In the tricky terrain that is today’s NBA, there are only two destinations worth travelling toward.
Smart, successful organizations are fully, wholly committed to one of two goals: Finishing first or finishing last. The teams that know they have a legitimate shot to capture the crown can, without regret, dedicate their resources to acquiring assets that pay immediate dividends, placing ultimate importance on short-term success. On the other hand, organizations that recognize they don’t yet have the pieces in place to win it all as currently constructed will think long-term and focus on the future.
If an organization hasn’t set up camp at either oasis (potential title contender or lottery loser) they find themselves sinking in the deadly quicksand that is the middle-ground of the NBA’s vast desert.
It’s become a cliché in basketball circles because it’s true: “The absolute worst position to be in the NBA is a team fighting for the eighth seed.” This means you aren’t good enough to win a championship; nor are you bad enough to land a top pick in the draft.
And that’s why it’s in the Knicks’ best interest to trade their two best players, Carmelo Anthony and Tyson Chandler, by next month’s trade deadline.
The Knicks’ record stands at an abysmal 15-26. Despite playing in the worst division in arguably one of the worst conferences in recent NBA history, the Knicks have somehow fallen 11 games under .500.
Because there are so many other bad teams in the conference, New York has a decent chance to qualify for the postseason. In fact, they even have a shot to win the Atlantic Division. However, anyone that has eyes and has watched this team play basketball this season is well aware the Knicks are simply not capable of beating the Indiana Pacers or the defending champion Miami HEAT in a postseason series.
Still, it is important to note that the fact that the Knicks have stunk this season is NOT a direct reflection on Carmelo Anthony. Anthony has played hard, and he’s one of the few Knicks that have competed on a nightly basis. You wouldn’t know it by looking at his team’s record, but Anthony has played extremely well this season. In fact, he is on pace to become just the second NBA player in the last 10 seasons to average at least 26 points, nine rebounds and three assists per game.
And if the Knicks’ goal is to sneak into the 2014 postseason and pretend they have a chance to win the title, then they need to hold onto Anthony and hope he puts the entire team on his back and at least keeps the Knicks competitive, so that they are playing meaningful games in April.
However, if the Knicks want to put themselves in the best position to win an NBA championship before the end of this decade, they have to sacrifice short-term success in order to do what’s best for the long-term prosperity of the franchise.
February 20th, 3 p.m. EST. That’s the date of the NBA’s trade deadline.
If Anthony is still a Knick on February 21st, the ball will no longer be in the Knicks’ court. Melo will hold all the cards at that point.
The next momentous decision will be made by Anthony. He is scheduled to earn $23.3 million during the 2014-15 season but has an early termination option in his contract, which means he can choose to squash the final year of that deal and become a free agent in the summer of 2014.
It is certainly safe to assume that Anthony will be advised by his agents to make the fiscally prudent decision to opt out and become a free agent, which would allow him to sign a new long-term contract with far more guaranteed money.
Most pundits have also assumed Anthony, considering his skill set and star power in the Big Apple (and the fact that this will be his final opportunity land major money), will seek a max contract from the Knicks.
So, assuming he’s still on the Knicks’ roster the day after the deadline, there are basically two realistic scenarios remaining.
After he opts out on and becomes a free agent on July 1, (a) the Knicks re-sign Melo for max money, or (b) he chooses to sign with another team (for less money and fewer guaranteed years).
If Anthony does decide to skip town via free agency, the Knicks would be left with nothing to show for a player they mortgaged their future to acquire just a few short years ago. (Reminder: If Anthony does choose to leave, the Knicks likely wouldn’t be able to facilitate a sign-and-trade, even if all three parties were amenable to it because the new CBA has such harsh restrictions related to all S&T deals).
But, amazingly, that might not be the worst-case scenario.
If the Knicks did end up re-signing Anthony to a maximum-level contract, it might, in reality, be more damaging to the long-term health of the franchise. And here’s why…
Here are the particulars of what a max contract for Anthony would look like:
In year one of his new deal, Anthony can earn 105 percent of his 2013-14 salary. So, the first year (2014-15) of his new contract would pay $22.457 million (105 percent of $21.39 million).
Because the Knicks own Anthony’s Bird rights, they can increase his salary by 7.5 percent of his first year’s salary, and 7.5 percent of $22.457 million is $1.684 million. If they give him the maximum allowable raise, his yearly salaries would be as follows:
2015-16: $24.141 million
2016-17: $25.825 million
2017-18: $27.509 million
2018-19: $29.193 million
Yes, you read that correctly. During the fifth and final season of a potential new max contract (after he had already celebrated his 34th birthday) Anthony would make over $29 million.
How effective and efficient will a 34-year-old Anthony be? How many starting small forward in the league would Anthony be able to even stay in front of in 2019? Well, he better be incredible, considering he’d be taking up nearly 50 percent of the Knicks’ salary cap that season.
Anthony, at 29 years of age, is firmly is his prime right now. Yet, even with Melo healthy and at the peak of his offensive powers, the Knicks still possess one of the league’s worst records. Again, the team’s ineptitude can not be pinned solely on Anthony, but their record is what it is. If the Knicks hand Anthony a max contract, his salary (and, accordingly, his percentage of the cap) will only increase, while his production and all-around efficacy decreases.
Is that a recipe for a future success? Based on the evidence at our disposal, is this an intelligent investment of $129 million?
And before we get to the back end of that deal, his cap hit for the 2015-16 season would be prohibitive to the Knicks making major improvements during the all-important summer of 2015. Building toward the ‘Summer of 2015’ would be the impetus behind moving on without Anthony.
Trading Carmelo, the Knicks’ best and most marketable player since Patrick Ewing, would obviously be difficult for Knicks management to sell to their fans. Empty seats inside Madison Square Garden and sagging television ratings would also be an understandable concern for Knicks ownership.
But the promise of a better, brighter future would be the selling point. In addition, it should be noted that the Knicks have never had an issue putting people in the arena. Even during the nadir of the nightmarish Isiah Thomas era, the Garden still played to over 95 percent capacity on most nights. The myth that New Yorkers won’t accept and embrace a rebuilding project is just that – a myth.
Knicks management has had July 2015 circled on their calendars for a long time now. New York will shed major salary from their books at that time. The 2014-15 season is the final year on the contracts of Amar’e Stoudemire, Tyson Chandler and Andrea Bargnani. New York will clear a whopping $49.6 million in salary in one fell swoop. As a result, the Knicks could potentially be a major player in the free-agent market that summer.
If Anthony is not taking up $24.1 million, New York could be looking upwards of $45 million in cap space, which would allow them to go on quite the shopping spree that summer. Of course, they won’t have to spend it all in one place (or on one player). Smart organizations understand the true value of cap space is that it enables teams to trade for high-priced players, as well as sign top free-agents outright.
Some have argued that retaining Anthony would improve the Knicks’ chances of signing other free agents. However, couldn’t it also be argued that free agents capable of seeing the big picture would prefer to sign with New York knowing the team does not have $129 million committed to a talented but one-dimensional player in his 30’s? Moreover, New York sports franchises, when they have the money under the cap to spend, have never had a hard time convincing top-tier talent to come live and play in NYC.
Make no mistake, there is an undeniable and obvious downside to trading Anthony. The Knicks would tumble further down the standing this season, made all that much tougher knowing the team has already traded away their 2014 draft pick. New York would then also have to endure another depressing, losing season in 2014-15, as the Knicks would still be over the cap this upcoming summer and would therefore be unable to sign a big-name free agent.
Yet, there would be one ancillary benefit to a terrible 2014-15 campaign, as the Knicks actually own their 2015 draft pick. So, if the Knicks posted a terrible record next season, they would be in line to reap the reward of a lottery pick. Thus, New York would head into the summer of 2015 with a high selection in the draft and loads of cap space to lavish on a potentially solid free agent crop (and Basketball Insiders recently wrote about why the 2015 draft may actually be better than 2014).
Yes, it’s certainly a gamble. But it would also be inherently risky to hope the Knicks can realistically compete for an NBA title with Anthony making upwards of $26 million annually.
There is a possibility that Anthony would be willing to re-sign with Knicks in July for less than the maximum, but most would agree that is unlikely. Most superstars, when they have to the opportunity to cash in, tend to take advantage of that opportunity. We’ve just recently seen Kobe Bryant, at age 35, sign a two-year extension worth $48.5 million. So, unless Anthony all-but guarantees Knicks owner Jim Dolan that he will re-sign with New York next summer and do so at significantly less than the max, it behooves the Knicks to start working the phones immediately.
Of course the Knicks will get far less than equal value back in any deal they make. Opposing GM’s will be extremely hesitant to give up too much for Anthony, knowing that he could be just a short-term rental. Still, as outlined above, getting back even 30 cents on the dollar for Melo in February beats the alternatives of keeping him past the deadline. Dolan and Knicks GM Steve Mills could seek some combination of future draft picks and/or young players locked into affordable contracts.
In addition, because the Knicks will be over the cap next year anyway, they could also take back a bad contract as long as it had just one more year left on the deal. Again, the new focus and goal would be maximizing cap space for 2015. For instance, if a contending team was desperate to clear money off their books this summer, they might be willing to pay a premium to trade away a bench player with big money due in 2014-15 in exchange for Anthony and his expiring contract. Of course, the Knicks would also require quality draft picks back in such a deal.
And if the Knicks did decide to preemptively part ways with Anthony, it would make sense to then also explore other trade options involving other older, desirable players. For instance, if New York put Tyson Chandler on the block, he’d drawn plenty of interest from around the league. The former Defensive Player of the Year is a proven winner, with a championship ring to prove it. He would immediately improve the defensive integrity of any team he joined, and could be a difference-maker that puts a contender over the top this season or next.
If the Knicks got serious offers for Anthony or Chandler, they could then attempt to further improve their 2015 cap situation by crow-barring either Raymond Felton or J.R. Smith in a potential deal. As it stands today, there are only four players that will likely be on the Knicks books past the 2014-15 season: Pablo Prigioni ($1.7 million), Tim Hardaway Jr. ($1.3 million), Raymond Felton ($4.5 million player option) and J.R. Smith ($6.4 million player option). There is also a $3.8 million qualifying offer for Iman Shumpert the Knicks will have to make a decision on. As we now know, the Knicks wouldn’t be opposed to including Shumpert in a trade if the return was right.
With creating the most cap space in 2015 as the stated objective, maybe the Knicks make their trading partner also take on Felton or Smith a perquisite in any deal for Melo?
With the team drastically underperforming this season, and cap-strapped through next year, there are no easy answers or quick-fixes for the Knicks. Dolan and Mills have the make the best of a difficult situation.
At some point, the Knicks organization needs to stop attempting to re-arrange deck chairs on the Titanic. Allow this vessel to sink, and then build a completely new ship with more affordable parts.
The best possible solution may be taking a couple steps backwards today, which will allow them to take a few major steps forward in the future.
ICYMI: Atlantic Division
To kick off our new “ICYMI” series, Basketball Insiders’ Ariel Pacheco breaks down what you might have missed from the Atlantic Division this season.
Here at Basketball Insiders, we’re introducing a new series called “ICYMI” where we’ll fill you in on some of the NBA’s biggest storylines that you may have missed, division by division. Today, we’ll focus on the Atlantic Division.
So far, the Atlantic has been arguably the most competitive division in the league. If the playoffs started today, all five teams in the division would at least make the play-in game. But what’s gotten those teams to that point? Who or what might have flown under the radar? Let’s take a look.
Chris Boucher: Sixth Man Of The Year Candidate
After a cold start to the season, the Toronto Raptors have started to figure it out, winning 5 of their last 7 games. And a huge part of that success has been due to the rise of Chris Boucher.
In just 23.7 minutes per game, he is averaging 14.3 points, 6.6 rebounds to go along with 2.2 blocks per game. He’s also shown touch from beyond the arc, shooting 45.3% from three-point range on almost four attempts a game. On the year, Boucher also has 4 double-doubles.
Boucher has provided a much-needed spark for the Raptors. In fact, while Nick Nurse has been reluctant to do so, many have been clamoring for Boucher to start. Still, as a starter or off the bench, Boucher has done more than enough to mask the loss of both Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol. And doing so has placed him squarely in the middle of the Sixth Man of the Year conversation.
Is Immanuel Quickley the Knicks Point Guard Of The Future and Present?
The Knicks entered the season with a conundrum at the point guard position. Former Lottery picks Dennis Smith Jr. and Frank Ntilikina have both disappointed while Elfrid Payton, a proven but flawed NBA rotation player, has only exacerbated the team’s issues, especially their need for spacing.
Enter Immanuel Quickley, a rookie out of Kentucky that has not only shown the ability to shoot, but also defend and facilitate at a high level and has developed a floater game that has become his signature.
There’s no question that Quickley is currently the best point guard on the Knicks’ roster. While his 11 points and 2.6 assists per game might undersell his play, lineups with RJ Barrett, Julius Randle and Mitchell Robinson that feature Quickley have outscored opponents by 20 points, albeit in just 30 total minutes. That same lineup with Payton in Quickley’s place have been outscored by 6 points in 371 minutes. Quickley is simply a better fit.
While the Knicks point guard situation in the last decade has been lousy, the Knicks may not have only found their point guard of the future, but of the present as well.
Doc Rivers, the Tobias Harris Whisperer
After a disappointing year, Tobias Harris is in the midst of a bounce-back season. This should come as no surprise, however, with Doc Rivers now at the helm. Harris played some of the best basketball of his career as a member of the Los Angeles Clippers with Rivers as his head coach. Now, reunited in Philadelphia, Harris’ play has surged once again.
Harris has been an uber-efficient scoring option for the first place 76ers, averaging 19.8 points, 6.7 rebounds and 2.8 assists per game on a 61.5 true shooting percentage. Rivers, meanwhile, has done an excellent job of putting Harris in the best position to succeed. With Brett Brown, Harris was used more as a floor-spacer and spot-up shooter, something that Harris is certainly capable of — he’s shot 45.8 percent from three-point range this season — but doesn’t exactly suit his game. But, under Rivers, Harris has attacked the basket and has been far more decisive with the ball in his hands. It also helps when Harris is shooting a scorching-hot 45.8 percent from three-point range.
Where other coaches have faltered, Rivers has seemingly unlocked Harris’ ultimate ability and, with the type of player he has shown himself to be, Harris might just be enough to push Philadelphia to a title. He’s certainly got them in the conversation.
Jeff Green’s Role in Brooklyn
The Brooklyn Nets’ trade for James Harden hurt their defense and their depth significantly. They’re betting on sheer star power and their new powerhouse offense to get them far in the playoffs.
They will need role-players to step up and knock down shots, however. Jeff Green has done just that.
Shooting 48.2 percent from three, Green has been playing a bunch of his minutes at center. And, with how the roster is currently constructed, the team may rely on him to play that spot throughout the season. Green, of course, is no stranger to the situation, having played the very same role with the Houston Rockets last season.
Since the Harden trade, he’s averaging 33 minutes per game. Green has also scored in double figures off the bench in 7 straight games. He’ll continue to play a major role for the Nets as the season goes and, if he can continue to perform at this level, Brooklyn will have someone in the rotation beyond the big-three that they can trust.
Be sure to check back throughout the week as we break down what you may have missed from the other divisions.
NBA Daily: Khris Middleton Should Be The Bucks’ Closer
Bobby Krivitsky breaks down Khirs Middleton’s season and explains how the Milwaukee Bucks second star has earned more opportunities in crunch time.
For the Milwaukee Bucks, being one of the NBA’s best regular-season teams doesn’t mean much. In each of the last two seasons, the players and their fans have enjoyed this movie’s rising action but, as winning the title is the ultimate goal, left the theatre disappointed.
In order to get that satisfying conclusion, Milwaukee must make some changes. And, to start the 2020-21 season, they’ve tried to do just that. As expected, Mike Budenholzer is more flexible in his approach this season than in year’s past. They’ve reshaped their five-out offense, which now features someone, often Giannis Antetokounmpo, occupying the dunker spot. Those are the two areas just outside the paint along the baseline, where a player can catch the ball, take one or two steps, and dunk.
The Bucks are also pursuing their missed shots far more aggressively than they used to; two seasons ago, Budenholzer’s first at the helm, Milwaukee ranked 26th in offensive rebounding percentage, last year, they ranked 28th. But, through the first 16 games of this season, they’re snatching up 29.2 percent of their misses, good for the sixth-highest percentage league-wide.
Another meaningful difference, arguably the most meaningful, is how the team has allowed Khris Middleton to initiate the offense far more frequently at the end of games. In the final three minutes of games within five points, Middleton’s usage rate has spiked from 30.1 percent in 2019-20 to 40 percent this season.
Once again, Middleton has put together a fantastic season that’s receiving little fanfare. After he averaged a career-high 20.9 points per game last season, he’s improved to 21.8 points through the Bucks’ first 16 games. Middleton is also taking 5.9 three-point attempts per game (knocking them down at a 42.6 percent clip, the second-best mark of his career) and has increased the amount of two-point field goals he’s attempting to 9.8 per contest, making 58 percent of them.
That combination has produced an effective field goal percentage of 60.2 percent. Additionally, Middleton has shot 92 percent from the foul line on an average of 3.1 free-throw attempts per game, giving him a true-shooting percentage of 63.7 percent. Those shooting percentages mean Middleton has a legitimate chance to join the 50-40-90 club; only eight NBA players have accomplished that feat. Middleton’s also gone from averaging 4.3 assists per game the last two years to dishing out 5.8 dimes this season and has grabbed 6.3 rebounds per game.
Add it all up and you have a two-time All-Star that ranks fourth in the NBA in offensive win shares, fifth in total win shares and has delivered a compelling opening statement as to why he should make an All-NBA team for the first time in his career.
While it may not seem so noteworthy that one of the best wings in the NBA is off to a hot start, the way Middleton has responded to shouldering more responsibility in crunch time should serve as an ingredient to the elixir that can cure the postseason issues that have plagued them in recent seasons. Out of every player that has made more than one appearance in crunch time, which is defined as the last five minutes of the fourth quarter or overtime of a game within five points, the sharpshooting Middleton is eighth in points per game. He’s also yet to turn the ball over in that span.
As the pressure mounts and the clock counts down, Middleton’s approach doesn’t change from how he’s played the game’s previous 43 minutes. Whether he’s attacking off a screen from Antetokounmpo or Brook Lopez, shooting off the catch, or using a jab step to create the necessary space for him to rise and fire, Middleton knocks down his shots with the same ruthless efficiency.
That said, he could stand to be a bit more assertive in the game’s waning moments. Yes, his usage rate has jumped in the fourth quarter, but there have been instances where Middleton has taken a backseat; in Milwaukee’s recent 112-109 win over the Dallas Mavericks, Middleton managed just two shots in the entire fourth quarter, back-to-back threes that turned a two-point deficit into a four-point lead the Bucks never relinquished.
Of course, there’s a balancing act that Budenholzer must work out between Antetokounmpo, Middleton and Jrue Holiday. Late in the game, Budenholzer can’t simply take the ball away from Antetokounmpo, the reigning MVP, and Holiday, a fantastic player in his own right, needs opportunities to have an impact.
But Middleton has done more than enough to show he’s deserving of even more opportunities than what he’s taken for himself this season. And, if the Bucks want to win a title in the near future, it may be in their best interest if Middleton’s the player primarily in charge of initiating their late-game offense.
NBA Daily: Gordon Hayward Realizing His Potential in Charlotte
No one envisioned Gordon Hayward joining the Charlotte Hornets in free agency. Not many people believed he could return to being an All-Star caliber player. Chad Smith puts the spotlight on Hayward’s resurgent season in Buzz City.
Many eyebrows were raised when Gordon Hayward decided to join the Charlotte Hornets this offseason. Most figured a return home to play for the Indiana Pacers was where the next chapter of his career would take place. But, when a potential deal with Indiana fell through, the Hornets became a reality. Maybe it was the lure of playing for Michael Jordan or just the opportunity for a fresh start where he could realize his full potential.
Either way, Hayward has proved himself to be the guy once again.
Shortly after Thanksgiving, Hayward signed a four-year deal with Charlotte for $120 million. At the time, it seemed like a heavy price to pay for a player in his 30’s that has endured so many injuries so recently in his career. Hornets fans went through this in 2019 with Terry Rozier’s sign-and-trade deal from the Boston Celtics for $56.7 million. The move for Charlotte almost felt desperate, like some sort of gamble they were willing to take.
But this signing has been different. Even before their deal, Hayward underwent a minor surgical procedure on his left foot to alleviate some discomfort he dealt with last year; the team was aware and still wanted to move forward with the deal, which speaks volumes as to how they felt about him as a player and how he would recover.
While Rozier was younger and seemed to have a high ceiling, Hayward is an established wing that has been an All-Star and the face of a franchise before. And, as we enter the quarter-mark of the 2020-21 season, it appears as though the team’s gamble has paid off quite nicely. Hayward is looked resurgent, averaging career-high numbers across the board after his injury-plagued stint in Boston.
With the Celtics, Hayward averaged 13.9 points per game, shot 36 percent from behind the arc, and got to the free throw line just 2.7 times per game. So far this season he is averaging more than 24 points per game, which is a career-best. His free throw attempts have nearly doubled and he is knocking down 43 percent of his three-pointers.
Hayward’s minutes have also increased significantly this year. And, in addition to his high percentage shooting, his 21.07 Player Efficiency Rating (PER) is a career-best.
The roster crunch at certain positions was a concern heading into the season, but head coach James Borrego has built a solid rotation that has allowed his team to maximize their potential. The Hornets have the ability to play big or go with a smaller lineup should the need arise. In fact, one of the major benefits of having Hayward is the ability to play him at multiple positions; having played alongside Jaylen Brown and Jason Tatum in Boston, Hayward is well versed in switching and matching up against both bigger and smaller opponents.
Charlotte’s defense has also been much better this year with Hayward on the floor. They rank in the top ten in terms of opponents scoring and top five in steals. Borrego has used various full-court press coverages, as well as an unusual zone defense in the half-court that eventually turns back into a man-to-man scheme.
Using different lineups, the Hornets have been able to utilize guys like PJ Washington and Miles Bridges who, in turn, have ignited their offense. If LaMelo Ball is not in the game, Charlotte can still play their two smaller guards, Rozier and Devonte’ Graham, with Hayward often serving as the primary ball-handler. With him running the offense, it allows those two to do what they do best: shoot the ball.
As a team, the Hornets aren’t exactly elite offensively. They are strong in certain areas, but they also rank near the bottom of the league in scoring, field goals made, field goal percentage and free throw percentage. In order to win close games, there are times where they need Hayward to just take over — and he’s proven on multiple occasions that he is still more than capable of doing just that. Hayward has actually been on quite a roll lately, scoring the ball at an incredible clip. Two weeks ago he put up 34 points in a blowout of the New York Knicks. Later, he had another 34-point performance against the Chicago Bulls. He also scored 39 points, including the game-winning layup, against the Orlando Magic. His season-high came earlier in the month where he posted 44 points in a victory against the Atlanta Hawks.
The individual scoring by Hayward has been impressive, but it hasn’t hampered their offensive rhythm at all. In fact, the Hornets currently average 28.3 assists per game, which is the best in the league.
It hasn’t all been sunshine and rainbows in Buzz City. The success on the court hasn’t necessarily translated to winning. After 17 games, their 7-10 record has them sitting in 12th place in the Eastern Conference standings. And, looking at their upcoming schedule, there could be some more bumps in the road.
Charlotte’s next two games are against the aforementioned Pacers. Later, the Hornets will host the Milwaukee Bucks and then head south to face the Miami HEAT, who should have their key pieces back on the floor. After that, they will have to face the Philadelphia 76ers, who own the best record in the conference. Following that game is a matchup with the red-hot Utah Jazz, who have won nine games in a row. Withstanding that rough stretch will be pivotal for this team, as they have now lost four of their last five games. These Hornets are a young group, but Hayward’s experience and the return of fellow Indiana-native Cody Zeller should allow them to win some of those games. Their season just might depend on it.
The Hornets are a fun team to watch. The jaw-dropping passes from Ball and the ridiculous highlight dunks by Bridges are must-see television, but their leader is proving he is worth every penny. Sure, Hayward has the massive contract, but he also has earned the opportunity to be a franchise player once again.
He isn’t the same All-Star player that he was in Utah. This version of Hayward is even better.