- For the first time in years, the New York Knicks are following a patient rebuilding plan.
- Jimmy Butler’s trade request and reported desire to play for the Knicks may now threaten that plan.
- The Knicks have said they won’t mortgage the future or give up assets to sign players they can land in free agency, but they must weigh the risk of not signing Butler at all if he goes elsewhere.
- How the Knicks handle the situation will speak volumes about how they plan to rebuild and marks a big test for a new front office.
Jimmy Butler’s trade request from the Minnesota Timberwolves is about to provide the New York Knicks’ new regime its biggest test yet.
According to reports, Butler met with Timberwolves head coach and president and Tom Thibodeau and requested a trade from the team, listing the Los Angeles Clippers, Brooklyn Nets, and Knicks as three teams with whom he’d sign extensions if he were traded. Butler can become a free agent at the end of this season.
For the Knicks, the timing is peculiar. The Knicks’ front office, with president Steve Mills, second-year GM Scott Perry, plus newly hired head coach David Fizdale, have been espousing the importance of rebuilding correctly.
This is a new message for the Knicks. If the Knicks have been known for anything over the past two decades, it’s been for chasing quick fixes. They’ve signed star players past their prime, overpaid free agents, or traded for players they could have picked up in free agency, giving up valuable assets in the process. Every time they’ve bottomed out and appeared to be starting from scratch, they’ve made moves to shorten the timeline to be competitive again, only to fail to reach that goal.
But this Knicks team has claimed to be different. They have a young superstar in Kristaps Porzingis, who, when healthy, has proven to be good enough to lead a team and keep them competitive (he’s currently rehabbing a torn ACL, and it is unclear whether or not he’ll return this season). They also have young and intriguing lottery picks in second-year guard Frank Ntilikina and rookie forward Kevin Knox. They have all of their draft picks going forward, plus cap space next year.
The Knicks plan for this season has been to develop their young players, create a new culture under Fizdale, and move forward gradually. A lack of talent should give them higher lottery odds this year to add another young draft pick. They can then use their cap space to add talented veterans, perhaps even a star player if things line up right. It’s a good plan! One of the rockiest franchises in sports finally seems to be stable.
And then the Butler trade request happened.
Now the Knicks face the challenge of deciding whether or not to take a swing at a star player who reportedly wants to play for them. At a town hall event earlier this week, Mills said the team would not trade any future first-round picks for players, particularly ones they could sign in free agency.
“What we’re not going to do is take shortcuts … What we’re not going to do is trade away assets to get a [free agent] that we can go get on our own later,” Mills said.
At a press conference on Thursday, Mills and Perry seemed to refute the idea that they would veer off course for Butler.
“We’re committed to following the plan and not just shifting, pivoting because we see something that is attractive and might fast-track something,” Mills said. “I’ve seen that happen and go wrong too many times.”
League sources told Business Insider this summer that there is a considerable buzz about Butler and Kyrie Irving teaming up this offseason when both can become free agents, with the Knicks and Nets both named as rumored as landing spots for the two stars.
The Knicks are gearing up to pursue big-name free agents next summer — they’ve admitted as much. But now, with Butler’s trade request, the Knicks have to consider at least whether making a move for Butler now is worthwhile.
Teams across the league face similar questions about trading for superstars. Is it worth it to give up assets for a player that might be a one-year “rental”? Can you convince a player to re-sign after trading for him, as the Oklahoma City Thunder did with Paul George? Can you risk not trading for that player when they may end up re-signing with another team, as the Los Angeles Lakers saw with George and the Thunder?
The Knicks have been preaching patience and not skipping steps in their rebuild. But they also face the real possibility of not landing any of the star players they’ve set their sights on next summer. If they don’t acquire Butler, perhaps Irving’s reported interest in the team dies down. They could continue the rebuild if they strike out in free agency, but would that affect Porzingis’ feelings about the franchise as he hits restricted free agency? Slow, patient rebuilds around young talent can only remain promising for so long.
After all, players of Butler’s caliber don’t become available often. If the plan is to add star players, then build a team around them, it’s worth considering whether the right move is to land them as soon as possible, even if it means giving up a future draft pick. The Knicks already have a young core in place.
Now, weeks before the season begins, the Knicks must decide whether to essentially blow up their plan to pursue the type of player they hope to one day get. Their decision might speak volume about whether things have changed in New York.