How the Knicks' chase for a superstar free agent changes now

Where do the New York Knicks stand for the summer of 2019 after waiving Joakim Noah?

After months of rumors about a possible buyout for Noah, the Knicks ended up waiving him without any discount whatsoever, opening up a roster spot but forcing them to stretch the $19.3 million Noah was scheduled to make in 2019-20 -- the last season of his ill-fated, four-year, $72 million contract -- over the next three seasons.

How much cap space will that give New York next summer, when the team hopes to add a marquee free agent to its base of young talent? And why might the Knicks regret stretching Noah rather than attempting to trade his salary next summer? Let's take a look.


Where New York stands for 2019

Stretching Noah's 2019-20 salary leaves the Knicks with more than $57 million in salary on the books next summer. That total includes Lance Thomas' $7.6 million deal, which is non-guaranteed through June 30, but not a $17.1 million cap hold for Kristaps Porzingis -- who will be a restricted free agent barring an extension between now and Monday's deadline. Because Porzingis would surely make more than that on a new contract, it appears New York will let him become a free agent to maximize its cap room.

Including Porzingis' cap hold and taking out Thomas' salary pushes the Knicks to $66.9 million committed for 2019-20, which would give them about $37.7 million in space under the current $109 million cap projection after factoring in minimum-salary cap holds for unfilled spots on the roster. That would leave them a little shy of $38.15 million, the estimated maximum annual salary for players with 10-plus years of experience, including potential free agent Kevin Durant of the Golden State Warriors, who has been linked with New York.

We haven't yet factored in the Knicks' draft pick, which should again fall in the top 10. Based on the latest round of simulations using my projections based on ESPN's real plus-minus, New York's first-round pick has an average cap hold of more than $6 million. Add that in and the Knicks' projected cap space is down to $32.5 million -- slightly less even than the estimated $32.7 million max for players with seven to nine years of experience.

Unless New York wins a top-four lottery pick, max money for a player with seven to nine years of experience (like Jimmy Butler of the Minnesota Timberwolves, Kawhi Leonard of the Toronto Raptors and Kemba Walker of the Charlotte Hornets, among others) shouldn't be an issue. The Knicks could get there under the average projection simply by waiving reserve wing Damyean Dotson, whose 2019-20 salary is also non-guaranteed through July 15. But creating enough room for Durant, or another player with 10-plus years of experience, could be trickier.


Noah stretch limits New York's flexibility

In the short term, the least painful way for the Knicks to create full max money next summer would have been trading Noah heading into the final season of his contract, removing it from the books entirely. While that surely would have cost New York at least one future first-round pick or an equivalent prospect, it would have maximized the Knicks' ability to win right away with a new star.

Stretching Noah removes that possibility, giving New York fewer options to amass additional 2019 cap space. Just two remaining Knicks players are under guaranteed contract for more than $4.6 million in 2019-20: wings Tim Hardaway Jr. and Courtney Lee. Dealing Hardaway, 26, to clear room wouldn't seemingly make sense, leaving Lee -- who will turn 34 prior to the 2019-20 season and will be entering the final year of his contract -- as the most palatable option.

If Lee plays well this season, another team might take on his $12.8 million salary without much, if any, draft-pick compensation, which would be a long-term positive. However, New York might miss Lee's 3-and-D skill set, an ideal complement to the kind of star they'd hope to sign.

The other scenario worth exploring here is what happens if the Knicks strike out in free agency next summer. Had New York waited until next summer to decide on Noah's contract, the Knicks would have had the option to forgo a stretch in that scenario, keeping their books clear for the summer of 2020. By that point, even with Porzingis on a max deal, New York would have been looking at more than $40 million in projected cap space. Now, Noah's stretched salary -- the largest ever for a stretched player, according to ESPN's Bobby Marks -- will cut $6.4 million into that amount, and the same in the summer of 2021.


Knicks better off waiting on Noah

Considering all the possible options for the Knicks, including both trading Noah and waiving him next summer without a stretch, I think waiting was their best move. Unlike the Los Angeles Lakers, who got a substantial discount from Luol Deng in a buyout when they waived and stretched him under similar circumstances last month, New York derived no such benefit from acting now.

Besides holding off another year of questions about whether he would rejoin the team, the only reason for the Knicks to waive Noah at this point is the roster spot, which will go to training-camp invitee Noah Vonleh. While Vonleh has shown promise in the preseason, I don't think the chances of him developing into a contributor are high enough to justify the loss of flexibility with Noah's contract. (New York could also have waived a player in the final season of his contract, presumably Ron Baker, to make room for Vonleh.)

The Knicks will still have options if a max-caliber free agent is interested in coming to New York next summer or beyond, but not quite as many as had they kept Noah on the books another year.

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