The New York Knicks’ free agency moves are the best example of that “they had us in the first half, not gonna lie,” video. On the opening day of free agency, the Knicks wasted no time in handing out contracts to re-sign several players who helped get them to the playoffs last season. Derrick Rose got three years and $43 million to return; Nerlens Noel and Alec Burks each got three-year deals worth $32 million and $30 million, respectively. Nothing too crazy, but given it was the first day of free agency, a bit surprising to secure deals to role players first.
But then came the announcement that Evan Fournier was getting a four-year, $78 million deal. It wasn’t the act of signing Fournier, a proven 3-point threat who can put the ball on the floor, it was signing him to a deal worth over $19 million a year that was head-scratching, especially for a player who has historically underperformed in the postseason — Boston Celtics stint this past season aside. It was also confusing since the Knicks’ glaring need entering free agency was a starting point guard.
By the end of Day 1, the Knicks spent over $54 million in cap space on those four players, signaling the all too familiar refrain that the Knicks were making boneheaded moves in free agency. It led our own Colin Ward-Henninger to list the Knicks as losers after the first day of free agency. But like I said earlier, the Knicks had us in the first half.
Two days after those initial signings, the Knicks hit a home run when they snagged four-time All-Star Kemba Walker after the star point guard agreed to a buyout with the Oklahoma City Thunder to agree to a two-year, $18 million deal with the Knicks. Walker is as perfect a signing for the Knicks as they could get, immediately addressing their point guard needs and taking some of the offensive pressure off Julius Randle, who – oh by the way – the Knicks just re-signed to a four-year, $117 million extension.
There are obvious injury concerns with Walker, who had been dealing with knee issues throughout his time with the Celtics. He played 56 out of a possible 72 games in his first season with Boston, and he remained out for the first 11 games of the 2020-21 season. He was also sidelined for the last two games of the Celtics’ first-round series loss against the Brooklyn Nets, and in the first three games of that matchup, he struggled heavily to get things going, shooting just 31.7 percent from the field.
But let’s take a step back and look at the bigger picture. The Knicks aren’t handicapping themselves to paying Walker a ton of money like the Celtics were concerned with when they signed him to a four-year, $141 million deal back in 2019. They also won’t be footing the bill on the remaining $73.6 million he was owed after Boston shipped him off to the Thunder. It is worth noting that in agreeing to a buyout with the Thunder, Walker reportedly surrendered around $20 million so he could sign with the Knicks. So instead of being owed that remaining $73.6 million, Oklahoma City will now pay him roughly $53.7 million that will be split over the next two seasons.
When you look at the money aspect of the Walker deal, and the rest of the players New York signed this summer, it all starts to fit together like a perfectly snug puzzle. It’s the reason the Knicks’ smart chess moves this summer will pay dividends down the line.
Aside from Randle and Fournier, the Knicks didn’t hand out any moves that exceeded two guaranteed years. Rose, Noel and Burks all have team options on the final year of their deals, and Walker is only signed for a two-year trial period. It leaves the Knicks with future flexibility in the next couple years, something that reportedly factored into Randle’s decision to sign this summer as opposed to getting more money in the summer of 2022. If Randle waited to next summer, he would’ve been able to get roughly $207 million, but by taking the smaller amount he basically saved the Knicks around $50 million, per SNY’s Ian Begley.
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That type of forward-thinking is something we haven’t seen from the Knicks in quite some time, as a team that has been known to hand out bad contracts without thinking of how it’ll look down the road. Now, though, if by the end of the 2021-22 season a disgruntled star like Bradley Beal or Damian Lillard becomes available, New York has some moveable contracts to put a deal together. If nothing materializes next summer, the Knicks could then become big players in the summer of 2023, if they decline the team options on Noel, Rose and Burks, and trade Fournier who will have a manageable two years left on his deal by then.
All of a sudden, New York could find a way to free up enough space for a max-type player in 2023, in a year when Beal will be a free agent if he isn’t traded by then, Kyrie Irving and James Harden will be available — if they don’t agree to extensions with the Nets first — and other big names like Joel Embiid, Nikola Jokic will all hit the open market.
Although the Knicks often sell false hope to its fanbase over signing every big-name player in free agency each year, this summer signaled that those moves that were once considered a pipe dream could actually be within reach. The progress on the floor still has to continue, and New York’s playoff appearance this past season certainly showed that the Knicks could be in the playoff mix for the next several years. If Walker remains healthy, Fournier plays like how he performed at the Olympics and young guys like Randle, RJ Barrett, Immanuel Quickley and Mitchell Robinson continue to improve then the Knicks’ moves this summer will ensure that success follows in the years to come.