The Knicks didn’t get Fred VanVleet, who stayed with the Raptors for four years and $85 million.
The Knicks didn’t get Gordon Hayward, who agreed to leave the Celtics for a four-year, $120 million deal with the Hornets.
And the Knicks didn’t get D.J. Augustin, who joined the Bucks for three years and $21 million.
The Knicks did bring back Elfrid Payton, giving a $5 million, one-year contract to a player they’d just released a couple of days earlier. New York gave the same deal to center Nerlens Noel, who at the age of 26 will be on his fourth NBA team.
It’s still early in the NBA’s silly season, so there’s still the caveat that the Knicks might do something extremely Knicks, like trade for Russell Westbrook, who’s still an All-Star but clearly is on the downslope of his career and will make $130 million over the next three years (assuming he exercises his $46.6 million player option for 2022-23, which, duh). For now, though, the Knicks are actually looking like a team that has its priorities in order, building for the long-term instead of pushing all their chips to the middle of the table in a bid to return to the playoffs and get destroyed by the Bucks, Celtics, Heat, Nets, Raptors, or 76ers in the first round.
The Knicks’ best option is to return to the draft lottery next year, when they’ll also have the Mavericks’ first-round pick, as well as the Hornets’ and Pistons’ second-round selections and their own. They’re already an extremely young team, but not so raw as not to be a good fit for new coach Tom Thibodeau. The players New York just added in the draft, Obi Toppin and Immanuel Quickley, are experienced college players — R.J. Barrett, Ignas Brazdeikis, and Kevin Knox all are younger than both Toppin and Quickley, and Toppin is older than Mitchell Robinson and Frank Ntilikina, too. Dennis Smith Jr. only turns 23 this week, and the only players they have older than Smith are Julius Randle and Reggie Bullock, who are 25 (turning 26 next week) and 29, plus Noel and Payton.
Will all of those young players and upcoming picks pan out? Of course not. But there’s enough potential there for a steady build, with steps like “not being horrible” and “approaching .500” before taking the leap to “actual contenders.” Given how much of the last quarter-century the Knicks have spent not being at that level, they might as well take their time to do it right.
VanVleet would have been a great fit for what the Knicks are doing, but it always made far more sense for him to stay in Toronto, where he’s won a title and is a huge part of a still-contending team. As far as the Knicks are concerned, Rajon Rondo can go to the Hawks, Jae Crowder to the Suns, and Avery Bradley to the Heat. And Westbrook can go anywhere else that the Rockets can find to trade him.
The Knicks have been losing out on all the top free agents so far in this window. And the Knicks losing has never felt so good.