What's next for Knicks after avoiding first-apron hard cap in Mikal Bridges trade?

The New York Knicks have avoided the dreaded hard cap at the first apron. Although legalese about the collective bargaining agreement is not the most provocative topic in sports, this changes how they can handle the rest of their offseason.

Here is what Thursday’s news means.

The Knicks have amended the Mikal Bridges trade, league sources tell The Athletic, a move that has been likely since they and the Brooklyn Nets agreed to the swap on June 25. New York will now include 27-year-old forward Mamadi Diakite and free-agent guard Shake Milton, who it will sign-and-trade, according to league sources. Brooklyn will add Keita Bates-Diop.

The original construction of the trade (Bojan Bogdanović and a haul of draft picks for Bridges) entailed the Knicks sending out more money than they took back, which would have hard capped them at the $178.1-million first apron. Had the Knicks not edited the exchange, their payroll would have been only $5 million shy of that number, which they could not have exceeded under any circumstances. Flexibility would have scrunched.

Now, it won’t.

The Knicks adding Milton’s and Diakite’s salaries to the deal isn’t about saving themselves money. It’s about opening up new possibilities.

As New York is now taking back less money than it’s sending out in the trade, avoiding the hard cap at the first apron, it can venture as high as the $188.9-million second apron, which it is now approximately $15 million below.

That is enough room to re-sign big man Precious Achiuwa, who could earn anywhere from $5 million a year to a hair more than that, and use the taxpayer midlevel exception, a $5.2 million tool that allows the Knicks to sign a free agent for up to that price.

The search for a backup center is complicated, as The Athletic detailed Wednesday. Not many viable free agents remain unsigned. Each hypothetical trade presents some kind of roadblock, courtesy of the CBA.

The Knicks lost former starting center Isaiah Hartenstein at the beginning of free agency. Mitchell Robinson will step into the first unit. Jericho Sims remains. But a consistent backup to Robinson is missing.

The man for the job could be Achiuwa — or the team could prefer a more bruising presence in the middle of its second unit. Either way, the Knicks could now enter training camp understanding that if flaws present themselves, whether at center or elsewhere, they could address them during the season.

If the Knicks want to trade for another center, they don’t have to blow their remaining draft capital — the Detroit Pistons’ 2025 first-rounder (protected through the first 13 picks next year, with protections that could keep it from conveying until 2027) and first-round swaps in 2026 and 2030 — right away. (They own lots of second-rounders, too, as well as the Washington Wizards’ 2025 first-round pick, which is heavily protected and more likely to convey as two second-rounders after the 2025-26 season.)

If they wanted, they could re-sign Achiuwa, use the taxpayer MLE on whichever remaining free agent makes the most sense, no matter the position, and see how a 24-year-old, undersized backup center fares in the role. Achiuwa played the five often last season but can struggle against bruter paint presences. If it goes poorly, they could pair Achiuwa and their MLE signing together in a deal for an eight-figure salary before February’s trade deadline.

The Knicks’ preference was always to expand the Bridges trade, according to league sources. The team has modeled scenario after scenario, mapping out ways to avoid a hard cap at the first apron. When the Knicks and the Nets originally agreed to the deal, New York made it clear it would return at some point with more details, a league source familiar with the negotiation said.

The Knicks’ front office obsesses over flexibility on the margins. It did not treat this situation any differently.

Adding Milton and Diakite to the Bridges trade wasn’t the only money-saving move they made Thursday. The team also agreed with 2024 first-round pick Pacôme Dadiet to a contract that included one surprise in it. He will be cheaper than expected.

Contracts for first-rounders are pre-negotiated by the players union in what’s called “the rookie scale,” which includes suggested salaries for each pick, Nos. 1 through 30. First-rounders can sign for as little as 80 percent of that figure or as much as much as 120 percent of it. A rookie-scale contract rarely comes in at less than 120 percent, so much so that the cap hold for a drafted player isn’t his rookie-scale salary; it’s actually 120 percent of his rookie-scale salary.

But on Thursday, the Knicks and Dadiet signed off on a contract that will pay the 18-year-old wing only 80 percent of the rookie scale in 2024-25, creating an extra $904,000 of wiggle room below the second apron for New York.

The last first-rounder to sign for only 80 percent of the rookie scale in Year 1 of a contract was Kevin Porter Jr. in 2019.

The Knicks took care of other rookie business Thursday, as well, signing Tyler Kolek, the No. 34 pick in last week’s draft, to a four-year, $9.1 million contract, a league source said. The deal has a team option on the fourth season.

The final version of the Bridges trade includes as much confusing CBA minutiae as it began with.

Technically, the Knicks are still sending out more money than they are taking back. Milton’s new contract will be $9 million over three years, league sources tell The Athletic’s Shams Charania. The final two seasons are non-guaranteed. Diakite makes $2.3 million in 2024-25. The Knicks will guarantee at least part of it to make the numbers work, a league source said.

But do that math and New York is technically bringing back seven figures more than it’s sending out … until you account for one provision in the CBA that saves it.

Because Bates-Diop makes a minimum salary, the Knicks could accept him into the minimum exception, which would count him as outgoing salary for the Nets but not incoming salary for the Knicks. It means Milton’s salary plus Diakite’s salary is enough to save them, hard capping them at $188.9 million instead of $178.1 million.

If the Knicks want to make more moves, they now have the room to do so.

(Photo: Mike Lawrie/Getty Images)

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