The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Knicks struck out in free agency, then screwed themselves into the ground

New York Knicks coach David Fizdale will have his work cut out for himself. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

The New York Knicks rebuild is not going according to plan. At all. And what’s worse, it looks as though the ailing franchise won’t be competing for anything besides mediocrity for the next few seasons.

After trading all-star and former franchise cornerstone Kristaps Porzingis to the Dallas Mavericks for players and two future first-round draft picks in February, the team ended the regular season with a league-high 65 losses, putting them in a solid position to select consensus No. 1 overall pick Zion Williamson in the 2019 NBA draft. However, it was the New Orleans Pelicans that landed the top prize, dropping the Knicks to third overall, where they selected Williamson’s teammate from Duke, RJ Barrett.

Fame? Fortune? Sunshine? Rings? No, Kevin Durant chose to play with his friends.

The drop in talent is notable. According to ESPN, Williamson has a 72 percent chance at playing at an all-star level in the NBA whereas Barrett’s chances are pegged at 10 percent. Still, it wasn’t thought Barrett would have to carry much of the load due to a star-studded free agent class, one in which the Knicks cleared enough cap room to land not one but two max-contract players. And then Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, the two most-sought after free agents of the offseason, signed with the Nets across the bridge in Brooklyn.

According to ESPN, Durant’s injury concerns — he tore his Achilles during the 2019 NBA playoffs and will miss the entire 2019-20 season — prevented New York from offering him a max deal. After whiffing on its targets, the team went into damage control mode.

“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 both the draft and targeted free agents,” Knicks president Steve Mills wrote in a news release, later amending it to include “and continuing to build around our core of young players.”

Let’s not forget: the Knicks also lost out on acquiring six-time all-star center Anthony Davis, who was shipped to Los Angeles to aid LeBron James in the Lakers’ rebuild.

“In three years the Brooklyn Nets have accomplished what we have been waiting for the New York Knicks to pull off for a half century," Stephen A. Smith, a self-proclaimed lifelong Knicks fan and host of ESPN’s ‘First Take,’ said in a Twitter video on Sunday night.

As if this wasn’t bad enough, New York then, somehow, made it worse.

The Knicks responded by signing Julius Randle (three years, $63 million), Bobby Portis (two years, $31 million), Reggie Bullock (two years, $21 million) and Taj Gibson (two years, $20 million).

Wizards quickly re-sign Thomas Bryant; Bobby Portis set to leave for Knicks

Those four players, at best, will add nine wins above replacement players next year, bringing New York’s projected win total to 26 games in 2019-20. If the Knicks had added Davis and Irving for the coming year that win projection would soar to 40 games or more. If New York had lured Durant and Irving to town, you could expect the team to add 20 or more wins, assuming both are healthy, depending on playing time and usage. Even if that moment didn’t happen until the 2020-21 season, it would still be something promising to look forward to in the days ahead. Now, mediocrity is probably the best possible scenario in the win column.

The projections estimate that none of the Knicks new acquisitions will improve or decline during the upcoming season. FiveThirtyEight’s CARMELO projections, on the other hand, expect Randle, Bullock and Gibson to decline while Portis remains at or near his 2018-19 production.

Here’s more bad news. (Yes, there’s more. Sorry.) The Knicks overpaid Randle, Bullock, Gibson and Portis. A minimum NBA contract averages $1.7 million per player. The discretionary money is that money spent on players beyond the threshold for 12 minimum contracts ($88.8 million). Divide that by the number of wins it takes to go from replacement-level (a 14-win team) to league average (a 41-win team) and the value of each win above replacement is $3.3 million.

Based on this math, the Knicks spent $57 million to get nine wins, or $6.3 million per win, grossly overpaying by almost 200 percent.

The good news: the four players signed give New York the flexibility to skip the bidding on the free agent class of 2020 — a collection of players which should include Draymond Green, Danilo Gallinari and Montrezl Harrell as the top unrestricted free agents available — and instead compete for the free agent class of 2021. Players available that year could include Giannis Antetokounmpo, Anthony Davis, Bradley Beal, Andre Drummond, Damian Lillard and DeMar DeRozan.

Read more:

Nets strike fast, landing Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, as NBA free agency opens with a bang

Nets’ master plan will go boom or bust, depending on Kyrie Irving

Celtics salvage summer with plans for swift Kemba Walker agreement, but holes remain

NBA’s free agency circus has captivated the fans, but it’s spoiling the game

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