NBA Free Agency Primer: Will Knicks remain conservative or make a splash?

The New York Knicks remain a mystery despite a playoff run that purged the long years of misery. But if there’s anything we’ve learned from Leon Rose’s leadership after a year of operating in the shadows is that patience is a virtue.

There’s already a pattern we can deduce from the way they approached last summer’s free agency and last Thursday’s NBA Draft.

Last summer, the Knicks created over $40 million in cap space, yet their signings didn’t scream sexy and fancy. Instead, they went after grimy stuff and made them shiny once the sexy names like Gordon Hayward went off the board.

Last week, we saw the same kind of maneuvering from the Knicks in the NBA Draft when they took a calculated conservative approach once their targets were off the board. They got away with Quentin Grimes and Miles McBride, two rookies who could become rotational pieces after the once-grimy stuff they stumbled upon last summer sign fancy deals somewhere else.

They followed up that conservative Draft Day by exercising their $1.8 million team option on Mitchell Robinson and waiving Norvel Pelle and Frank Ntilikina. Now, they are armed with the most significant cap space — $52.6 million — in the NBA landscape this summer.

All moves are indicative of one thing — creating the largest cap space as much as possible.

The thing is, the Knicks also want the shiny stuff like the rest of the league. Even their two-time NBA Coach of the Year Tom Thibodeau pleaded for stars, whether from free agency, trade market, or at the very least, organically developing one through the draft. But after returning to relevance with a first-round playoff appearance, the third option is no longer viable. And it’s no longer as impossible as it was a few years back for the Knicks to land a star via free agency.

Rose moves in mysterious ways. He may be silent, but the Knicks’ actions are pretty telling. His silence is synonymous with the Knicks’ patience.

Based on their recent actions, here is my educated guess on what the Knicks free agent board look like:

Top Targets

Chris Paul and Kawhi Leonard remain this summer’s biggest prizes despite overtures that they will re-sign with their respective teams, Phoenix Suns and the Los Angeles Clippers. Things can change quickly in the NBA.

The Knicks can easily slot one of them to their cap space and possibly work a trade to dump salaries if both A-list stars want to team up in New York. The operative word here is “if.”

Backup plan

If Paul and Leonard opt not to move, Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan will dictate this summer’s free agency. Both former All-Stars are on their last legs, and reuniting in a contender would be a dream come true for the best of buddies.

Pat Riley has his eyes set on Lowry via sign-and-trade and DeMar DeRozan for the Miami Heat’s full MLE.

The Knicks have all the cap space in the world to scuttle those plans and immediately solve their glaring holes in the point guard and wing spots while still having the option to have either Derrick Rose and Reggie Bullock or both of them re-sign via their Bird rights.

Lowry and DeRozan starting alongside Julius Randle, RJ Barrett, and Robinson with Rose and Bullock leading the bench with Immanuel Quickley and Obi Toppin will make them more formidable than last year’s overachieving roster.

This move makes them a bona fide playoff contender for the next couple of years while they continue to organically develop their young core and angle of the next disgruntled star.

Place holders

Just like last year, the Knicks could always go back to the route of signing underrated players to shorter deals to preserve cap flexibility. If Stephen Curry, Jimmy Butler, Bradley Beal, and Zach LaVine won’t sign an extension this year, next summer’s free-agent market will be loaded.

And there’s always the allure of the trade market as Damian Lillard’s clock in Portland has begun ticking or even Beal if he sees the Wizards heading to a rebuild rather than contending soon.

But having the cap space to absorb the exorbitant contract of a disgruntled star isn’t enough for the Knicks to become a major player in the trade market. They can use this free agency to get solid pieces that can help them in the present and become salary fillers in a blockbuster trade in the future.

If the Knicks decide to punt this summer again, here are some names to watch outside their own free agents:

(starting salary range based on ESPN’s projection)

PG: Spencer Dinwiddie ($18-20M), Lonzo Ball ($18-20M), Dennis Schroder ($16-18M), Devonte Graham ($12-14M), Reggie Jackson ($10-12M), Cameron Payne ($8-10M)

SG: Norman Powell ($18-20M), Evan Fournier ($14-16M), Danny Green ($8-10M), Malik Monk ($6-8M)

SF: Duncan Robinson ($14-16M), Josh Hart ($10-12M), Kelly Oubre, Jr. ($10-12M), Carmelo Anthony ($4-6M)

C: Richaun Holmes ($12-14M), Andre Drummond ($10-12M), Javale McGee (veteran minimum)

The Knicks have all the tools to upgrade — cap space, stable organization, family environment, and a team on the rise. They will strike when the opportunity arises. This summer gives them a small opening to get that shiny stuff and not settle with the grimy one that needs elaborate work. But they are also disciplined and wise to acknowledge when they couldn’t crack that opening wide enough.

Let’s see if the patience the Knicks have shown so far finally pays off.

Follow this writer on Twitter: @alderalmo