The Spurs’ decision to ship Kawhi Leonard to Canada stands as good news for the Knicks.
While the Knicks were on the outside looking in on Leonard trade talks with San Antonio — even if they tried, they couldn’t match the Raptors’ DeMar DeRozan package — their chances of landing a top-notch free agent in 2019 got incrementally better.
Leonard’s reported disinterest in playing in Toronto means he’ll likely seek a new pasture next July. That’s one more available marquee free agent for the Knicks to battle for against a slew of other clubs that plan on having maximum cap space — if not enough for two.
The Knicks could have a puncher’s chance at Leonard, who spent a lot of time with his uncle in northern New Jersey as he went about his curious rehab from a mysterious quadriceps injury last season.
Leonard is now very familiar with the area and seems to like it. As important, another star on the market statistically enhances the Knicks’ chances of landing that one big fish, since competition will be fierce. The Knicks’ conservative approach to the recent Leonard Sweepstakes was also a nice departure from past regimes, which gave away the farm for Carmelo Anthony in 2011 even though he was going to be an unrestricted free agent in months.
The league-wide strategy of aiming for the 2019 free-agent class is probably why team president Steve Mills backed off slightly in pumping up the Knicks’ vision of landing a superstar to the mix. Mills knows there’s a chance of getting shut out of the biggest names.
Last week in Las Vegas, Mills said: “Our goal is to build our team organically and around our young guys who were drafted by the team and to get better. Our situation happens to be, we will have cap room. But that’s not the goal we set out [for].”
It was a different tone than Mills’ overzealous interview on ESPN Radio after the draft. Then the Knicks president sounded like he was prepared to sign Kyrie Irving on the spot. Mills announced plans to have cap room for one max player. (Work still needs to be done to accomplish that, including trading Courtney Lee.)
Leonard, Irving, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson, Jimmy Butler, Al Horford, Jeff Teague, Kevin Love, DeMarcus Cousins, Kemba Walker are among next summer’s free-agent glitterati. Center Marc Gasol is also free, but scratch him off Mills’ list after his titanic feud with new coach David Fizdale.
In trying to downplay the Knicks’ 2019 free-agent hunt, Mills said he hopes newly signed Mario Hezonja will be a Knick long term. Hezonja’s cap hold would severely hamper the ability to retain him and sign a max player.
The prospect of Kristaps Porzingis and summer-league sensation Kevin Knox sharing the forward position makes Leonard, a former defensive player of the year, not as perfect a fit. But in Fizdale’s creative, position-less basketball, the 7-foot-3 Porzingis may shift toward center in 2019-20.
A good share of American-born basketball stars are not as enthused about changing countries, tax rates and potentially losing advertising dollars by being shipped to Toronto. While Los Angeles still figures to top Leonard’s wish list, the SoCal product will at least entertain the Knicks as a stronger option than spending the rest of his prime in Canada.
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