Knicks, Nets poised to be big players as NBA free agency approaches

Kevin Durant is arguably the top player in the world, but he's recovering from a recently ruptured Achilles and could miss the entire 2019-20 season. Photo Credit: Jim McIsaac

Kevin Durant and Kawhi Leonard are the top players set to become available on June 30, when teams can begin negotiating.

Kevin Durant is arguably the top player in the world, but he's recovering from a recently ruptured Achilles and could miss the entire 2019-20 season.
Kevin Durant is arguably the top player in the world, but he’s recovering from a recently ruptured Achilles and could miss the entire 2019-20 season. Photo Credit: Linda Rosier

In less than a week, the lid officially lifts on the most important contest the New York Knicks and Brooklyn Nets have been involved in for years.

But the battleground won’t be the hardwood floors of Madison Square Garden or Barclays Center, and they’ll have more than each other to deal with as the teams look to lure top-flight superstars to the organization when NBA free agency begins at 6 p.m. June 30.

At that time, teams leaguewide can begin to make their pitches to the likes of Kevin Durant and Kawhi Leonard, both two-time NBA Finals MVPs who will be unrestricted free agents. Although contracts cannot be officially signed until July 6, expect reports from major outlets to break news of decisions made by at least some of the big names throughout next week.

Read on for a primer of this summer’s NBA free agency bonanza as it pertains to New York’s two teams.

Why are the Knicks and Nets big players this summer?

Both teams have crafted their respective rosters to be as free of pricey commitments as possible ahead of this summer’s free-agent crop, which has long been known to be rife with top talent. Each has enough available space under the projected $109 million salary cap to afford two maximum-salary contracts of up to four years.

First-year values max contracts depend on service time. According to RealGM, the 2019-20 salary breakdowns are $27.25 million for zero to six years of service, $32.7 million for seven to nine years, and $38.15 million for a decade-plus service. The last one really only applies in Durant’s case, whereas all the other top free agents would be eligible for one of the lesser starting salaries.

The Sacramento Kings, Philadelphia 76ers and Los Angeles Clippers also can sign two max-level players. However, Sacramento isn’t generally thought of as a top destination for any of the biggest names on the market. Plenty of other teams will be able to offer max money, but in most cases they won’t be able to fit two under the cap the way the top five can.

Who are the big names on the market?

Durant and Leonard — who each can make a case for being the best player in the world right now — are joined by fellow unrestricted free agents  Kyrie Irving, Kemba Walker, Klay Thompson, Jimmy Butler, Tobias Harris, Khris Middleton and Nikola Vucevic. Any of the above could negotiate a max deal from an interested team, although it’s always debatable whether the player is worth the money or the years.

Both the Knicks and Nets are expected to pursue many of these names and could end up having meetings next week, but a few of them don’t appear to be realistic options. Leonard’s case has long been considered a two-horse race between the Toronto Raptors, whom he led to the NBA championship this month, and the Clippers near his SoCal roots. Thompson, who tore his ACL in the Golden State Warriors’ deciding Game 6 loss to Toronto in the NBA Finals, always figured to be a strong bet to stay in the Bay Area.

Durant has been linked to the Knicks in media reports throughout the season, but he suffered a ruptured Achilles in the Finals as well, which complicates his future. He may not play at all this coming season, meaning the first time he takes the court might be at age 32 and coming off a potentially career-altering injury. Still, reports indicate the market has not cooled on the likely future Hall of Famer, and he appears to be the more attainable prize for both the Knicks and Nets.

As for the rest, they can be separated into two groups. In Group A are Irving, Walker and Butler, who are multiseason All-Stars that have been the centerpiece on playoff teams. Group B features Harris, Middleton and Vucevic, who most would consider secondary pieces on high-level teams. If either New York team comes away from this offseason having landed only someone from Group B, most fans would look at it as a negative.

As for restricted free agents — those whose current team has the right to match the terms of a contract from another team — Nets All-Star point guard D’Angelo Russell and former Knicks All-Star Kristaps Porzingis are the only two likely to garner max-level offers. These type of young, All-Star free agents rarely end up signing elsewhere unless their original team opts to go in a different direction. In other words, Russell will be back in Brooklyn if the Nets want him there and Porzingis will almost definitely return to the Dallas Mavericks as he works back from a torn ACL suffered in February 2018.

Who might the Knicks and Nets wind up with?

Depending on who was telling it throughout the season, some made it sound as if Durant going to the Knicks was a done deal already. That always remained to be seen, and his injury might change his thinking as well as the Knicks’. Golden State can exceed the salary cap to bring back Durant — Thompson too — so the Knicks must contend with the NBA runners-up, as well as Brooklyn and the Clippers. However, they could also agree to sign-and-trade their superstar to his next destination in order to receive assets in return. This would allow Durant to receive an extra year in contract length — something only the Warriors can offer.

Irving, who engineered his exit from LeBron James’ Cleveland Cavaliers in fall 2017, reportedly has soured on returning to the Boston Celtics. All signs have been pointing to him and Brooklyn as a pair, although conflicting reports indicate the Nets aren’t dead-set on him if they can’t also attract Durant or Leonard. Irving and Russell aren’t likely to share the Brooklyn backcourt, so expect the latter to be granted unrestricted free agency if the former agrees to sign. It’s also possible the Knicks could sign Irving, but there’s little word on the street of whether that would only happen if paired with Durant.

Walker, a Bronx native, is the most likely fallback plan if either local team doesn’t add Irving. However, staying with the Charlotte Hornets is significantly more likely than Irving re-upping with Boston. The Los Angeles Lakers reportedly would like to put him next to James and newly acquired top-flight big man Anthony Davis, so he won’t have to wait on Irving to make up his mind.

According to the New York Daily News, the Knicks could be content to not hand a max contract to anyone outside of the Durant/Leonard/Irving elite triumvirate. If true, and that comes to pass, look for them to hand out short-term contracts to fill out their roster while allowing young talents like RJ Barrett, Dennis Smith Jr., Kevin Knox and Mitchell Robinson to grow.

Meanwhile, the Nets might look at Butler as an option, but his age (30 by opening day) and reputation over recent seasons could make him a risky signing for a Brooklyn team that has carefully constructed an up-and-coming roster that also includes Caris LeVert, Jarrett Allen and Spencer Dinwiddie.

Should either team wind up with one of the aforementioned starts, second-level additions could include talented shooters Middleton and Harris. Neither is the type to take center stage on a contender, but both were critical to this season’s success of Eastern Conference powers the Milwaukee Bucks and Philadelphia 76ers, respectively.

Scott Fontana