Kevin Durant will make his only appearance of the season at Madison Square Garden on Tuesday night. But if the Knicks somehow get their way come the offseason, Durant will be playing at MSG much more frequently in 2016-17.
New York is one of several teams who hope to have an audience with the star forward during the free agency period this summer. If money is a determining factor, as it usually is in these situations, the Oklahoma City Thunder will have a strong chance to retain Durant.
The Thunder can offer Durant a five-year contract starting at $25 million with annual raises as high as 7.5 percent. Other teams can offer Durant a four-year contract worth $25 million in Year 1 with annual raises as high as 4.5 percent.
However, according to ESPN's Amin Elhassan, Durant could also follow LeBron James' strategy and take a one-year deal plus player option (which he would exercise and opt out) so he'll be eligible for the 2017 free agency class as a 10-year veteran, which makes him eligible for a higher share of cap space. In 2017, the money teams will have available for free agency will be even greater.
Regardless, for the Knicks, the magic number when it comes to any pursuit of Durant is $25 million. Phil Jackson's club will have to get creative -- or make some hard decisions -- to put itself in position to offer Durant a maximum contract.
But first, a simple question:
Why would Durant want to come to N.Y.?
That's impossible to answer today, but some executives around the league expect the Knicks to at least get an audience with Durant. The 2013-14 MVP has a strong relationship with Carmelo Anthony and head coach Derek Fisher. As noted here, a league source familiar with Durant's thinking said that Fisher's presence "will factor in" to the star forward's decision.
Durant said on Tuesday that he'd consider his options at the conclusion of the Thunder's season.
"I can't totally just say I haven't thought about (free agency at all. But I haven't sat down and really put a lot of time into what I'm looking for," Durant said Tuesday. "Just focusing on my teammates, focusing on the season and how I can be better as a player, as a leader. Everything else comes after that and it comes after the season."
On-court fit aside, if New York has the money to make a max offer, the club should have a chance to make a pitch to Durant. But creating the requisite cap space will be a challenge.
So let's take a look at some possible scenarios and how they affect whether the Knicks can land Durant.
The Knicks currently have $55,366,567 in committed salary for the 2016-17 season. In addition to that $55 million, they have offered player options to Arron Afflalo ($8 million) and Derrick Williams ($4.6 million).
Let's assume for a moment the Knicks renounce their rights to all free agents on the roster, which means potentially letting Langston Galloway and Lance Thomas walk. Let's also assume that Afflalo and Williams decline to exercise their player options (if Afflalo continues to play as well as he has to this point, execs around the league believe that's a safe bet).
In this scenario, the Knicks would have six players on the roster and would have a little over $30.3 million in available cap space this summer based on the projected salary cap. (To determine their cap space here, you'd have to add six cap holds at approximately $540,000 apiece).
That's enough to offer Durant a maximum contract. But it's also an unlikely scenario.
Adding Galloway, Thomas
More likely is that the Knicks look to retain either Thomas or Galloway, or both.
Here's where things get tricky for the Knicks in their pursuit of Durant or any other free agent slotted to make $25 million in the first year of his max contract (a list that includes Mike Conley, DeMar DeRozan and Al Horford).
Lance Thomas is an Early Bird Rights free agent. So Thomas will enter the summer with a cap hold of $2.1 million. Galloway is a two-year veteran, so the Knicks will have to extend him a qualifying offer of $1.1 million. (That increases to $2.7 million for Galloway if he plays 2,000 minutes or starts 41 games this season).
If you include cap holds for Thomas and Galloway, that leaves the Knicks with about $27.1 million in cap space in the summer of 2016. That's enough to offer Durant a maximum contract, but not much else. And that's also assuming they renounce Afflalo and Williams.
Adding Williams, Afflalo
If Afflalo ($8,000,000) and Williams ($4,598,000) pick up their 2016-17 player options, the Knicks' committed money for next season increases to $70.1 million for eight players (plus four cap holds).
That would leave the Knicks with $18.9 million in cap space and no shot to make Durant or the other free agents mentioned above a maximum contract offer.
If Afflalo and/or Williams decline their options and enter free agency, the Knicks will likely have to spend even more to retain either player, further reducing their cap space for 2016.
So the team will probably have to perform some financial gymnastics -- or make some hard decisions -- to be in position to sign a max player like Durant.
One of those hard decisions could potentially involve Jose Calderon. Calderon will be entering the final year of his contract in 2016-17 and is slated to make $7.7 million.
The Knicks can waive and stretch Calderon, which would give him a $2,569,476 cap number, potentially creating $5.2 million in cap space. Also, the Knicks might have more cap space if the 2016-17 salary cap is higher than the projected $89 million -- which could help in their pursuit of Durant.