The Knicks believe they fared excellently in Thursday’s NBA draft, but head into the next step of free agency on June 30 with more caution and recasting expectations.
It has shifted some focus to making an even bigger push for Kawhi Leonard, whose manager/uncle Dennis Robertson has connections to president Steve Mills.
The Knicks will be very selective in free agency, meaning their two max openings could go unfilled. Their list of max-contract-caliber players is very short. And that, according to organization officials, is not the end of the world.
At Friday’s elaborate RJ Barrett press conference at the Garden, Mills used the word “patience’’ and declined to repeat the optimism he and owner James Dolan had expressed in the past.
“We’re just not going to talk free agency right now,’’ Mills said. “We’re going to continue to build according to our plan. And be opportunistic where we can be.”
When pressed, Mills added the dreaded P-word, and it wasn’t “playoffs.” The Knicks have missed the postseason six straight seasons and are coming off a league-worst 17-65 record.
“I think we’re asking them [the fans] to continue to be patient,’’ Mills said. “We laid out a plan when Scott [Perry] came on board and then David [Fizdale] joined us that we were gonna build this team the right way. We’re going to draft well and we’re gonna be diligent about how we make this team and not take any shortcuts. And follow a path. We believe these two guys [Barrett and second-rounder Ignas Brazdeikis of Michigan] are part of that process — the young guys that we added over the last two years.’’
The Knicks are still interested in Durant despite his catastrophic injury, but the club will proceed with caution and not go into a long-term marriage blindly. He’ll be 32 when he’s ready to play in 2020-21, and that could be a “load management’’ season in which his games and minutes are limited.
Access to medical records on Durant during the process will be important. Dr. Martin O’Malley, Durant’s surgeon, once was a Knicks consultant and is the Nets’ team doctor.
The Knicks also aren’t out of the running for Irving, despite all the talk of him heading to Brooklyn.
Leonard, the newly minted King of Canada, is expected to regard returning to defend the championship with Toronto and going back home to Los Angeles to play for the Clippers as higher on his wish list, but the Knicks are in play, according to sources.
The Post reported two weeks ago Knicks brass fully expects a meeting with Leonard. Mills and Robertson go way back, both having lived in South Orange, NJ, and bumping into each other on the train. Robertson was a Manhattan banker for 20 years and now has major influence on Leonard.
The Knicks have always considered Robertson’s influence, as reported last week, as giving them hope that Leonard would want to play in New York. Leonard spent most of the 2017-18 season, while estranged from the Spurs, rehabbing in New Jersey.
Robertson recently told The Post this season was about Leonard “having fun playing basketball’’ again. Whether Leonard would find joining the Knicks another fun experience remains to be seen.
Management is adamant they won’t give max deals to second-tier free agents, but would seek short-term deals for younger standouts — Julius Randle and D’Angelo Russell come to mind — or one-year deals for solid veterans who can show their young nucleus the ropes.
“This was a big night for us last night,’’ Perry said. “I think it was a great step forward for our basketball team.’’
Whether more steps are taken starting June 30 now becomes more uncertain.