NEW YORK — Leon Rose cleaned house and is now loaded with cap space.
The Knicks president took a knife to Steve Mills’ roster construction, cutting the following players either based on their exorbitant salaries or their lack of skill: Elfrid Payton, Taj Gibson, Wayne Ellington, Bobby Portis, Kenny Wooten and Theo Pinson.
In addition, the Knicks declined to offer the qualifying offer to Damyean Dotson, signifying the end to his three-season tenure with the Knicks.
The moves provide the Knicks with roughly $40 million in cap space this offseason, eclipsed this offseason by only the Hawks. What will Rose do with this luxury? Thus far, he’s only been inclined to reward former Kentucky Wildcats and CAA clients, but the Knicks have a backcourt problem and there remain two big-time solutions: Fred VanVleet in free agency or Russell Westbrook via trade.
Around the league the belief is VanVleet will re-sign with the Raptors, and it makes sense based on a couple factors:
1) the Raptors, based in Canada with jacked up taxes and cold weather, typically don’t have success in free agency, and 2) VanVleet, while a proven champion, is also undersized and a huge risk to dedicate between $80 million and $100 million to. The Knicks are limited to offering VanVleet a four-year deal, whereas the incumbent Raptors can go to five years.
Westbrook also arrives with risks, mostly tied to his age (32), his health (several prior surgeries) and bulbous contract (three years, $132 million remaining). The Rockets are reportedly waiting to see if they can salvage their relationship with Westbrook and James Harden, but that’s unlikely to happen. Eventually, they’ll likely be traded — the question is when, and whether the Knicks will still be strapped with the same desire to pry away a ball-dominant and injury-prone guard without a reliable jumper.
Either way, free agency begins Friday and the Knicks are in a good position. Unfortunately for Rose, the 2020 class is considered weak and the top two players — Anthony Davis of the Lakers and Brandon Ingram of the Pelicans — are expected to re-sign with their respective clubs.
Most of the players axed Thursday by Rose were acquired by Mills in his failed 2019 free agency, when the former team president whiffed on stars and pitched this group as a “successful offseason.” Portis’ $15.75 million option was declined. He averaged 10 points and 21 minutes with the Knicks. Gibson’s $9.45 million option was declined. He averaged six points and 16 minutes. Ellington’s $8 million option was declined. He averaged five points and 15 minutes. Payton’s $8 million contract was declined. He averaged 10 points and 28 minutes. Wooten was on a two-way contract, and his departure clears up the opportunity for another young player to occupy that spot. Pinson was acquired in a throwaway trade for Allonzo Trier. His Knicks career never left the tarmac.
Of all those players, Gibson has the best chance of returning as an unrestricted free agent based on his long history with coach Tom Thibodeau. The Knicks also plan to pick up Reggie Bullock’s $4.2 million option for next season. Bullock was signed in 2019 on the cheap because of a back injury.
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