Knicks in play for major free agents, but GM Scott Perry still determined to ‘build this the right way’

The New York Knicks are in position to go from the outhouse to the penthouse in a matter of days with free agency set to open Sunday after methodically preparing for the chance through trades and shedding salaries over the last two years.

But they’re also building through the draft, compiling players who register in talent and youth. General manager Scott Perry is one of the keys to the Knicks getting in the door with the likes of Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard and Kyrie Irving, but even he is preaching patience.

Patience? And the Knicks? Those two things haven’t been synonymous over the last two decades but that appears to be the approach, even as the rumor mill has linked Durant with the Knicks for the better part of the season.

And more fuel has been added to the speculation after the Knicks didn’t tender a qualifying offer to Emmanuel Mudiay — a former top-five pick who had a breakout year of sorts following his 2018 trade to the Knicks — because they needed the additional cap space.

Perry, following his second full season as GM, chuckles at the perceived champagne dreams and the assumption it’s “superstars or bust” this summer.

“We’re not paying attention to the noise,” Perry told Yahoo Sports. “We're gonna continue to be opportunistic and build this the right way. This summer will allow us to shape the team in the image that we want, be able to bring in some guys to field a more competitive team for next season.”

The noise isn’t all negative. The Knicks are one of a handful of teams Durant is expected to consider this offseason — along with the L.A. Clippers, the crosstown rival Brooklyn Nets and even the Golden State Warriors, depending on whom you believe.

New York Knicks general manager Scott Perry poses for a picture after a news conference in Greenburgh, N.Y., Monday, July 17, 2017. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)
New York Knicks general manager Scott Perry has big plans for the franchise. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

There’s been so much speculation surrounding Durant, it’s hard not to get caught up in it and to connect the dots about a possible union with the Knicks. Perry was the Seattle Supersonics’ assistant general manager when they selected Durant in 2007, and the two maintained a strong relationship.

Irving didn’t do much to quell rumors about coming back to the New York area — he’s a New Jersey native — and many have believed until recently that he and Durant have long planned to play together.

The Knicks, who are projected to have a little more than $70 million in cap space, can absorb two max contracts if Durant and Irving choose them. The February trade of Kristaps Porzingis to Dallas allowed them to shed Tim Hardaway Jr.’s long contract to open up space and netted promising guard Dennis Smith Jr. and two future first-round picks.

Perry wouldn’t relitigate the Porzingis trade, but given Porzingis’ desire to leave New York, it wouldn’t be a great sell to free agents to have such an influential player on the roster who wasn’t with the team’s direction.

It now leaves Perry and Knicks president Steve Mills in front of some of the league’s best players. Perry was a college coach at Eastern Kentucky and an assistant at the University of Michigan in the 1990s, so recruiting is in his blood.

“I think what we're gonna do, and what I've done every day of my life, is present a realness,” Perry told Yahoo Sports. “A relatability, a knowledge about this game, a knowledge about people. Look, we're here to build something special.

“It's gonna be an environment, that's highly competitive, that's winning. We want to be versatile. We're gonna sell who we are as people and our ability to connect and relate to players, support them and give them the best form to allow them to be their best selves that will ultimately help us win.”

In his pro stops in addition to Seattle — Detroit, Orlando, a short stint in Sacramento — Perry has been around teams at various stages of development. In Detroit, he was part of a staff that helped Joe Dumars build a champion in 2004 and a perennial contender without a superstar. In Orlando, the Magic were embryonic following the trade of Dwight Howard, and Perry helped draft Victor Oladipo and acquire Tobias Harris, players who developed into future stars.

And it doesn’t hurt that he’s an African-American in a top position, one of the few who hold such a post in the NBA. That’s the relatability of which he speaks, a black man from the West Side of Detroit.

He’ll have Madison Square Garden to sell, a stage on which visiting players love to perform.

New York isn’t so shabby, either, and a chance to help lift a franchise that hasn’t won a championship in the modern NBA will make anyone who accomplishes the feat an instant legend.

“You get an opportunity to do it for a historical organization in the world's greatest city and a tremendous fan base,” Perry told Yahoo Sports. “It's an unparalleled fan base in terms of support and reach. Globally, it gets no better than the Knicks. I saw it from afar when I was in those other places, but now I live it.”

He also lives the expectations from a full building of fans tired of losing. If they were parched for a star, they’re in full-thirst mode now. Perry is aware of the franchise’s history, which is why he’s making no promises about the tricky waters of free agency.

What the Knicks won’t do, sources told Yahoo Sports, is throw long-term, cap-crippling money at second-tier stars that will hamstring their flexibility for the future and stifle the growth of the young players they’ve acquired the last two years.

Durant — likely to miss next season with an Achilles injury — and Leonard are likely worth the max slots. Perhaps Irving, too, under the right circumstances.

Ships that lift all tides.

But the Knicks could also go after New Orleans forward Julius Randle, Washington Wizards restricted free agent Bobby Portis or Warriors center DeMarcus Cousins — although it’s not expected they would offer extended, maximum-type contracts.

“The people I’ve seen around New York have told me to keep building, moving in the right direction with draft picks and our young players,” Perry told Yahoo Sports.

Duke’s R.J. Barrett (third overall) and Michigan’s Ignas Brazdeikis (47th overall) are the latest additions to a core that includes Mitchell Robinson, Kevin Knox and Allonzo Trier — players who each had their moments last season.

“Collectively, we feel those three, they would hold up against any of the draft classes in the league last year,” Perry told Yahoo Sports. “Allonzo has shown he can score at the NBA level, he can get his own shot, he continues to grow and broaden his game.

“Kevin Knox, for all the scrutiny, he was the youngest player in the league last year. He was put in a tough situation last year, but all things considered, he played well, which you could expect for a 19-year-old guy coming into the NBA. He's got a ton of room to grow, big-time worker and a big student of the game.

“Mitchell Robinson, getting him in the second round. If there was a redraft, he would've been a lottery pick, really pleased in how he grew on the court and off it. Really high ceiling. Second in the league in blocked shots, only played 20 minutes a game.”

This is the patience of which he speaks, with so many young players playing big-time minutes.

“You're talking about 18-, 19-, 20-year-olds,” Perry said. “The one thing we can't do is snap our fingers and make them 24 tomorrow. They gotta grow and go through the process of growing and playing.”

That process would be sped up by adding a superstar, but even if that doesn’t happen, Perry and the Knicks will press on, building with depth, flexibility and patience. He pointed to the champion Toronto Raptors, and his teams in Detroit that won with top-to-bottom talent.

“The way the game is played today, you gotta have depth,” Perry told Yahoo Sports. “Through the rigors of an 82-game season, if you can be two deep at every position, you can be highly competitive. We've seen teams in the playoffs who had that kind of depth.”

Finally, he says with assuredness: “I'm confident we'll be a better basketball team one way or the other.”

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