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NBA Daily: What is the Knicks’ Plan B?

New York will be a major player in free agency this summer, but if their hopes turn out to be mere delusions of grandeur, then they’ll have to consider where to go next, writes Matt John.

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When the New York Knicks traded its young franchise player and budding unicorn in Kristaps Porzingis, the move was met with cautious optimism.

Along with Porzingis, the Knicks were able to rid themselves of past mistakes by unloading Tim Hardaway Jr. and Courtney Lee from their payroll in that now-infamous deal with Dallas. By doing so, New York created enough cap room to sign two superstar players on the open market to max contracts this summer.

The targets in mind: Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. At first, it seemed as if everything was going according to plan. Durant to New York appeared to be all but a wrap if you paid attention to the rumor mill. Then, Kyrie’s second year with the Boston Celtics went down in spectacular fashion. With things ending as badly as they have in Boston, Irving — one of Durant’s close friends — is probably done as a Celtic and is most definitely available.

For a while, it seemed like trading the best thing that’s happened to the Knicks since Patrick Ewing would work out in the end, but that could quickly change. Even though the offseason technically hasn’t started yet, the Knicks now may have reason to worry. In light of some more recent events, they might have a full-fledged problem.

Of course, the Knicks weren’t going to be the only ones bidding for Irving and Durant’s services — and a new report says Kawhi Leonard is also a target — but after the deal Brooklyn made just yesterday, bringing both may be more complicated than they thought.

The Nets dumped Allen Crabbe, along with two first-round picks, to Atlanta for Taurean Prince and enough cap space to also bring in both Irving and Durant on max contracts. That alone doesn’t necessarily call for alarm as teams have done that in the past before and failed — think Houston in 2014 — but then ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski’s latest report came out.

To be fair, Irving’s name has been thrown out in so many reports in the last few weeks. The Lakers, Knicks and Nets have all been linked to the All-Star point guard, with his preferred destination seemingly changing every day.

But, with all due respect to Stephen A. Smith, Wojnarowski’s report means that this is more than just smoke. If Irving winds up joining the Nets, that will throw the biggest wrench in the Knicks’ plans. In fact, the most recent wrinkle in the Kyrie saga, for all we know, could impact Durant’s future in New York as well.

Knicks fans don’t want to hear this — as they haven’t caught any breaks since the start of the 21st century — but this is something they must painfully consider now. If neither Irving or Durant wind up joining the Knicks, and the team fails to lure any other star player, then not only does little change in the Big Apple, but they may have traded Porzingis for nearly nothing.

So, what would New York do next if the worst-case scenario happened?

For starters, they could wait until the 2020 free agency. The issue is that next year’s class isn’t nearly as strong as this one. Anthony Davis will be a free agent, but it still seems as though he’s hell-bent on joining the Los Angeles Lakers. After him, the most appealing free agents are Draymond Green, DeMar DeRozan and Andre Drummond. Unfortunately, that crop doesn’t really hold a candle to one that has Durant, Leonard, Irving and others all available.

Something is better than nothing, but those aren’t guys you want leading a team with championship-worthy aspirations.

Another option New York has is to remain committed to their youth movement without batting an eye. Currently, the Knicks are slated to select at No. 3 overall pick in this upcoming draft which is a good asset to have. Adding Cam Reddish, R.J. Barrett or whomever they take and putting them next to Kevin Knox, Dennis Smith Jr. and Mitchell Robinson isn’t the worst outcome ever by a longshot.

The problem is that New York could have done that with Porzingis on the team anyway. They let Porzingis take his time recovering from his ACL tear last season to help their chances of tanking the season out. The Knicks then traded him with the confidence that they were going to bring in two superstar players to return them to league-wide prominence.

So, even if they lose out this summer, it’s not necessarily a doomsday scenario. What’s more alarming is, compared to their competition in free agency, the Knicks don’t have something solid to rely on if their plans backfire.

The Celtics still have head coach Brad Stevens and a promising youth movement to turn to. The Golden State Warriors will still have Stephen Curry and Draymond Green, at the very least. The Los Angeles Lakers still have LeBron James. The Nets still have both a strong winning culture and young talent to work with. The Toronto Raptors still have a solid team construct and their first-ever NBA Finals appearance. The Los Angeles Clippers still have one of the most fun, potential-laden rosters too.

If those franchises lose out in free agency, not all is lost.

But if the Knicks lose, they still have… a revered franchise history and David Fizdale? It’s a terrifying thought that this could be what happens to them this summer. They put a lot of eggs in this particular basket and it might still fail. That’s not to say that this was a bad idea. As this writer said a few days ago, when you have the chance to go all in, you take it — but a backup plan is not a bad idea either.

All of this will be for naught if the Knicks’ hopes and dreams come true this offseason. But the Nets’ latest move, which probably won’t be the last cap-clearing trade made between now and July 1, could make that even harder. If the top-tier free agents don’t settle in New York, they’ll need a suitable second route to success, even if that means doubling down on their solid core already on the roster. The absolute worst thing the Knicks could do is panic and use those two max slots on definitively not-max-worthy assets — so, for their passionate fanbase’s sake, let’s hope the new front office has learned from the franchise’s past mistakes.

Matt John is a staff writer for Basketball Insiders. He is currently a Utah resident, but a Massachusetts native.

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