Just when you think the final chapter has been written in the comedy of errors known as the 2019 Knicks offseason, another gut punch manages to sneak its way into the script. Here’s the latest: New York, after spending two years clearing cap space to pursue superstars in free agency, was not interested in Jimmy Butler last summer, according to the New York Post’s Marc Berman. Butler went on to sign with the Miami Heat, where he is now one game away from the NBA Finals.
New York’s dreadful 2019 offseason began in earnest at that season’s trade deadline. The Knicks dealt away young star Kristaps Porzingis in order to clear the cap space necessary to sign two superstar free agents. The problem? The two stars they were most connected to, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant, chose to go across the bridge and sign with the Brooklyn Nets. The stories since then have hardly been flattering.
ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne reported immediately after Durant chose Brooklyn that the Knicks were not willing to offer the former MVP a max contract because of his ruptured Achilles tendon. Soon after, Berman reported that the Knicks canceled a meeting with Kawhi Leonard, who went on to sign with the Los Angeles Clippers. In August, 2020, Kemba Walker admitted that he was initially very interested in signing with the Knicks, but that interest dissipated when a star teammate failed to materialize.
Some of these reports sound more realistic than others. The idea that the Knicks truly wouldn’t have given Durant a max contract, for example, seems like PR spin. If it wasn’t, it was organizational negligence on a scale that would be hard to believe even by Knicks standards. There are some slight similarities with Butler. Yes, there were risks. His departures from Minnesota and Philadelphia were ugly. But it’s not as though these reports were coming out before free agency, when the Knicks ostensibly would have been preparing to pursue these players. They leaked after the fact, as if to send the message that the Knicks never wanted the players who seemed uninterested in signing with them in the first place.
It’s unclear if Butler would have considered the Knicks seriously. When he asked the Timberwolves to trade him in 2018, he listed the Knicks as one of his preferred destinations, but that came at a point in which their free-agent prospects appeared brighter. Then again, Butler signed with the Heat without an immediate second All-Star in place, so the idea of being New York’s lone star and savior might have appealed to him. Still, most reports have suggested that Butler chose the Heat because of their culture of discipline and track record of success. The Knicks have neither of those things. In all likelihood, Butler would not have seriously considered the Knicks if for no other reason than the fact that most superstars in recent years have not considered the Knicks, and without evidence to the contrary, it makes sense to assume he would not have bucked that trend.
Knowing what they know now, the Knicks would love to have signed Butler. It’s not as if the alternative of players like Julius Randle and Elfrid Payton got them anywhere. But the truth is, had Butler come to them and said “I want to be a Knick,” they almost certainly would have signed him to a max deal for the simple fact that few teams ever reject the chance to add All-Stars, even flawed ones. That isn’t specific to the Knicks. While teams were justifiably skeptical of Butler after his post-Chicago odyssey around the NBA, no team in its right mind should ever pass up the chance to sign a star if made available, especially one as desperate as the Knicks. In truth, that means there is no positive spin on this. Either the Knicks were interested in Butler, and he chose not to consider them and this is post hoc spin, or they genuinely weren’t interested, and in the process committed organizational malpractice. The Knicks just aren’t in a position to be shooing away stars in their primes.