The Knicks’ direction heading into the summer is pretty clear: Get a high draft pick, and use their cap space to go after big name free agents. Guys like Kevin Durant of Kyrie Irving (who said he’s going to re-sign in Boston but there is some skepticism about that around the league).
But to target that level of free agent the Knicks need to free up cap space.
That’s why veterans — Tim Hardaway Jr., Courtney Lee, and Enes Kanter — are all now available, reports Marc Stein of the New York Times. He adds that actually finding a trade partner is not going to be that simple.
The team’s motivation in both cases is largely financial, according to the people, who were not authorized to discuss the situation publicly. Finding a trade before the deadline to shed either Hardaway’s or Lee’s contract without taking salary back that extends beyond this season would ensure that the Knicks have the requisite salary-cap space in July to pursue top-tier free agents such as Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and Kemba Walker.
It remains to be seen, however, if the Knicks will be able to find a trade partner for Hardaway or Lee without attaching an additional asset to the deal, such as future draft compensation or their 2017 first-round pick, Frank Ntilikina.
This was expected, Hardaway and Lee are not part of the future in New York and the team needs the cap space.
There is undoubtedly going to be some interest, wings are in demand around the league. Hardaway is averaging 19.6 points per game and is shooting 35.6 percent from three, however he struggles on the defensive end, hurting his value. That said, he’s a solid NBA rotation player who could help a team thin on shooting and depth. Lee has played in only 10 games for the Knicks this season and has averaged 5.3 a contest in those games.
The challenge is money. First, the Knicks don’t want to take back any salaries that go beyond this season, which limits the pool of potential moves. Plus, Hardaway is making $17.3 million this season and $18.2 next season, with a third year at his discretion for just under $19 million. That’s a lot of cash for a rotation player/average starter, which is why teams are going to want a sweetener like a pick or a young player (Ntilikina). Lee is guaranteed $12.8 million next season but his production is down, so again teams will want a little more in the offer.
Maybe an aggressive team like the Pelicans — a team looking for all the wing depth in their desperate race against the Anthony Davis clock — would make a move for Hardaway, but even that seems a long shot.
If the Knicks can’t move Lee and/or Hardaway at the trade deadline Feb. 7, expect them to make more aggressive overtures this summer, especially if one of those big name free agents shows interest in New York.