Things are finally looking up for the New York Knicks this season after parting ways with the dramatics of Carmelo Anthony and Phil Jackson. Kristaps Porzingis has accepted the challenge of becoming the new franchise player, and there's reason for optimism moving forward with young players Frank Ntilikina and Tim Hardaway Jr. now on the roster.
New York hasn't made the postseason since the 2012-13 campaign, but looks like it could end that drought this time around as a high seed in the Eastern Conference come April. The Knicks certainly aren't on the same level as the Cleveland Cavaliers, Boston Celtics, and Toronto Raptors, but a playoff berth would certainly be a pleasant surprise for the New York faithful.
The Knicks, who currently don't have a first-round pick in next year's draft, will surely be looking to restore their status as an elite franchise in the East by attracting some top free agents next summer. However, the burden of existing long-term contracts with Joakim Noah, Courtney Lee, and Hardaway Jr. will limit their spending to an extent, unless New York can shed salary ahead of the free-agent frenzy.
Here are three realistic free agents the Knicks should target in 2018 to become contenders:
Things aren't working out the way they were supposed to in Oklahoma City, which means George may not ink a long-term deal with the Thunder when his contract expires. Russell Westbrook still hasn't figured out a way to coexist with Carmelo Anthony and George, and if the trio can't develop chemistry soon, George may even be traded before the deadline. One of the best defenders at the small forward position, George would be deadly alongside Porzingis and instantly transform the Knicks into an elite franchise. His two-way ability and leadership skills are a rare combination, which makes him very attractive to several teams in free agency, though. New York would certainly need to shed salary in order to sign him to the max deal he'll demand in the pending bidding war.
Bradley is very quietly putting together an excellent season with the Detroit Pistons. Along with being one of the top defenders at his position, the shooting guard is averaging a solid 15.7 points per game and is on pace to set a career high in three-point percentage (41.4). He's a major reason for Detroit's surprising start, and appears to be reaching his peak just in time for free agency. The 27-year-old won't break the bank like George (or Chris Paul) would, and could be one of the top under-the-radar players on the board this summer. Adding Bradley would allow Lee, who also primarily plays two-guard, to log more minutes at the small forward or point guard positions, on occasion.
Smart will be a restricted free agent in 2018, and like Bradley, could be a steal. He's struggled getting starter's minutes on a loaded Boston squad for the past few seasons, and a change in scenery would really give him the opportunity to showcase his talents. The Celtics may be hesitant to commit long term to the 24-year-old guard with so many other big contracts already on the books, and their loss could be New York's gain. Smart has the ability to play both guard positions, and although his shooting ability is questionable, he's solid defensively and can distribute the ball well. A deal for Smart would be much more affordable than the other two aforementioned players, but Boston would have the opportunity to match any offer on its restricted free agent.