The Knicks’ all-in gamble on free agency backfired spectacularly, and now they’re forced to pivot to a long, uncertain path

Kevin Durant spurned the Knicks in free agency.

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Kevin Durant spurned the Knicks in free agency.
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Mike Stobe/Getty Images

  • The New York Knicks missed out on star players like Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving in free agency.
  • The Knicks instead signed low-cost, less-splashy veterans and role players to surround their core of young players.
  • After having their sights set on landing big names in free agency and making a giant leap in one season, the Knicks will have to go forward with a slow, steady rebuild that offers few guarantees.
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The New York Knicks missed out on their top targets in free agency and have had to turn to an underwhelming Plan B.

After Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving spurned the Knicks for the Brooklyn Nets at the opening bell of free agency on Sunday, the Knicks moved to their contingency plan, signing Julius Randle, Taj Gibson, Bobby Portis, Reggie Bullock, and Wayne Ellington.

The signings have all been short-term deals with various goals. Randle and Portis are young, versatile big men with room to grow. Gibson is a tough, respected veteran to help mentor the Knicks’ young players, particularly promising second-year center Mitchell Robinson. Bullock and Ellington are veteran guards who add perimeter shooting.

As ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski tweeted, the five players are all hard-working veterans who will help shape the Knicks’ culture.

But as Wojnarowski also noted, this isn’t what the Knicks were hoping for this offseason.

The Knicks missing out on Irving and Durant only to see them join their cross-town rivals, the Brooklyn Nets, represents a swing-and-miss of epic proportions.

Read more: The Nets are reportedly landing Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving in a free agency grand slam

In January, the Knicks traded star big man Kristaps Porzingis, acquiring two draft picks, Dennis Smith Jr., but most importantly, cap space – enough to sign two max stars this summer. Many felt it was a clear sign the Knicks believed they had a true shot at landing at least one big free agent this summer.

Further details later revealed there were more seasons for the Knicks’ decision to move Porzingis, including a crumbling relationship with the Latvian star and a trade demand and threat to move back to Europe. Porzingis is also being investigated for a rape allegation from 2018.

But as Wojnarowski said on ESPN’s “Get Up!” on Monday, the Knicks dealt the star they had in hand – after failing to mend the relationship with him – for a shot at two stars. That was a bold risk, and it didn’t pay off.

Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant teamed up on the Brooklyn Nets.

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Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant teamed up on the Brooklyn Nets.
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Ray Chavez/MediaNews Group/The Mercury News via Getty Images

Amid the free agency hype surrounding the Knicks, a league source expressed doubt to Business Insider about the Knicks’ ability to land the big-name free agents.

That proved prescient. On Sunday, amid a flurry of signings, the Knicks released a statement, saying they understood that fans would be disappointed with their free agency outcomes. As ESPN’s Zach Lowe tweeted, it was an “unusual” move for a team.

A long rebuild ahead

If the Knicks had landed two top free agents this summer, after finishing with a league-worst 17 wins last year, it would have been one of the more unusual rebuilds in league history. It would be rare for a team to go from the worst in the league to a contender overnight.

Instead, Sunday showed that the Knicks would have to forge ahead in a more standard way: developing young players, hoping one or two pop, and making subsequent moves to bolster the roster, whether through free agency or trades. Much like the Nets have done.

The Knicks still boast a bounty of young players and assets. Nine of the players who figure to earn the most playing time this season – R.J. Barrett, Kevin Knox, Frank Ntilikina, Allonzo Trier, Damyean Dotson, Robinson, Smith, Randle, and Portis – are 25 and younger. They also own six first-round draft picks in the next four years.

It’s possible that one or two of the Knicks’ young players make the leap into actual good players around which the Knicks can build. Their surplus of draft picks will also allow them to be opportunistic the next time a star player hits the trade market. Their free agency signings this summer have also left the window open for 2021 when the Knicks could have cap space again to re-enter the free agent market.

But there are no guarantees in this process. It’s possible that the development of their young players stalls. If they don’t develop as expected, the Knicks will suddenly diminish as trade partners for a future star. As has been proven time and time again in recent years, the Knicks are not a free agent destination – not without making the kind of leaps the Nets did in recent years, going from lottery team to playoff contender with some win-now pieces in place.

The Knicks’ offseason suggests a relatively straightforward path ahead: improve each year marginally, develop the young players, and bide time until the next star is available via trade or free agency.

Whether the process plays out like that, and if the Knicks can ever turn a corner without having to restart again, remains unclear.