When an NBA team and a big-time free agent choose each other, they usually find a way to make the match happen. The team might be over the salary cap. The player might be as expensive as possible. Sometimes, he’s under contract with another squad. But the Philadelphia 76ers still end up with James Harden; the Miami Heat still bring in Jimmy Butler; the LA Clippers still trade for Paul George.
Such is star life in the NBA.
That reality makes it a little more difficult to ignore the Knicks’ news from Shams Charania.
Conversations between soon-to-be free-agent Kyrie Irving and the Nets have “gone stagnant,” sources tell Charania. He writes there is “an impasse” that “clears the way for the seven-time All-Star to consider the open marketplace.” One of the teams on Irving’s list of expected suitors is the Knicks, Charania reports. The Lakers and Clippers are there too, he writes.
Irving, 30, would presumably require a max contract, which would start at a projected $42.7 million salary in 2022-23. The Knicks, meanwhile, are above the salary cap today. But remember, if a team wants a player and a player wants a team, that team has ways to abracadabra.
The Sixers dealt draft capital and Ben Simmons for Harden. The Heat shoveled out salary for Butler. The Clippers unloaded an unprecedented number of draft picks for George.
We don’t know the Knicks’ interest level yet, and NBA free agency is still a week and a half away. The Nets certainly wouldn’t want to lose Irving for nothing after insisting they had no interest in dealing him leading into this past trade deadline. Things change, and Brooklyn finished the season with a No. 7 seed and zero playoff wins … but they don’t change enough to make any team comfortable with losing an All-NBA point guard for no return as a still-dominant Kevin Durant enters his mid-30s.
Yet, if negotiations go sideways between the Nets and Irving, and the Knicks are obsessed enough with getting him to a new borough, they could find a way to make it work.
Let’s get cap nerdy.
The most obvious way for a team that’s above the salary cap to sign a max player is with a sign-and-trade, but that’s not so simple here. The Knicks would have to pile together contracts Brooklyn may not want to add up to Irving. They would probably have to include picks or young players so the Nets felt they had something to flip for another star they could add to Durant and Simmons. Still, that may not be enough. It’s not like there’s some readily available big shot who would fit well with Durant and Simmons at the moment.
The Nets have helped facilitate sign-and-trade deals for their players before. They played a game of chicken with Spencer Dinwiddie the last offseason but eventually relented. Dinwiddie went to the Wizards in what turned into a five-team deal, and Brooklyn got an $11.5 million trade exception out of it.
Circumstances here, though, are different. Irving, despite only 103 games played during his three seasons with the organization, is one of the Nets’ franchise players (27.1 points and 6.0 assists per game) and is famously close with Durant. On top of that, why would the Nets want to help any team, let alone the Knicks, take their star from them? And why would they want to take on New York’s burdensome contracts? A third team could grease the wheels, but there is not an obvious candidate.
So, let’s say Brooklyn won’t participate in sign-and-trade negotiations. Then what?
The Knicks would have to create the cap room for Irving and sign him outright. It’s possible, but getting there is an adventure.
New York handed out many of its free-agent contracts last summer because it believed the structures of the deals, (multi-year agreements for middling salaries with team options slapped onto the end) would make those players tradeable for a faceless star down the line. Unfortunately for the Knicks, that’s not how many of them worked out.
Kemba Walker’s, Evan Fournier’s and Nerlens Noel’s contracts are viewed as net negatives. It means creating room for Irving would take lots of maneuvering … but it’s doable.
They could dump Alec Burks and Noel on draft night this Thursday, a move that wouldn’t surprise many around the league. The Knicks shopped Noel hard leading into February’s deadline but could not complete a deal. Both he and Burks can become free agents in 2023. They combine to make $19 million next season.
A trade like this would have to be with the Oklahoma City Thunder, who have plenty of room below the cap for now. It goes away when free agency begins.
There are mixed opinions on if the Thunder would want to use up all that space on draft night. For a team that’s had such a low payroll for the past two seasons, they could get quite expensive in 2022-23, considering Shai Gilgeous-Alexander’s max extension will kick in June 30, and Walker’s massive cap number remains on their books through 2023. Oklahoma City bought out Walker before the point guard signed with the Knicks last summer.
It should require a decent draft pick to entice OKC in this scenario. The Thunder are already loaded with picks, enough so that they could start to flip some of their soon-to-be selections for ones down the line, considering two or three or four first-rounders a summer starts to get problematic when there are too many incoming players to fit on your roster.
It’s not like the Knicks would need a wink and nudge from Irving to pull off a deal like this a week before free agency even begins. If they want to sign, say, Jalen Brunson with cap room, they’d have to take a similar approach.
More moves, however, would have to come if they want to create room for a max salary.
If the Knicks make no moves (other than using their first-round pick) before free agency begins June 30, they will be about $4 million above the cap. The aforementioned Noel-Burks deal would get them approximately $15 million below it. If they release Taj Gibson, whose 2022-23 salary is non-guaranteed, and leave Mitchel Robinson’s as the only cap hold on their books, they dip to about $22 million in room.
It’s possible that offers enough flexibility to sign Brunson, but it’s only halfway to Irving.
This is where the Knicks would have to get creative.
The next players to discuss are Fournier and Julius Randle, who have the two largest salaries on the team. Fournier makes $18 million next season; Randle makes $23.8 million in what will be the first year of the four-year extension he signed in August. Yes, drama would ensue if the Knicks parted with Randle for nothing in return, but I don’t see that as a realistic possibility at all.
The key here is Fournier, who has two years and a little under $37 million remaining on his contract.
Complications arise quickly. Only four teams project to have cap room once free agency begins: the Pistons, Magic, Pacers and Spurs. The Trail Blazers have a giant trade exception Fournier would fit into, but they will presumably use that on a different type of guy. They’ve been connected with just about every top-notch big wing and power forward they can legally acquire.
Could the Knicks send Fournier back to Orlando? And might that take two first-round picks to sweeten the deal? None of the four teams with room are trying to win right now, which means they’d be taking the player for that juicy draft capital. The Knicks have all of their first-rounders moving forward, along with the Mavericks’ 2023 one.
Would Indiana do it as part of its roster overhaul? Charania reported, as well, that the Pacers are “seriously discussing” trades involving Malcolm Brogdon and Myles Turner. He named the Knicks as one of the teams interested in Brogdon.
If there’s a point guard to be had, the Knicks are bound to surface.
Adding Fournier to the list of departures without bringing back any salary would open up just shy of $40 million. The final step is easy.
They could unload one of the young players. Cam Reddish makes $6 million next season. They could trade the No. 11 pick for a future first-rounder, which would remove its $4.5 million salary. They could waive Walker and stretch his $9.2 million salary over three seasons, generating more than $6 million of additional cap space but also leaving dead money on the books through 2025. They could make no further moves but structure Irving’s contract in a quirky way, giving him “unlikely” incentives, which don’t count against the cap, to get him to his max.
Whether Irving is worth all the hoopla is another discussion. The Knicks finished in 11th place in the 2021-22 Eastern Conference standings. Does giving up all these picks just to bring in a star make sense at this point in their build? And if it does, is Irving even the right guy to go all in for? And if he is, does he mesh with the team’s culture? And if he doesn’t, who will clean up Tom Thibodeau’s head when it explodes all over the practice court?
It’s too early to determine any of that. For now, just know the Knicks can create room for Irving, even if the Nets are unwilling participants. They merely have to want him badly enough.
(Photo of Immanuel Quickley and Kyrie Irving: Brad Penner / USA Today)