When the Knicks meet with free agent Kawhi Leonard in a bid to lure the NBA Finals MVP to New York, there may be more for him to consider in addition to basketball.
Though it’s true for Kevin Durant and all free agents the Knicks plan to recruit, the club hopes to underline the business opportunities that have largely eluded the low-key Leonard.
In particular, New York’s raging shoe/sneaker market could finally resonate with the 27-year-old Leonard at this stage of his career. In February, Leonard left Jordan Brand in an unorthodox maneuver to join New Balance, which had been out of the NBA scene.
It was a breakthrough move for Leonard and one selling point the Knicks likely will drive home to him is the ability of New York to skyrocket his new sneaker brand.
For the moment, defending the title with the Raptors or playing for the Clippers in his hometown of Los Angeles are considered his top two options. Opening Leonard’s eyes to the vast marketing opportunities that await him here will give the Knicks a unique pitch.
Free agency begins Sunday and, as The Post reported June 6, the Knicks expect to have a meeting with Leonard, whose top influencer is his uncle, Dennis Robertson. The Athletic reported meetings with Leonard and Durant will be in New York. Durant has been in New York since his surgery two weeks ago.
“Uncle Dennis” hails from South Orange, NJ, and is a former Manhattan banker. Knicks president Steve Mills lived in the same town as Robertson and has known him for years.
The Knicks have a very short list and only consider Leonard, Durant (despite his Achilles rupture/30-year-old age) and Kyrie Irving as players they would offer the maximum contract, viewing them as franchise changers. Point guard Kemba Walker would be a situational max guy if, say, Durant or Leonard wanted to play with him.
As sneaker capital of the world, New York controls one-third of the basketball market in that multibillion-dollar industry. That’s a lot of tourists and Knicks fans buying sneakers.
Steve Rosner, who runs the sports marketing firm 16W Marketing, said New York’s robust business opportunities could sway Durant, but he is skeptical about Leonard.
“If Leonard comes to New York, will it help New Balance sell more shoes? Absolutely,’’ Rosner said. “The number of retail outlets they have and media dollars allocated to the No. 1 market in the country, it will help, no question. Will Kawhi come to New York because of it? I doubt that will be reason No. 1. You got to know the customer. With Kevin, with his past outside interests and businesses, it is important to him. New York could connect the dots for Kevin. Kawhi is a little bit of an unknown.”
Leonard’s uniquely understated personality is reminiscent of Derek Jeter’s. The Knicks think that Jeter temperament would be perfect for New York.
Knicks coach David Fizdale and Leonard have a connection in both hailing from Los Angeles and attending college in San Diego (University of San Diego and San Diego State, respectively).
While Irving is eyeing the Nets and Durant reportedly is also giving therm strong consideration, the Knicks still maintain the much higher profile in the Big Apple.
Beyond the better attendance figures, the Knicks’ TV ratings doubled the Nets last season despite being the NBA’s worst team and Brooklyn making the playoffs.
One source said that after Dennis Smith Jr. got traded to the Knicks in February, the number of his social media followers rose 60%.
Of course that may not matter to Leonard, whose Twitter account appears inactive. He’s tweeted four times — and not since 2015. Leonard is stuck on 331,000 followers compared to LeBron James’ 43 million.
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Leonard may look to turn over a new leaf and become interested in increasing his off-the-court opportunities. He’s already been playing up his quiet, reserved persona by wearing a “Fun Guy” T-shirt.
Amar’e Stoudemire turned into “The Renaissance Man” in New York. RJ Barrett, the Knicks’ first-round pick, has already seen a rise in his profile. Days after being selected third in the draft, Barrett — not No. 1 pick Zion Williamson — was handing out the Rookie of the Year Award at the NBA ceremony in Santa Monica, Calif.
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If Leonard agrees to come, the Knicks would likely try to sign a couple of solid veterans of his choosing to put around him.
If Leonard wants, say, his Spurs/Raptors teammate Danny Green, the Knicks would likely try to make that happen. Leonard alone should make the Knicks a playoff contender with Barrett and improvement from their young players such as Kevin Knox.
Leonard has two NBA titles, two Finals MVP Awards and three Finals berths but has yet to capitalize on that success off the court.
There’s sentiment Leonard will go back to Toronto to defend his crown on a one-year deal.
If that’s the case, the Knicks would have at least laid the groundwork and given Leonard something to think about for 2020 free agency when the Knicks may roll over their cap space.