Knicks need to show they have changed to lure top free agents

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The fans at the Garden did their part, cheering Kyrie Irving when he was introduced as part of the Celtics’ starting lineup Friday night and again in the third quarter when they began chanting: “We want Ky-rie.”

The Celtics guard had said earlier in the day to wait until July 1 to ask what his intentions are when he becomes a free agent, but the Knicks and their fan base can’t wait that long. They can’t afford to waste a single opportunity when it comes to recruiting Irving and the other prize talent in the upcoming free-agent class headed by Kevin Durant. The recruiting started Friday night.

“We want Ky-rie.”

Before getting Irving or Durant, the Knicks need to first rebuild their image; an image that has been scarred not only by dropping to 10-41 after a 113-99 loss to the Celtics, but also by Thursday’s blockbuster trade that sent Kristaps Porzingis, Tim Hardaway Jr., Courtney Lee and Trey Burke to Dallas for two first-round picks, Dennis Smith Jr. and the expiring contracts of DeAndre Jordan and Wesley Matthews.

The trade cleared enough cap space for the Knicks to sign two players to max contracts this summer, with Durant and Irving the primary targets, and then there are the two future first-round draft picks.

But here’s the problem. If the Knicks couldn’t sell Porzingis on the future of their franchise, how are they going to convince free agents to come to New York?

Since the trade was announced Thursday, the Knicks have claimed Porzingis refused to give them a long-term commitment, prompting them to trade the fourth-overall selection from the 2015 draft.

“He had to make a decision and he felt it was best that he got a fresh start,” Knicks head coach David Fizdale said Friday, adding, “The fact he was up front and honest with us, we really appreciated that.”

The fact Porzingis wanted out of New York isn’t exactly an endorsement for the Knicks’ new regime and its ability to get players to buy in to their long-term plans. Apparently, Porzingis didn’t like what he was seeing, which is problematic considering he might be asked by a free agent why he didn’t want to stay in New York.

Part of Fizdale’s appeal was the connection he might have with potential free agents. But is he as persuasive as advertised?

Fizdale worked hard to build a relationship with Porzingis, spending five days with him in Latvia last summer to create a player-coach bond. Throughout this season, Fizdale continued to say the 7-foot-3 jump-shooter was engaged and was a big part of the team’s future. Ultimately, if Porzingis told the Knicks he would rather leave than stay, he didn’t buy what Fizdale was selling.

Fizdale said he didn’t take it personally, but he should.

“I worked hard to build a great relationship with him and really tried to involve him in what we were doing,” Fizdale said. “At in the end of the day, these guys have to make decisions on what’s best for them and he feels this is what’s best for him.”

Fizdale added Porzingis’ decision shouldn’t be a reflection on him or general manager Scott Perry, but it is. It’s one thing to trade a player because of his value. It’s another to trade a player — a star player — because he doesn’t want to be here.

Porzingis didn’t play a single game this season while rehabbing his surgically repaired knee, but apparently saw enough to know he wasn’t excited about being part of the future.

“We’re trying to build something from the ground up,” Fizdale said. “It doesn’t mean this is for everybody.”

The official courting won’t come until July, but the Knicks need to start making themselves more appealing even in the midst of this dreadful season. Whether it’s talking about playing at the Garden, pointing out the advantages of living in the city or bragging about all those first-round draft picks they’ve stockpiled, the Knicks need to start sending more positive messages about playing in New York, because Porzingis wanting to leave wasn’t a good one.

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