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End of an Era? Time for NY to Move Carmelo

With the Knicks drastically underperforming, and cap-strapped through next year, it’s time to trade Carmelo Anthony and others.

Tommy Beer

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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.

Tommy Beer is a Senior NBA Analyst and the Fantasy Sports Editor of Basketball Insiders, having covered the NBA for the last nine seasons.

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NBA Daily: Can the Hawks Keep Up Their Strong Play?

Drew Maresca analyzes the Atlanta Hawks strong play and looks ahead at how they’ll fare in the final 16 games of the season.

Drew Maresca

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This season’s condensed schedule has resulted in less time to assess teams and the transactions they made at the trade deadline or in the buyout market. So it’s understandable if you wrote off the Atlanta Hawks as the bust of 2020-21 – but make no mistake about it, the Hawks are surging.

As alluded to above, Atlanta began the year slowly. They started off 11-16. Trae Young played relatively well through that stretch, averaging 26.6 points, 9.3 assists per game and shooting 37.1% on three-point attempts – but the results just weren’t there.

And while you can debate if Young was a catalyst for or a victim of his team’s poor start, he bore the brunt of it. After he was named an All-Star in the 2019-20 season, he was left off the team this season, as the narrative around him has shifted to that of someone hunting for fouls who could be hurting the game more than he’s helping it.

Surprisingly, Atlanta decided to keep its core group together, opting to hang onto John Collins despite his butting heads on offensive philosophy with coach Lloyd Pierce and Young, separately. According to The Athletic’s  Chris Kirschner and Sam Amick, Collins voiced displeasure in a January film session over the timing of certain shot attempts and a needed to get settled into offensive sets more quickly.

Rather than succumb to the trade rumors, the Hawks decided that Pierce was at fault and or lost the locker room. Per The Athletic’s Chris Kirschner, Sam Amick and David Aldridge, Young, Cam Reddish and other Hawks were reportedly on board with a potential change and so a move was made.

At the time it appeared shortsighted. But in hindsight, it was exactly what the Hawks needed.

While there are still questions to be answered around Collins and his long-term fit in Atlanta, especially since he’ll become a restricted free agent this Summer and little progress was made in negotiations last offseason, the Hawks are 16-6 under interim head coach Nate McMillian.

In fairness to Pierce, the Hawks are just beginning to get healthy. Danilo Gallinari and 2020 lottery pick Onyeka Okongwu recently returned from injuries, with the former playing a key role, averaging 13.4 points on 40.7% shooting from deep; Gallinari is back on the mend, though, with foot soreness.

But the Hawks were also without guard Bogdan Bogdanovic from mid-January until early March. And they are still without Reddish and De’Andre Hunter, both of whom are instrumental to the Hawks success.

Still, the Hawks have pushed through. Lou Williams, who was added via trade for Rajon Rondo at the deadline, should definitely help. Williams is a walking bucket and he’s matched his Clippers output through nine games with Atlanta (12 points, 3.5 assists and 2.0 rebounds per game.)

A significant result of their strong play is that Atlanta is currently tied for fourth in the Eastern Conference, meaning that the Hawks could realistically secure home-court for the first-round of the playoffs. But before the Hawks do so, there are some questions that need to be answered.

First up, how do the Hawks manage their rotation when they haven’t even seen lots of combinations of their best players on the floor together?

When healthy, the Hawks are incredibly deep. There are the presumed starters: Young, Bogdanovic, Kevin Huerter, Gallinari and Capela. And there’s the bench: Collins, Gallinari, Reddish, Hunter, Williams, Solomon Hill and Okongwu.

Remember, McMillian has only been the coach since March 2, Williams was just added in late March and Hunter hasn’t played since late January.

Coach McMillian has been around long enough to know that 12-man rotations simply don’t work in the playoffs. Unfortunately for the Hawks, they haven’t had nearly enough time to land on a starting lineup, let alone which players work best together.

Atlanta has just 16 games remaining to figure it out. And they can’t waste a single game.

And that brings us to a second challenge: while it is nearly impossible for the Hawks to overtake the 3rd-place Milwaukee Bucks, Atlanta is far from guaranteed the fourth seed. As previously mentioned they are tied with the Celtics, meaning they could just as easily find themselves in the fifth spot. And while the Hawks have the tenth-easiest remaining schedule, according to Tankathon.com, the Celtics possess the eleventh-easiest.  And the Celtics are surging, too, having won seven of their last 10 contests.

But it’s not just Boston. the New York Knicks, Miami HEAT and Charlotte Hornets are all within striking distance, too. While Charlotte and New York have their own challenges ahead that make them less-than-likely to pass Atlanta, Miami’s fate is closely aligned with that of Victor Oladipo and his recently reinjured knee. If Oladipo returns quickly with little to no effects, the HEAT could surpass be problematic for the Hawks and a number of other Eastern Conference opponents.

And if you’re really cynical, you can focus on who Atlanta has beaten in its time under McMillan. Over the course of the 22 games in which McMillian has been interim head coach, 11 of the team’s 16 wins have come against sub-.500 opponents – and another three were against teams that are exactly .500.

Looked at differently, the McMillian-led Hawks have defeated just two winning teams, one of which was against the Anthony Davis-less Lakers in a contest in which LeBron James exited after just 11 minutes due to injury.

So kudos to Atlanta for turning around a season that easily could have went sideways. But there is much left for the Hawks, an untested team who’s beaten mostly teams that they should, to prove.

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NBA

NBA PM: Defensive Player of the Year Watch

It’s clear at this point in the season that Rudy Gobert should be the Defensive Player of the Year. But is there any way another player could unseat him for the award?

Dylan Thayer

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The seventh edition of The Defensive Player of the Year Watch for Basketball Insiders is here! In this week’s ranking, there’s not much change beyond the addition of the formerly-injured Philadelphia 76ers star, Joel Embiid. It’s impossible to leave him off of this list and it should come as no surprise if he ends the year as both a contender for this award as MVP. Sure, he’d have to outplay Rudy Gobert, but he’s only a streak of lockdown games away.

As the last full month of games for the NBA season gets underway, it’s time to see who else’s elite defensive play has kept them in the running.

1. Rudy Gobert (Previous: 1)

The Utah Jazz center has been the clear frontrunner for a third career Defensive Player of the Year award, as well as his third in the last four seasons. There is no denying the fact that the Stifle Tower has been the focal point of the defense throughout their unprecedented run with the best record in the NBA. When Gobert is on the floor, it’s going to be hard for an opposing player to get an uncontested shot around the rim, and his presence is a factor night-in and night-out.

Coming off a strong month of March where he averaged 3.5 blocks per game, the Frenchman has tailed off a bit, averaging only 1.6 blocks per game midway through April. While this recent downward trend isn’t lessening his case, Gobert still holds the No. 2 spot with 2.8 blocks per game.

Diving deeper into the numbers is where Gobert really shines, however. His defensive rating is 102.3 this season, second to only Jazz teammate Mike Conley, per NBA Advanced Stats. He also finds himself third in defensive win shares with 0.166. It’s clear that Gobert is the leading candidate for another DPotY, even the likely winner barring any significant setbacks to his season.

Even the center is our clear frontrunner, Ben Simmons may say otherwise.

2. Joel Embiid (Previous: N/A)

Returning from a left knee bone bruise, the 7-foot center has gotten right back to the elite level few others can match. In a matchup against the Oklahoma City Thunder, Embiid showed the NBA that he is back and out for blood. Over 27 minutes, Embiid totaled 27 points, 10 rebounds, 4 assists and 4 blocks. The star took over in a short amount of time as the 76ers trounced the Thunder 117-93 – but his defensive impact should not be taken for granted.

Stacking up against the rest of the league, Embiid ranks in the top five in three major defensive categories: defensive win shares, defensive rating and blocks per game. Embiid is just behind Julius Randle in the defensive win shares statistic with 0.149, good enough for fifth in the NBA, per NBA Advanced Stats. In defensive rating, Embiid is also fifth with a rating of 104.6, just .1 off Marc Gasol. 

If Embiid can raise these numbers more in line with Gobert, he may be able to steal the award. Think about it. Giannis Antetokoumpo was able to win the award after an unbelievable season in which he won the MVP – why can’t Embiid do it too?

3. Myles Turner (Previous: 2)

If not for the elite defensive play from Gobert and Embiid, Turner would be the de facto leader in the race. After being a rumored name on the trade market this past offseason, the decision to keep Turner in the fold has paid off for the Indiana Pacers. The league leader in blocks has managed to put together a great season on defense but the Pacers, and specifically Turner himself, have been hurt by injuries.

Where things stand right now, Turner has a sizeable lead in blocks per game with 3.5, 0.7 more than Rudy Gobert. It’s looking more and more likely by the day that Turner will once again be the leader in blocks in the NBA, a feat he also achieved in 2018-19.

While this is an outstanding feat for the young center, it won’t be enough to get him this coveted award – there’s always next season though.

4. Mike Conley (Previous: 3)

The Jazz floor general has made his impact felt this season on both ends of the floor following a down season. Many had written off Conley and bashed the Jazz for the trade as he just didn’t look like the same player, but he has completely turned that around. Needless to say, without Conley, it’s hard to imagine the Jazz having the success they have had this season. Together, Conley and Gobert have been a nightmare for opposing offenses as they constantly apply pressure to the ball. 

But the advanced statistics are what truly put Conley’s season in perspective. In the defensive rating category, Conley has been the league leader for some time now. While it has fluctuated throughout the season, he has still managed to keep an incredible 100.9 defensive rating, per NBA Advanced Stats. He also ranks second in DWS with 0.171, just .02 off the league leader, LeBron James. Conley has also been very efficient in stealing the ball as he is tied for seventh with 1.3 steals per game. 

If a guard were deserving enough for this award it would be Conley, but due to the play of the guys ahead of him, it doesn’t look like he will have the strength to win it. 

5. Giannis Antetokounmpo (Previous: 4)

The Greek Freak has a had very underrated season on defense, if not overall. He hasn’t been the topic of the MVP conversation as he was the past two seasons, but his defensive presence in the paint is undeniable. 

Antetokounmpo has averaged a stellar 1.1 steals and 1.3 blocks per game, all thanks to those incredible athletic abilities and length. He also ranks seventh in defensive win shares with a DWS of 0.139, per NBA Advanced Stats. His defensive rating of 106.6 also ranks in the top 15. 

While the Bucks have looked like a contender out of the Eastern Conference this season – their franchise cornerstone won’t be named the winner of any awards this year.

Honorable Mention: Jimmy Butler (Previous: 5)

The leader of the Miami HEAT is putting together another elite defensive season. Currently, he is the league leader in steals per game with 2.1, a lead he has held steady for weeks now. Butler ranks seventh in defensive rating with a mark of 105.4, per NBA Advanced Stats. He also ranks sixth with a DWS of 0.148. But if the HEAT surge through the last stretch of the season, Butler could earn more consideration for this prestigious award.

As the last full month of the regular season takes off, it has been clear that the Utah Jazz have the frontrunner for the DPotY award – plus another major runner-up contender to boot.

Will anyone else be able to top Gobert’s defensive output this season? It doesn’t seem likely, but anything is possible in this crazy, ever-changing landscape.

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NBA Daily: Is Mitchell Robinson’s Injury a Blessing in Disguise?

Drew Maresca explores what Mitchell Robinson’s injury means to the New York Knicks — this season and beyond.

Drew Maresca

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The New York Knicks are right in the middle of a playoff push. They are currently in the eighth spot in the Eastern Conference and they appear to be in good shape to at least qualify for the play-in tournament, 6.5 games ahead of the 11th seeded Toronto Raptors.

The Knicks have remained in the playoff picture despite starting center, Mitchell Robinson, missing 23 of the team’s 55 games.

Most recently, Robinson exited a March 27 contest against the Milwaukee Bucks in the first quarter with a broken foot. Including the March 27 game against Milwaukee, New York has won five of their last 10 games without Robinson.

As recently as last season, Robinson was viewed as the team’s answer at center – and, along with RJ Barrett, the team’s only long-term building blocks. This take has aged badly given the progress made by Julius Randle and the success had by rookie Immanuel Quickley (and to a lesser degree, Obi Toppin.)

But in celebrating the team’s present, it’s fair to question their future – does New York’s success without Robinson mean he’s expendable?

The 2020-21 season has been challenging for Robinson, who already missed 15 games earlier this year with a broken right hand. Somewhat miraculously, the Knicks have continued their strong play without Robinson In total, New York is 13-11 without Robinson and just 15-16 with him.

The timing of the injury is apropos.

The Knicks and Robinson were expected to engage in contract discussions this offseason. They still have some time to figure out a path forward, but the injury makes an otherwise straightforward contract negotiation trickier. The Knicks possess a team option for Robinson in 2021-22 for $1.8 million, which is significantly below market value for a player of Robinson’s stature.

Robinson is averaging 8.3 points, 8.1 rebounds and (a career-low) 1.5 blocks per game. He’s also averaging a career-high 27.5 minutes per game, due — in part — to his ability to avoid fouls. Robinson averaged 3.2 fouls per game last season, fouling out of seven games. He’s down to 2.8 personal fouls per game this year and hasn’t fouled out of a single contest.

A long-term agreement appeared likely between the Knicks and Robinson prior to his (presumably) season-ending foot injury. Similarly skilled, albeit more polished, players have signed significant deals in the recent past. Clint Capella signed a 5 year/$90 million deal in 2018, which is higher than what most expected Robinson to fetch — but it probably would have been referenced in negotiations.

Following the injury, a smaller deal is likely — if at all. The Knicks will probably still pick up Robinson’s option, but they could either trade him or let him play out next season without an extension. And while the Knicks must decide if they’d like to prioritize Robinson, Robinson must decide how much of a discount, if any, he’s willing to accept from New York (or anyone.) Robinson just signed with his sixth NBA agent (Thad Foucher of the Wasserman Group) and he’s expected to chase some of the money he missed out on by skipping the 2018 NBA Draft Combine and falling into the second round.

But Robinson shouldn’t push too hard in negotiations as the Knicks can just as easily turn to someone on their current roster as his replacement — and it would cost them far less in guaranteed money.

Enter Nerlens Noel. Noel has been a pleasant surprise for president Leon Rose and Knicks’ fans alike. He’s averaging 5 points, 6.3 rebounds and 2.1 blocks per game on the season; but he’s come off the bench for much of it, receiving just 23.1 minutes per game.

But even in limited time, Noel has had a major impact on the team’s defensive. He’s first in the NBA in defensive plus-minus (3.3), second in the percentage of the team’s blocked two-point field goal attempts (8.9%) and third in defensive win share (2.7).

And he’s been even better in Robinson’s absence. In his last 10 games, Noel is averaging 5.4 points, 7.4 rebounds and 2.7 blocks in 26.1 minutes per game.

Noel signed in New York for just one year/$5 million this past offseason. While that is cheap relative to other starting-caliber centers, he’s not doing anything he hasn’t done in the past. Noel is averaging fewer points, assists and steals per game while securing more blocks and essentially the same number of rebounds. So, if teams knew what Noel could do entering 2020-21, why would they pay him more next season for the same output? Unfortunately, free agency is a fickle beast and there’s no rhyme or reason as to why teams weren’t interested in like Noel last year — but the Knicks will likely have the upper hand in negotiations.

Ultimately, the Knicks’ desire to keep Noel shouldn’t influence their preference to re-sign Robinson. Remember, Robinson set the single-season record for field goal percentage last season (74.2%) and he averages greater than two blockers per game over his career. He’s an elite lob target, and he closes out on shooters better than just about anyone in the league.

Contract negotiations are a zero-sum game in which one party wins at the expense of the other. Robinson and the Knicks should enter into negotiations delicately. Robinson probably feels owed given his cumulative salary relative to his past performance, and the Knicks were probably hoping for a more concrete body of work, leading to more certainty around an offer.

The reality is that Robinson has struggled with injuries — this year and in previous seasons — and his game hasn’t developed significantly since his rookie season. He is also a very unique talent who should get even better with more time under coach Thibodeau.

So for the best possible outcome, all parties must concede.

The Knicks are best with both Robinson and Noel. As much as Robinson’s injury will hinder how far New York can go this season, it can be key in their future. If Robinson and Noel are amenable to the idea of returning at a slight discount, it can ensure their defensive excellence continues — and if it’s at the right number(s), it should allow for considerable financial flexibility to continue maneuvering.

And the Knicks haven’t been savvy maneuverers in a long time.

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