Solving Problems: Knicks Need a Bargain Center
For all of the roster upheaval the New York Knicks underwent during the 2010-2011 campaign, it’s hard to say that the team was improved significantly. Yes, Mike D’Antoni’s club added All-Stars Carmelo Anthony and Chauncey Billups after months of arduous negotiations. And yes, simply making the playoffs is a distinct improvement over the results of recent years.
However, the team that began the season—the one that had Wilson Chandler, Danilo Gallinari, Raymond Felton and Timofey Mozgov—could just as easily been swept by the Celtics in the first round of the playoffs as the Anthony-Billups version was last April. The front office deserved an ‘A’ for effort, but one distinct problem continued to plague this franchise even after the trade with Denver: New York cannot defend the paint.
Only nine teams were easier to score against last season than the Knicks, as judged by defensive efficiency. Specifically, they gave up too many easy buckets. Opponents made 47.2% of their field goals against New York. Making matters worse, the Knicks yielded 26.4 free throw attempts per game, which was better than only six teams. The combination of poor defense and cheap fouls allowed adversaries to register a 1.26 points per shot—worst of all teams to have made the playoffs.
It doesn’t take Hubie Brown to pinpoint where the Knicks failed defensively. After Mozgov was dealt to Denver, New York propped up such non-centers as Shelden Williams and Jared Jeffries in the five hole. Ronny Turiaf wasn’t totally miserable in the paint, but at 6-10, he too was usually hamstrung by a size disadvantage. Sometimes D’Antoni would simply waive the white flag and send out 3-point specialist Shawne Williams in a three-forward set.
Whatever the new collective bargaining agreement provides by way of a salary cap and roster exceptions will certainly limit the scope of New York’s search for a new center. Restricted free agent DeAndre Jordan would do more than enough to solve the black hole in the middle of the Knicks defense, but it’s hard to envision a scenario where the team could afford to sign him—at least not without the Clippers being able to match the deal.
There are, however, some low-cost, low-expectation centers that could fit the team’s budget. They might not pack the same excitement as Jordan or free agent center Tyson Chandler, but if used in the right doses, New York might find itself far-less exposed around the hoop.
The two most obvious, inexpensive options are former Kings center Samuel Dalembert and former Bobcats center Kwame Brown.
Dalembert is a solid rebounder (8.2 RPG last season with a 19.3 rebounding rate, which ranked 11th in the NBA) and shot blocker (1.5 BPG last year down from 1.8 BPG over the previous two seasons), but he might be tough to sign. He’s familiar with the NYC area, having played at Seton Hall. However the HEAT are going to be looking for a big man whenever the signing period does roll around and the native of Haiti makes more sense than anyone. Both teams would surely be limited in their offers to Dalembert, so it becomes a decision of where he would prefer to play: Miami or New York?
Brown probably won’t be as coveted as Dalembert, but he too will likely be a target of the HEAT. Brown has quietly become a solid defender over the last few seasons (although there is some debate as to just how “solid” he is). He doesn’t rebound as well as Dalembert (15.9 rebounding rate) and rarely blocks shots (0.6 BPG last year), but in the pick-and-roll happy NBA, he definitely fills a roll. The former No. 1 pick defends the simplistic offensive set extremely well because of his size (6-11, 270 pounds), reach and good judgment. Brown has terrible hands and is less than nothing on offense, so a lot has to be considered before extending a contract to such a player.
Another option is former Hawks center Hilton Armstrong. The 6-11, 235-pound free agent is from Peekskill, NY and played at nearby Connecticut in college. Until recently he was a miserable rebounder, but he managed to push his rebounding rate to a career-high 15.4 last season. The major issue with Armstrong isn’t his defense or athletic ability—he’s adept at denying shots if not blocking them—rather, he’s one of the absolute worst offensive players in the NBA. Armstrong hit 16 total field goals between Washington and Atlanta last season.
Former Jazz center Kyrylo Fesenko will be out at least two months because of a torn knee ligament, but it’s not like there’s going to be much basketball played during that time anyway. At 7-1, 280 pounds Fesenko is big enough to fill the paint, although he clearly lacks the athleticism and coordination for D’Antoni’s offense. Oddly enough, Fesenko is a poor rebounder (his rebounding rate was just 14.3 last season, which ranked 53rd among all centers). At best, Fesenko would be considered an end-of-the bench replacement. Francisco Elson, another Jazz center who’s hitting the free agent market, would be another option.
The Knicks could try and sign former Blazers center Greg Oden to an offer sheet, but that avenue seems as treacherous as any aforementioned option. Former Hornets center Aaron Gray might be a better choice, although, thanks to his 19.8 rebounding rate, New Orleans would surely make an effort to re-sign him. Gray is also 270 pounds, and his ability to keep up with D’Antoni’s offense is definitely debatable.
If you’re not impressed with the free agent market, you’re not alone. Thankfully the Knicks have the rights to Jerome Jordan, a Jamaican native who averaged 3.7 BPG as a sophomore at Tulsa. The Jamaican native played in Serbia last season as the Knicks decided to let him develop overseas. Now that he represents one of the younger, cheaper solutions at the position, he’ll almost assuredly be on the team as soon as the Knicks are allowed to bring him in—something that became more complicated after the lockout bled over into the European basketball season.
Second-round pick Josh Harrellson isn’t tall (6-10) or athletic (275 pounds). However he is another inexpensive option at the position and represents an offensive improvement over many of the other candidates.
So unless the Knicks have a trade up their sleeves (shooting guard Landry Fields and swingman Bill Walker are two potential trade chips), the market for inexpensive centers is about as good as it normally is (which is bad). There is very little chance the team could add someone who could contribute on offense. However, if the right defensive candidate could emerge while playing around 24 MPG, D’Antoni might be able to skirt by with Turiaf and Shawne Williams rotating in as much as possible. That’s not the answer Knicks fans want to hear, but it is the reality of a very grim situation.