a very successful offseason when it comes to free agents.”

And, in those four sentences, everything that has led the Knicks to this point over the past two years was laid bare for the world to see.

For the better part of a year, the Knicks have been selling a vision of hope for the future. The franchise finished with the NBA’s worst record, leading fans in the tri-state area to spend the season watching Duke games and dreaming of Zion Williamson in blue and orange.

And Dolan wasn’t the only one selling it.

“It’s much more about the perception of the organization,” Fizdale said after a morning shootaround in Boston on Dec. 8. “What I think we’ve done together with [team president] Steve [Mills] and Scott and Mr. Dolan and myself and all our staff is we changed the perception of how we operate and treat each other and what’s important.”

Instead, the Knicks didn’t win the lottery — something they had only a 14 percent chance of doing, thanks to the flattened odds from the NBA’s 2017 lottery reform. Then they didn’t come close to signing any stars, leading them to put out a statement Sunday night:

“While we understand that some Knicks fans could be disappointed with tonight’s news, we continue to be upbeat and confident in our plans to rebuild the Knicks to compete for championships in the future, through the draft, targeted free agents and continuing to build around our core of young players.”

That statement was a far cry from Dolan’s comments a few months earlier.

So despite the prudence of the individual moves the Knicks have made since missing out on their primary targets, they don’t deserve a free pass for their mistakes leading up to Sunday. They could have been cautious, and they could have stressed the unlikelihood of an impending superteam. Instead, they were brash and confident — and it blew up in their faces.

Meanwhile, what happened this week can’t be discussed fully without circling back to the decision to trade Kristaps Porzingis to the Dallas Mavericks in February. The Knicks have stressed ever since that doing so wasn’t about clearing cap space this summer. The front office said it wanted to invest in players who wanted to be there, and that Porzingis did not. There were concerns about Porzingis’ injury history, including the torn ACL he spent this past season recovering from.

And they did get enough of a return — two future first-round picks, Dennis Smith Jr. and the shedding of multiple large, multiyear contracts — that the deal, like the moves the Knicks made this week, can be justified in a vacuum.

But nothing at 2 Penn Plaza ever happens in a vacuum.

Remember: The Knicks haven’t had a single first-round pick get a multiyear second contract with the franchise since Charlie Ward, who was drafted 25 years ago. That fact — which demonstrates how bad the Knicks have been at identifying, developing and retaining talent in the draft — shouldn’t excuse New York from missing out on future draft compensation in salary-dumping trades.

Despite already having six first-round picks over the next four drafts, this team needs as many assets as it can possibly get. More first-round picks are more bites at the apple, more chips to throw into potential deals down the road. The Knicks could have gotten involved in the trades that sent Maurice Harkless to the LA Clippers (as part of the Jimmy Butler sign-and-trade to the Miami Heat) and Andre Iguodala to the Memphis Grizzlies (as part of the D’Angelo Russell sign-and-trade to the Golden State Warriors). Both the Clippers and Grizzlies landed future first-round picks for their trouble. The Nets made similar moves — and drafted key pieces such as Caris LeVert and Jarrett Allen, among others, as a result.

Perhaps these picks will wind up having low value. But facilitating these bigger trades were shrewd moves by the Clippers and Grizzlies, acquiring useful players on expiring deals with room that wasn’t going to be better spent elsewhere.

To remake this roster and dig out of this hole, the Knicks have to utilize every tool at their disposal. Climbing back to the top of the NBA won’t be easy. Doing so while limiting their avenues of improvement will make it that much harder.

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