How much could Knicks’ OG Anunoby get in free agency?

The New York Knicks understood the assignment.

Trading for OG Anunoby mere months before the expiration of his contract guaranteed one offseason strategy: The team would have to reach deep into its pockets. And that wasn’t just because Anunoby was about to become one of the league’s hottest free agents.

In an industry where players receive only what they have the power to negotiate, Anunoby, a 26-year-old NBA All-Defense member who became the Knicks’ midseason lynchpin, also has leverage.

The Athletic recently polled 16 front office officials, asking them what they would deem a “fair” contract for Anunoby this summer. Responses ranged from as low as $30 million a year to a max deal. One dynamic became clear during the process: Even those who were the most hesitant about paying Anunoby still expected the Knicks, or someone else, to toss more dough at him than a Pizza Hut could.

The executive who suggested the poorest average annual value for Anunoby, $120 million over four years, made sure to point out that what he considered a fair contract was not in line with his prediction for what would play out this summer. Instead, he anticipated Anunoby — who declined a $19.9 million player option Monday, a league source said, and will officially become an unrestricted free agent June 30 — would earn far more.


“Because he’s got the Knicks by the balls,” the executive said. “They can’t lose him, the same way (Pascal) Siakam’s getting the max from (the) Indiana (Pacers). You can’t trade for somebody, give so much up and then let him go. It’s not feasible.”

The Knicks found their missing piece just before the new year, when they traded two promising, young players, RJ Barrett and Immanuel Quickley, along with a second-round pick to the Toronto Raptors for Anunoby, Precious Achiuwa and Malachi Flynn. The team caught fire once its newest starter arrived.

New York went 20-3 with Anunoby in the lineup during the regular season. It was a whopping 22.8 points per 100 possessions better when he was on the court. In the 14 games following the trade, when the Knicks were fully healthy, a group that included an enthusiastic Julius Randle, whose season ended prematurely due to a dislocated shoulder, went 12-2. The first unit demolished any lineup in its way.

Now, the Knicks know they can’t lose Anunoby for nothing, even if he will cost money — and lots of it. Of course, they realized this from the moment they acquired him.

Among the 16 front-office officials polled, responses sank as low as $30 million a year and rose to the five-year max, worth $245.3 million, which one respondent suggested.

The sweet spot was $35 million to $40 million a year. Nine of the 16 people polled submitted salaries in that range.

Other than one person, who replied with a three-year, $100 million deal, every participant said he would hand Anunoby either four or five years.

Four officials proposed contracts between $120 million and $135 million over four years. Another four said $140 million over four years. Two more said $150 million over four years and another two said $160 million over four years. One person said $172 million over four years.

His logic for such a seemingly obscure number?

He believed Anunoby should make a tad below the max, including a $42.3 million salary in 2024-25, and figured a $40 million starting wage with five percent annual raises was fair.

“But if I were negotiating from the Knicks’ perspective, I’d start him at $40 million and go five years, so $232 million,” he said.

Two other respondents suggested five-year contracts for Anunoby: One for $200 million and the other for the max.

But not all dollars were created equal.

Multiple people said they would include protections against injuries in Anunoby’s next contract. One exec, who suggested a four-year, $150 million deal, said he would make the final season of it “non or partially guaranteed but can become fully guaranteed based on games played.”

Just this past season, Anunoby required surgery to remove a loose bone fragment from his right elbow, which kept him out for a month and a half. He injured his hamstring during the second round of the Knicks’ playoff run.

He has not played 70 games in a season since 2017-18, when he was a rookie, and has missed 36 percent of his team’s regular-season games over the past four years.

“I need something there,” the executive said. “I’d be scared as hell based on his injury history. I might give him a max if the last two years are non-guaranteed.”

But poll participants were encouraged to evaluate what contract they believe would be “fair” for Anunoby, not necessarily to predict his next deal. And in this marketplace, tacking on a couple of non-guaranteed seasons may encourage Anunoby’s representatives to leave the Knicks on read.

There is a world where someone other than the Knicks offers Anunoby a max contract. For example, the Philadelphia 76ers enter the summer with max cap space and could emerge as a contender for the switchblade wing.

Other teams with significant cap space include the Oklahoma City Thunder, Detroit Pistons, Utah Jazz and possibly the Charlotte Hornets.

The Pistons have $65 million in room. If they wanted, they could offer Anunoby the max and still have the space to sign another starting-caliber player.

The Thunder, which finished 2023-24 as the Western Conference’s No. 1-seeded team, stand out as an intuitive option, as well, even if they would need to unload a few extra dollars to create the room for a max offer. OKC is on the prowl for a defensive-minded wing who fits its fast-paced style of play. But extending Anunoby a mega contract would be unprecedented for an organization that doesn’t approach free agency with the vigor that, say, Philadelphia might this summer.

The largest contract Oklahoma City has ever given to another team’s free agent is $16 million over three years for Patrick Patterson.

Yet, even with other potential suitors waiting, the Knicks remain the most likely option for Anunoby because the system intentionally hands incumbent teams an edge.

Another team’s max offer to Anunoby is $182 million over four years — a $42.3 million starting salary with five percent raises in each following season. But New York can give Anunoby an extra year and eight percent annual raises, a contract that would climb to $245.3 million over five years.

In short, the Knicks could get away with paying Anunoby less than the max but still beat out another team that is technically offering its max. Such is the way of NBA finances, where simplicity goes to die.

One executive from the poll, who suggested $200 million over five years as a fair price for Anunoby, acknowledged that if he were the Knicks, he would lean into the team’s inherent advantage.

Let’s say Anunoby receives that four-year, $182 million offer from someone else. That’s $45.5 million a year, which would hamper the Knicks’ flexibility. But the Knicks countering with a five-year, $200 million contract would get Anunoby more guaranteed money while also bogging down the average annual value to $40 million a year.

New York could begin a five-year, $200 million contract at just $34.5 million in 2024-25, nearly $7 million less than Anunoby’s starting salary would be if he were on a max contract.

“(It’s) security for a guy with injury history, but keeps his per year number down a bit for the Knicks,” said the aforementioned executive. “He’s not quite a max-level guy but he shouldn’t take anything less than that.”

A lower starting salary could help the Knicks stay below the first apron in 2024-25, which would enhance their flexibility on the trade market not just this offseason but also at the 2025 deadline.

Of course, the Knicks may have no choice but to pay Anunoby more.

New York cannot have a Plan B — at least, not a viable one. If Anunoby elects to leave, the Knicks could attempt to negotiate a sign-and-trade, which would bring back players or draft picks for him, but only a team above the cap would need to structure the transaction that way. If he picked an organization with cap space, he could be gone, and the Knicks’ hands would be empty.

The team, even without Anunoby, would remain above the salary cap, armed with just the $12.9 million midlevel exception to sign a free agent, which is large enough to land a quality player but far too tiny to attract anyone of Anunoby’s level.

Of course, there aren’t many who fit Anunoby’s archetype, free agent or not. Anunoby is one of the NBA’s most versatile defenders. In an age of “position-less” basketball, plenty of guys can switch onto guards through centers, but not many can start on anyone from Jamal Murray to Nikola Jokić. Anunoby is one of the few.

It’s why the Knicks remain the most likely destination for him this summer.

They can offer more money and more years. They have a built-in, personal advantage. Not only has Anunoby been in New York for six months and competed on a team that’s dominated with him present, but he’s also with CAA, the same agency that Knicks president Leon Rose once ran.

Ever since Rose took over the franchise, the Knicks have sought CAA clients — and those players have often ended up on team-friendly contracts, most notably for Jalen Brunson and Isaiah Hartenstein, who also is a free agent this summer.

And on top of it all, the Knicks have the motivation.

Anunoby’s potential market is not surprising. Philadelphia was a sleeping giant when New York traded for him in December.

So the Knicks have no other choice. They must present their top free agent with a lavish offer — and from then on, their future is in Anunoby’s hands.

(Photo of OG Anunoby: Nathaniel S. Butler / NBAE via Getty Images)

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