The New York Knicks enter the 2021 NBA offseason with more potential cap space than any other team in the league, as New York can clear out up to $50 million in space if they choose to renounce all of their own free agents. Their primary objective is using that cap space to acquire a superstar. However, the only true max-level player in this year's free-agent class is Kawhi Leonard, who is dealing with a partially torn ACL that may sideline him for the entirety of the 2021-22 season. The potential second-best player in the class is a 36-year-old point guard with a $44 million player option, so there’s no guarantee he’ll ever hit the open market.
Another avenue to acquiring a superstar is utilizing your available cap space to trade for a disgruntled stud. I have explained, in detail, why I think the Knicks should pursue Damian Lillard if he wants out of Portland. There are also rumblings that Wizards All-Star Bradley Beal may demand a trade.
Yet, despite all the juicy gossip, the most likely scenario in each case is Kawhi re-signing with the Clippers, CP3 staying in Phoenix and Lillard and Beal starting next season in Portland and Washington, respectively.
So, where would that leave New York? How would team president Leon Rose choose to utilize his cap space?
First and foremost, it's important to note that the Knicks can choose to keep most of their powder dry. New York is considered a team on the rise not just because they exceeded expectations last season, but also because they have shrewdly managed their cap, avoiding the temptation to overpay big-name veterans on the downslope of their career.
Nonetheless, if the Knicks begin the free agency frenzy with $50 million, they'll need to spend a healthy chunk of that just to reach the league's minimum salary floor (per the collective bargaining agreement, every NBA team has to spend at least 90% of the salary cap on player salaries.)
Here are some players the Knicks may target when teams can start negotiating with free agents on August 2 at 6:00 p.m. ET.
Graham - Restricted
Graham enjoyed a true breakout season in 2019-20, averaging a whopping 18.2 points, 7.5 assists and 3.5 made three-pointers per game. He took a bit of a step back this past season, but still poured in 14.8 points and dished out 5.4 assists (vs. 1.5 turnovers) in 30 minutes a night. It's also worth noting that he posted the best net rating on the team in 2020-21. The Hornets outscored their opponents by 98 points with Graham on the floor last season and were outscored by 237 points with Graham on the bench. He also became one of just four players in league history to average at least nine three-point attempts per game while shooting above 37% from downtown. The other three are Steph Curry, Dame Lillard and Buddy Hield. Many pundits assume the Hornets will match any reasonable offer Graham receives this summer, but ESPN's Brian Windhorst reported Tuesday that the Hornets "are believed to be interested in extending Terry Rozier and Miles Bridges, plus need to sign a starting center, all of which could squeeze their finances." At 26, Graham is entering the heart of his prime. It would be fascinating to see what kind of offer would scare off the Hornets, who obviously view LaMelo Ball as a cornerstone of the franchise.
Here's a startling reminder of just how dramatically an NBA player's value can fluctuate over a single season. Less than 10 months ago, in October 2020, Mark Berman of the New York Post reported that, with respect to an Oladipo trade, "One NBA personnel man said Dallas' two first-round picks (2021, 2023), Julius Randle and Dennis Smith Jr. or Frank Ntilikina could whet the Pacers' appetite." It’s remarkable to think how much Randle's stock has improved since then. On the other hand, the career of Oladipo — who was named an All-Star in both 2018 and 2019 — has been derailed by injuries. Oladipo will not be ready for the start of the 2021-22 season as he recovers from surgery to repair a partially torn tendon in his right quad and could reportedly be sidelined until "mid-December at the earliest." Does Dipo prefer to sign a one-year "make good" contract to rebuild his value? Or will he look to ink a multi-year deal in order to rehab correctly, rather than potentially being pressured to rush back to the court? Either way, New York should have some interest.
Robinson - Restricted
The Knicks' remarkable improvement from downtown was a crucial factor in their surprising success this past season. After finishing dead last in three-point makes in 2019-20 (New York was the only team in the league to average fewer than 10 made treys per game), the Knicks converted 39.2% of their long-distance attempts in 2020-21, which tied for the second-best mark in the NBA. However, two of the team's best shooters (Alec Burks and Reggie Bullock) are free agents. And is it safe to assume that Julius Randle, who shot 27.7% from deep in 2019-20, will again shoot above 41% from behind the arc as he did last season? Should the Knicks decide not to bring Burks and/or Bullock back, they will desperately need to add some marksmen. Robinson is one of only three players in NBA history to average more than eight three-point attempts per game while shooting above 40% in multiple seasons. The other two players in this elite club are Steph Curry and Klay Thompson. He's also durable, having appeared in 147 consecutive games dating back to 2019. Since he is restricted, the Heat will have the opportunity to match any offer he receives.
Serge Ibaka -
Ibaka struggled through an injury-plagued 2020-21 season with the Clippers, but last year at this time, he was a highly-valued big man. In 2019-20 — his 11th season in the league — Ibaka averaged a career-high 15.4 points to go along with 8.2 rebounds and 1.3 made three-pointers. In the 27 games he started for the Toronto Raptors, he averaged 18.3 points and 9.2 rebounds while shooting over 55% from the floor and 43.7% from downtown. A consistent two-way performer his entire career, Ibaka is the only player in NBA history to make more than 500 three-pointers and block more than 1,500 shots. Someone is going to get a great value contract if Ibaka can stay healthy. That, of course, assumes that he opts out, which seems likely considering the potential payday that could await this offseason.