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Where Do The Knicks Go From Here?
Posted By Tommy Beer On May 30, 2012 @ 6:00 pm In All,Main Page,NBA | No Comments
Despite the lockout shaving nearly 20 games and two months from the schedule, the 2011-12 Knicks season was certainly not short on storylines. A true roller-coaster of a campaign, New York somehow crammed what seemed like a decade’s worth of drama and excitement into 66 regular season contests and five playoff games.
Despite improvement on many fronts, including a rare postseason berth (only the franchise’s third trip to the playoffs in the last 11 years), New York managed to win just one postseason contest. While the ship seems to be heading in the right direction (for the first time in a longtime), Knicks’ management needs to make some important decisions and navigate some murky waters this offseason in order to keep the organization on course…
Front Office Management and Coaching:
If one year ago, you would have asked most pundits to predict the GM/Coach combo that would be tabbed to guide the Knickerbockers into 2013 and beyond, very few folks would have ever guessed a tag-team of Mike Woodson and Glen Grunwald. However, both Woody and Grunwald (former collegiate teammates at Indiana University) have had the “interim” removed from their titles and extensions placed in their pockets.
The success Grunwald experienced during his lone season calling the shots in NYC was nothing short of remarkable. In fact, I made the argument earlier this month that Grunwald deserved some consideration for Executive of the Year.
Grunwald’s first move as GM was considered a major roll of the dice. On December 10th, in the early stages of free agency, Grunwald cut Chauncey Billups via the amnesty clause in order to sign-and-trade for Tyson Chandler. In retrospect, it turned out to be a stroke of genius. Tyson went on to become the first Knick in the franchise’s storied history to win the Defensive Player of the Year award, while also leading the NBA in field goal percentage (recording the third highest FG% for a full season in NBA history).
However, once Chandler was signed to his $58 million contract, the Knicks’ new GM went about the business of fleshing out the roster. With Chandler, Carmelo Anthony, and Amar’e Stoudemire accounting for nearly $50 million of the $58 million salary cap, Grunwald would need to get creative in order to build a well-rounded, balanced squad, which is exactly what he did.
How about this example of crafty and shrewd GM maneuvering – over the course of six days in December, Grunwald plucked two relatively unknown and obscure players off the waiver wire: Jeremy Lin and Steve Novak.
Novak went on to lead the entire league in three-point shooting accuracy. All Lin did was completely change the trajectory of the Knicks’ season, go on to win the Eastern Conference Player of the Week award, land of the cover of Time Magazine and Sports Illustrated (two weeks in a row), while averaging 18.2 ppg, 7.7 assists, 3.7 rebounds, and 2.0 steals in the 25 games he started.
In addition, Grunwald added J.R. Smith midway through the season by saving the “room” exception, as well pulling off a draft day deal that netted the Knicks Josh Harrelson.
In late April, New York rightfully rewarded Grunwald with an extension and a new contract.
Although he didn’t experience the same level of success as Grunwald, Mike Woodson also recently had the interim tag removed from his title and was promoted to head coach. It sounds like the details of his new deal include two guaranteed years and a third-year option, worth approximately $4 million per season. Woody stepped in after Mike D’Antoni stepped down and guided New York to an 18-6 record to close out the regular season. Over those final 24 contests of the regular season, the Knicks posted the second-best record in the NBA and the team’s defense ranked fifth in the NBA in points allowed (91.8) and eighth in opponents’ field goal percentage (.440). Woodson became the first head coach in franchise history to win his first five games and posted the second-best winning percentage ever by an NBA coach who took over a team midseason.
The Knicks were dominated by the Miami HEAT in the first round, and Woodson received some criticism for some of his coaching decisions, including an inability to create scoring opportunities for his better players. That inability to perform in the postseason has been a knock on Woody dating back to his days in Atlanta; Woodson has lost eight of the last nine playoff games he has coached, with the average margin of defeat exceeding 15 points. That said, Miami’s roster was vastly superior to the Knicks, especially with most of New York’s backcourt sidelined by devastating injuries.
Nonetheless, it was somewhat surprising to see the Knicks move so quickly in installing Woodson as head coach, especially with a few interesting candidates as potential replacements (including the legendary Phil Jackson). Woodson’s selling points appeared to be desire to play defense, demanding accountability from his players, as well as a familiarity and acceptance of New York’s button-up approach, which is apparently a must when working for NY owner James Dolan.
We know that Grunwald and Woodson are locked in for the next couple of seasons, and the core of Carmelo Anthony and Tyson Chandler are building blocks of the foundation as well. After that, there are number of major question marks when discussing the players on this roster – including the future of Amar’e Stoudemire.
With just three players (Anthony, Chandler, and Stoudemire) set to account for a combined $53 million in 2012-13 – and a combined $57.2 million the following season – New York’s salary concerns are glaringly apparent. It’s not that you can’t have two or three superstars clogging your cap; you just have to make sure those superstars are terrific two-way players, who can stay healthy and somehow ensure that the team can find a way flesh out the rest of roster with solid role players.
There are currently only three organizations that have multiple players amongst the top-20 highest paid players in the NBA: The Knicks (STAT & Melo), the Lakers (Kobe and Gasol), and the HEAT (LeBron, Wade, Bosh). One of these things is not like the others… Unlike Miami and L.A., the Knicks are not championship contenders as currently constructed. As a result, talk of a shakeup has already heated up and will definitely pick up steam over the summer. If new GM Glen Grunwald and the Knicks do make an effort to trade one of their big three, Stoudemire is likely the odd man out.
Although STAT’s struggles are a bit over-embellished in the tabloid media (the guy did average 17.5 points and 7.8 rebounds in a disappointing season) the real issue isn’t his scoring or rebounding numbers. No, the problem is $64.4 million. That is the amount of money owed to Amar’e over the final three years of the guaranteed contract he signed with the Knicks two summers ago. Amar’e will be the sixth highest paid player in the NBA next year. The five players making more are Kobe Bryant, Rashard Lewis, Dirk Nowitzki, Pau Gasol and Carmelo Anthony.
While there certainly is potential for this New York triumvirate to develop into the core of an elite and cohesive unit, the early returns have not been promising. The offense often sputters when Melo and Amar’e are on the court at the same time, and Stoudemire’s defense was subpar even before he back stated acting up. Moreover, the litany of Stoudemire injuries seems to grow by the month. The knees were the primary initial concern (and a major reason why Phoenix decided to let him walk); but the recurrent back problems are now obviously a significant cause for concern going forward.
On the surface, it seems far-fetched that any team would trade for an oft-injured player with $64 million coming his way. However, Stoudemire’s is certainly not the only bloated and unfavorable contract on the books in today’s NBA, and at just 29 years of age, Amar’e has plenty left in the tank. Nonetheless, the reality is that if New York is ever going to trade Amar’e, they’d do so understanding fully they would have to accept another unattractive contract in return. The question then becomes: Does it make sense for the Knicks to swap one bad contract for another? Would the net result be an increase or decrease in value, and ultimately, wins?
Earlier this month, we threw out a couple of hypothetical trade scenarios. For instance, would the Wizards consider trading Rashard Lewis in exchange for Amar’e Stoudemire and Toney Douglas? Or what about Philadelphia sending Elton Brand to New York in exchange for STAT? One other possible fit might be the Chicago Bulls. Carlos Boozer has worn out his welcome in the Windy City after signing as massive free-agent deal two summers ago. If Grunwald offered Amar’e and Josh Harrellson for Boozer and Ronnie Brewer, would Chicago decline?
That said, the far more likely scenario is the Knicks holding onto Stoudemire and attempting to flesh out the roster around a frontline of STAT, Melo, and Chandler. As a result, finding valuable players at discount prices becomes imperative.
Grunwald was able to unearth a few diamonds in the rough last winter, but will now have to pay market value for those uncovered gems. In addition, many others role players who played crucial roles last season are pending free agents. Landry Fields (restricted free agent), Steve Novak, Jared Jeffries, J.R. Smith (player option) and of course Jeremy Lin (restricted free agent), may all hit the market in July as well.
Let’s address each of the Knicks’ pending free agents individually, and then delve into some external options New York might pursue in this summer:
Jeremy Lin: We can end this conversation quickly, because the Knicks are bringing back Lin. There are numerous basketball reasons why it makes sense to keep Lin, i.e. he plays point guard – and they do not have any other healthy/effective PG’s under contract. In addition, he played extraordinarily well when inserted into the starting lineup, while showing a penchant for hitting big shots in big moments. But, in all honesty, those “basketball-related factors” are essentially tertiary considerations. The fact of the matter is this: Lin is a veritable cash cow for the organization. Lin sold more jerseys than any player in the NBA last season not named Kobe, despite the fact that Lin’s jersey first went on sale in February. That’s merely one example of the income generated by this international sensation. Factoring in all streams of revenue, Lin is worth 100’s of millions of dollars, which is simply too valuable a commodity to let slip away.
The only real question is how much will New York have to pay in order to keep Lin in the Big Apple? The Knicks have the right to match any offer Lin receives, and no team can over more than the mid-level amount (approximately $5 million) over the first two seasons. However, another organization could backload the contract, which would increase the annual amount over of four year deal upwards of $9 million.
However, the Knicks are hoping that a possible loophole in the new CBA will result in New York retaining both Lin and Novak, without using their mid-level exception to do so. Previously, players claimed off of waivers lost their “Bird Rights.” Assuming NY did not possess Bird Rights on Lin, they would have to use their mid-level exception to re-sign him. But the Players Association filed for an arbitration hearing in mid-May, hoping to convince a judge that a player claimed off waivers would keep his Bird Rights, just as traded players do. The chances the Union receive a favorable ruling are slim at best, but if it happened, the Knicks would be major beneficiaries. It would truly be a game-changer, allowing the Knicks to re-tool and bring in another top-tier point guard to pair with Lin.
Steve Novak: This impeding court decision (the date of the hearing is now set for June 13th) will also impact Novak. Assuming New York has to use the full mid-level to retain Lin, Novak will hit the free-agent market and the most Grunwald could offer him would be the bi-annual exception (approximately $1.8 million). Novak was a godsend last season, and established himself as one of the NBA’s preeminent spot-up shooters. However, in the first-round series against Miami, the HEAT effectively limited Novak to non-productive bystander, highlighting the potential drawbacks of a one-dimensional (catch-and-shoot) player.
J.R. Smith: The J.R. Smith scenario is another interesting situation to be played out next month. Smith signed with the Knicks in February for a pro-rated $2.5 million. That contract included a “player option” for $2.5 million for the 2012-2013 season as well. At the time, it seemed unlikely that Smith would chose to stay with the Knicks for that relatively limited amount of salary. It was assumed Smith would be able to garner far more on the open market as an unrestricted free agent this summer. However, Smith was maddeningly inconsistent for New York. He generated some excitement and more than a few highlights, but also slumped badly at important moments. During New York’s first-round loss to Miami, Smith shot just 31.6% from the floor and 17.9% from three-point territory. Over the final two games of the series, he connected on just 6 of his 30 FG attempts. J.R. also had maturity issues that bubbled to the surface both on and off the floor during his short time in NYC. Nonetheless, the Knicks backcourt is extremely thin, so they’d welcome back a player as athletic and talented as Smith, if he were willing to return for $2.5 million.
Landry Fields: The regression of Landry Fields, from two-time NBA Rookie of the Month and crowd favorite inside MSG, to unreliable role player, has been swift and dramatic. Fields eventually lost confidence in his jumper and became and offensive liability. Over the final 31 games of the 2011-12 regular season, Landry Fields, the Knicks starting shooting guard, shot just 48% from the free-throw stripe and under 24% from behind-the-arc. On the positive side of the ledger, Fields is a decent defender (he actually led the Knicks in plus/minus this season) and a high-character, solid citizen who is content in his role. The Knicks can match any offer Fields receives, so it will be interesting to see what kind of money Fields sees on the open market, and if the Knicks are willing to match that sum.
Jared Jefferies: When healthy, which unfortunately was a rare occurrence, Jefferies was an extremely valuable reserve off the Knicks bench. Jared provided defense, toughness, and a slew of other desirable “intangibles” that has made J.J. a favorite of every coach he has played for. How about this stat to highlight his value to the Knicks: New York was 8-0 in the games in which Jeffries played at least 26 minutes. He signed a minimum level one-year deal with the Knicks last summer. Expect Grunwald to enthusiastically offer him a similar contract again this summer.
Potential Free Agent Adds: Again, the Knicks primary focus this summer will be addressing the point guard position. Even assuming Lin is back in the fold, the PG spot is still thin, especially considering Iman Shumpert’s early season availability is unknown after he tore his ACL in the playoffs. Ideally, New York would like to bring in a veteran to pair with Lin. This year’s free agent PG crop is actually quite deep, consisting of quality vets as well as young, talented PG’s. Steve Nash, Goran Dragic, Raymond Felton, Kirk Hinrich, Jason Terry, Andre Miller are some of the elite unrestricted free agents about to hit the market. However, these names are just pipe dreams unless NY has the full mid-level exception to play with.
If the Knicks only have the bi-annual exception and veteran’s minimums, some affordable, potential PG targets might include: Keyon Dooling, Jonny Flynn, Jannero Pargo, Delonte West, Ishmael Smith, and John Lucas.
And depending upon whether or not Grunwald brings back J.R. Smith, Novak, Fields, and/or Jeffries, the list of Knicks needs could grow exponentially.
One potential free agent that might be within the Knicks budget, but would also offer enormous upside would be the enigmatic Lamar Odom. After winning the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year award and putting up career-best numbers for the Lakers in 2010-2011, Odom flamed out in Dallas after being traded to the Mavericks. The Mavs paid Odom to stay away from the team in early April and will likely waive him next month if they can’t find a trade partner. The Mavs have to make a decision by June 29th. Dallas can buyout the final year of his contract for $2.4 million. If they do not waive him, they owe him $8.2 million for next season. If/when Odom does become an unrestricted free agent, he’d be one of the more talented forwards on the market, but his earning potential has been dramatically reduced due to his issues both on and off the floor in Dallas. A Queens native, it has been reported that Odom might look to revive his career in his hometown. There is are undeniable red flags associated with Odom, but considering the lack of cap space the Knicks possess, rolling the dice on a player as potentially productive as Odom is an absolute no-brainer.
Making a shrewd splash in free agency becomes even more important considering the Knicks don’t have a first round draft pick in the upcoming June draft (NY sent their 2012 first-round selection to Houston in the Tracy McGrady trade on 2/18/10). The Knicks lone pick this year will be their second-round selection (#48 overall). Making matters worse, the Knicks have also traded away their second-round pick in 2013 (via the Ronny Turiaf trade on 12/10/11) and their 2014 first-round pick (via the ‘Melo trade on 2/22/11). Not much help on the horizon by way of the draft.
The Knicks have taken major steps forward in recent years. Can they build on that momentum and continue to progress and eventually become legitimate championship contenders? The decisions the organization makes this offseason could be crucial determinants in answering that question.
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