Wednesday, November 19, 2014
To start this off, the Knicks are not a good basketball team right now. It is Carmelo Anthony, a couple players who are at best fringe starters on good teams and a bunch of players who would be very good end of bench role players (Jason Smith, Samuel Dalembert, Quincy Acy, Pablo Prigioni) forced to extended minutes that they are not suited for. Take away Melo and they have one of the worst lineups in the league, on par with teams actively trying to lose games. However there is hope going forward for building a team around Carmelo that can compete for championships over the next couple years.
First, they actually have a collection of young talent. Tim Hardaway Jr. was the steal of the 2013 draft and if it were re-done today would be a top 5 pick (although in a historically weak draft). While he is still learning and needs to improve a lot of his game, especially on defense, he is an extremely talented offensive player, can flat out shoot the ball and is showing improvement as a playmaker. I definitely see him becoming an above average starting shooting guard with the ability to absolutely take over games – he is probably the closet thing to “untouchable” among their youth. Shane Larkin is definitely not a starting point guard, a role he has been thrust into because of injuries, but is definitely a quality player with a future in this league. He can be a great heat check guy off the bench who can be devastating in the passing lanes, causing turnovers and starting fast breaks. Iman Shumpert is back to playing the type of basketball we came to expect before his injury, a level of play that he never quite got back to last year, averaging 13, 5, and 5 while being their best on-ball defender. He is in a contract year, but if the Knicks can get him at a reasonable price, especially with the cap expected to go up, he could be another quality piece going forward, or used as trade bait at the deadline.
They also have a couple unknowns with their 2nd round picks this past draft in Cleanthony Early, who many analysts believed should have been a first round pick, and the athletic Thanasis Antetokounmpo, brother of the “Greek Freek.” While nowhere near as talented as his kin, he could develop into a solid defensive rotation player. It will be interesting to see how these players continue to develop, or if the Knicks try and package some in a trade to get somebody like Rondo. If Rondo makes it known he wants out of Boston, that could force their hand and allow him to be acquired relatively cheaply as his expiring contract would allow him to limit which teams he would allow a trade to by refusing to sign long-term with some organizations. And they also actually have their first round pick this year, and while their currently horrible record will improve once players start coming back from injuries, it will probably end up around the middle of first round in what is expected to be a pretty deep draft, where they can acquire another young, talented player on a cheap contract.
Another interesting thing to keep your eye on going forward is what they do with Amare Stoudmire. Fans have been actively counting down the time until his horrendous contract gets off the books and think it may be a foregone conclusion that this is his last year in NYC. Both are very fair thoughts, but Amare gets a bad rep because of his massive contract. The guy works extremely hard, does anything that is asked of him, is a great teammate, and in the limited minutes he can play shows while he is nowhere near the destructive force he once was, he is still a talented player. I think he does have a couple quality years left and I believe he loves New York and feels like he somewhat owes the team and the fans. I could see him taking less money to stay, somewhere in the range of 2 years for $5 million. His 12 points on 55% shooting and 6 rebounds in about 20 minutes a game would look great when he’s not making over $20 million a year. Where I see him fitting in if this team expects to contend is as a 6th man who can wreak havoc against second units.
However, none of this matters if significant moves are not made in the offseason to acquire real talent to surround Carmelo. With some huge contracts coming off the books, the Knicks will have serious cap room to aggressively pursue free agents. But there is limited star talent available this offseason. I am putting all my eggs in one basket and allowing my hopes to get high that Phil Jackson will be able to use his Zen powers to convince Marc Gasol to leave the greener pastures of Memphis for a chance to bring a championship to New York. Marc Gasol could single handily turn the Knicks into a real contender. The 2013 Defensive Player of the year defends the hoop and anchors the defense as well, if not better than Tyson Chandler in his first year in New York, when the Knicks achieved their most successful season of the (not that) new millennium. Unlike Chandler he can actually score from outside 5 feet and can contribute to the offense on plays other than the pick and roll. His talents include a deadly midrange game and he is possibly the best passing big man in the game (either he or Joakim Noah), both of which would be perfect for the Triangle offense. It will be difficult though. Marc Gasol went from being Pau’s fat, unknown brother to an All Star in Memphis, and the team has built a winning culture in Memphis including some deep runs into the playoffs. They are currently 10-1 and look like a serious contender in the loaded West. We can only hope that the team is not as good as they look in the earlier part of this season and that a first round playoff exit is on their horizon. Then we have to hope Phil Jackson can do what they gave him the huge contract for and convince Marc to leave the Grizzlies, turn down what will be many other suitors (including reports the Spurs are interested) and take a risk to join him, his 13 rings (11 as a coach and 2 as a player), and Carmelo for a chance to make history and bring a title back to New York.
Rajon Rondo will also be a free agent they are expected to pursue who would be a perfect fit, but gets a little more confusing and less of a priority with Jose Calderon on the roster at about $7 million a year for the next 3 years. Jose Calderon knows how to run a NBA offense and is an elite 3-point shooter but is just dreadful on defense. Rondo would be a huge upgrade, he is an elite defender and true point guard born to hook up his teammates and values winning over everything, the exact opposite of what Raymond Felton was. He has proven he can be the point guard on a championship team and would be far and away the best point guard Carmelo has every played with. Getting both these players is a pipe dream with a very small chance of actually happening, but if there is one person I have faith can facilitate it, it has to be Phil Jackson. A starting line up of Rondo-Hardaway-Shumpert-Carmelo-Gasol would be an elite team on both ends of the floor. But Marc Gasol must remain the top priority. Without him they do not become a championship contender. Rondo is a great player but he does not elevate them to that level by himself. He is a player that makes a good team great, but a foundation of Rondo-Carmelo and the young players would be a nice start that does not turn this team into championship contenders.
If Phil Jackson cannot convince Gasol and/or Rondo to join the team, that is where things get tricky and their options get much less appealing. They are committed to Carmelo for four seasons after this one at pretty much a max deal, which I agree with and truly believe he is an elite player who can win a championship provided a quality team, but this forces the team to get talent on the roster immediately. Their options would include taking a chance and giving Greg Monroe the max money he wants but has not really proven he is worth it. He’s a talented offensive big man, but he needs the ball in his hand on the block to be effective and is a liability on defense. Or they could offer Roy Hibbert max money to try and steal him from the Pacers. He is a great defender but has very limited offensive game, slow feet and a reputation among some (including myself) as mentally weak. Paul Millsap will be a free agent coming off what has been one of the best contracts at 2 years, $19 million dollars that he significantly outplayed. He is definitely a very good player, but is a 6 foot 8, soon-to-be 30-year-old power forward who will probably be looking for a significant pay raise and longer contract. They could try to sign Jimmy Butler away from the Bulls, a 6 foot 8, elite defender with a developing offensive game who has looked ready to make the leap this year during Derrick Rose’s absence. However he is a restricted free agent who just turned down 4 years 44 million from the Bulls and it would be a huge surprise if the Bulls did not match any offers to keep Butler on the team.
So the options really come down to Phil Jackson convincing Marc Gasol to take a chance in New York and the team becoming contenders, overpaying for some quality players who will improve their team but not make them true contenders and tie up their future cap space, or doing nothing and wasting another year of Carmelo’s window. Unless Phil Jackson does something completely different that nobody see’s coming, which definitely could happen and probably would be awesome.