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It wasn’t just 2019 when Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving blew off the Knicks without a meeting. Kemba Walker of The Bronx didn’t want one either.
Kawhi Leonard barely had the Knicks on his radar, though would’ve sat down with ex-president Steve Mills as a courtesy. Leonard’s “Uncle Dennis” of New Jersey is an old friend of Mills.
The free-agent freeze extended to last November, even after Tom Thibodeau was named head coach. Don’t believe the Knicks wouldn’t have offered Toronto’s point guard Fred VanVleet four years, $85 million. He didn’t even take the Knicks’ call. How was that 12th-place conference finish, Freddie?
Gordon Hayward, Jerami Grant, Danilo Gallinari and Bogdan Bogdanovic didn’t look at New York as a prime destination either. Imagine New York being viewed as an afterthought to Charlotte, Detroit and Atlanta.
That was the ugly truth — one that didn’t sit well with owner James Dolan. And now it’s changed.
There are no assurances, but it looks like Manhattan could be a prime-time basketball destination again for players, according to several agents and executives polled.
Thibodeau fulfilled his promise to change the culture. A 41-31 record and making the playoffs as fourth seed in the East changed the image. All season, coaches raved about the tough and physical Knicks’ defense.
Even a 4-1 first-round wipeout to the Hawks doesn’t have the same stench a month later. Many choose to remember the deafening pitches of the Garden than routs in the final three games.
After all, these Hawks are two games from the NBA Finals. And the Knicks played the Hawks when they were at their healthiest — with D’Andre Hunter an X factor in shutting down Julius Randle in the series. Hunter never got to the second round.
“They made a huge step forward,’’ said one team executive. “And they were an exciting team to watch.’’
John McEnroe said last week that he’s been to a ton of live sporting events, but Game 2 against the Hawks was among his top-five loudest events. Chalk part of that up to the thrill of fans finally being unmasked and shoulder to shoulder in a packed arena.
B.J. Armstrong, Derrick Rose’s agent and former Bulls teammate of Michael Jordan, was ready to fly in from the West Coast if there were a Game 7.
“Just from the TV, you could hear how loud it was,’’ Armstrong said. “It sounded like it was ‘The Greatest Show on Earth.’ ’’
Thibodeau winning NBA Coach of the Year only helps in the Knicks’ hope of attracting free-agent difference-makers come Aug. 1.
When hired nearly a year ago, Thibodeau was still hearing backlash from his Minnesota firing and talk of his old-school handling of the Timberwolves’ young players.
Not everyone benefitted from Thibodeau’s coaching this season. Dennis Smith Jr., Kevin Knox, Austin Rivers and Frank Ntilikina did not. But his recipe worked again, and he smashed another playoff drought.
“I think having Thibodeau there will help the Knicks a great deal in free agency,’’ former Magic coach Steve Clifford said. “He has a great reputation connecting with players and, of course, winning.”
Team president Leon Rose and executive vice president William Wesley, both former agents, were hired because of connections and relationships. But nothing beats winning.
Credit Rose for still believing in Thibodeau as one of the game’s best coaches.
The Knicks are no longer an eyesore. Randle showed he is an All-NBA talent. RJ Barrett showed All-Star potential. Starring for Team Canada (22 points in Tuesday’s Olympic qualifier) will only help the Knicks’ image.
Rookie Immanuel Quickley showed glimpses of being a Lou Williams-type sixth man. And Derrick Rose showed he still has it, even if it has to be a backup next season.
If Portland superstar Damian Lillard makes a trade demand, expect the Knicks to be on his wish list. Wesley hired Johnnie Bryant as an assistant coach, and he’s one of Lillard’s Oakland, Calif., mentors. The Knicks believe that will be a factor in Lillard wanting New York.
The failure to attract stars to New York dates to 2010, when LeBron James took to South Beach after a reported unsettling meeting with Knicks president Donnie Walsh.
When David Fizdale was hired as Knicks head coach, it was with the promise he would bring stars — possibly James, his guy from Miami.
James got Fizdale back on the Lakers’ bench for next season. And perhaps the Knicks chances of Fizdale netting James was closer than advertised in 2018.
In a recent interview, Lisa Robinson of Vanity Fair cited sources that James was amenable to Fizdale’s Knicks over the Lakers.
“LeBron wanted to come to New York,’’ Robinson said on a recent podcast. “And I have really good sources about this, that he was thinking about coming to New York, but that his wife wanted to be in Los Angeles, wanted the kids to go to school in Los Angeles, and that just kiboshed the whole thing.’’
James isn’t a free agent this summer and is bound to Los Angeles. But Leonard, serious knee injury or not, is a free agent and could leave L.A. Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, Lonzo Ball and Dennis Schroder all are expected to move on.
This time, the once-downtrodden franchise has its Manhattan makeup on and deserves a legitimate look.
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