The New York Knicks are in trouble.
Following a disappointing 32-50 season in 2015-2016, the Knicks entered free agency with a plan to put talented, capable players around Carmelo Anthony and Kristaps Porzingis. The Knicks then signed Joakim Noah and Courtney Lee, and traded for Derrick Rose. Their new point guard made waves with a single quote:
“I mean, with these teams right now, they’re saying us and Golden State are the super teams.”
Just a few months later, the franchise — headed by president Phil Jackson— may have buyer’s remorse. Today, the Knicks are just 27-41 and falling out of playoff contention with every passing day — so where have they gone wrong?
The Knicks are in the unenviable position of a franchise that desperately needs a complete rebuild, but some major obstacles lie in their way. Until the Knicks can hit the reset button, they may toil away in the NBA’s version of purgatory: not good enough to win, but not bad enough to bottom out.
If the Knicks want to get back to their competitive, hard-nosed days, here are some simple steps to follow this spring and summer.
Embrace The Tank, Draft Smart
First things first: The Knicks, who have more or less given up, must finish the season by losing as many of their remaining games as possible. This means handing over the reins to younger players like Chasson Randle, Justin Holiday and Willy Hernangomez, a notion already helped along by the Knicks waiving Brandon Jennings last month. Currently, the Knicks only hold a 6 percent chance to jump into the top three in June’s draft, but with some well-positioned tanking, they could make up ground quickly.
Even if they still end up around No. 7, there are plenty of talented guards the Knicks can take a look at. With Rose’s contract set to expire in the offseason, the Knicks will surely select NC State’s Dennis Smith Jr., Kentucky’s De’Aaron Fox or the French international Frank Ntilikina. Now that Porzingis has landed in the trainer’s room with a thigh contusion, the Knicks have a perfect opportunity to pump the breaks and ease into tanking bliss.
While the Knicks will have to deal with no-trade clauses, bloated contracts and an ill-fitting system over the summer, the one thing they can control is how many games they’ll lose now. The impatient Knicks supporters may be vocal, but few will remember a meaningless April win if that’s the difference between a role player and a franchise cornerstone.
Now, about one of their current cornerstones…
Revisit The Carmelo Anthony Problem
Carmelo Anthony has been the Knicks’ franchise player since they traded a bounty for him in 2011 and, yet, the results have been largely underwhelming. The Knicks last made the playoffs in 2013 and since they added Anthony, they’ve only escaped the first round on one occasion. Now 32-years-old, it may be time to move on from the forward and start from scratch, but there’s just one problem with that — Anthony’s no-trade clause.
When Jackson convinced the 10-time All-Star to re-sign with the Knicks in 2014, he gave Anthony one of basketball’s most powerful tools. Along with the Cleveland Cavaliers’ LeBron James and the Dallas Mavericks’ Dirk Nowitzki, Anthony possesses one of the league’s three outright no-trade clauses and Jackson clearly found it difficult to navigate at the deadline because of it.
While plenty of reports noted Jackson’s “determined” nature to move Anthony, the forward consistently rebuffed those notions all winter:
There's a reason 'Melo wanted no-trade clause in his contract: He wants to live and play in New York. He won't let Jackson chase him out.
— Adrian Wojnarowski (@WojVerticalNBA) January 17, 2017
The power is in Anthony’s hands and, if they don’t move on from each other this summer, the two sides should find a middle ground at the very least. The Knicks’ losing habits are certainly compounded when mixed with a healthy dose of drama both on and off the court, but it would be silly to purposefully feud with the franchise player when he has no intention of leaving.
If Anthony is truly determined to finish out his contract (and perhaps his career) with the Knicks, Jackson needs to get past the subtweeting and subliminal efforts to drive his star out of the city.
Move On From Derrick Rose
In time, perhaps the Knicks will regret holding out for more assets in the rumored Ricky Rubio-Derrick Rose swap that was reported near the trade deadline. Rose hasn’t been shy about his attempts to garner another max contract this summer as an unrestricted free agent either. Despite the unlikelihood of Rose commanding a deal like that at this point in his career, the Knicks would do well not to get sucked back in.
While Rose has had a better season than most expected, signing the 28-year-old to a massive deal when the roster is already saturated with them would be a misstep. To his credit, Rose has averaged 17.7 points, 3.9 rebounds and 4.4 assists over 59 games with the Knicks, but they must not attempt to rebuild and contend at the same time. Although the Knicks may feel obligated to chase Rose after giving up some solid assets for him, it’d be most wise to just cut their losses. If the Knicks end up drafting a stud point guard, there will be little reason to bring back Rose anyways.
Is Jeff Hornacek The Knicks’ Long-Term Solution?
Billed as a coach who could implement and run Jackson’s much-adored triangle offense, Jeff Hornacek was supposed to wrangle the great individual talents of Anthony, Porzingis, Rose, Jennings and Lee into an efficient attack. While this season hasn’t been a catastrophic disaster, if the Knicks blow things up this summer, they’ll need to take a long look at the coach as well.
Yesterday, Hornacek reiterated that the triangle was the Knicks’ offense of choice now and for the future, despite the fact that much of the team hates running it. While it could be simple posturing for his job on Hornacek’s part, Jackson must consider the long-term implications of forcing the team into the triangle.
To ESPN’s Ian Begley, Hornacek chimed in on the offense’s potential draw in free agency:
“There might be players that think [the triangle offense is a deterrent], but there are also probably players out there that say ‘Oh man, I’d like to run something like that,’” Hornacek said. “It’s still an offense where guys, if they’re knowledgeable about the game, should like.”
Of course, there’s something to be said about consistency, and firing their second head coach in as many years would just add to the Knicks’ infamous lore. In the end, their decision here should cater to Porzingis, who reportedly enjoys the triangle, so it may just be a moot point.
Good luck convincing any free agents of that, though.
Joakim Noah’s Mammoth Contract
When the Knicks decided to give Joakim Noah $72 million over four years, the move was almost universally panned. Even if the former defensive stalwart kept it together for an entire season, relying on Noah, who will be 35 years old when the contract expires, to lead the defense is risky at best. Worse, before Noah went down with season-ending knee surgery in February, his albatross contract was nearly unmovable already. To top it all off, the Knicks don’t even have a team option built into the contract down the road.
Within reason, the Knicks should do whatever they can to get Noah off the books, particularly so if Rose is on his way out as well. Combine his contract with a future first-rounder and Kyle O’Quinn, a serviceable, athletic backup, and the Knicks might be to sneak out from under Noah. This is easier said than done, but if the Knicks want to kickstart this rebuild, they must start with some of the roster’s deadweight.
Target Low-Cost, High-Reward Free Agents
If the Noah and Lee contracts have taught the Knicks anything, they’ll stop chasing the easy fix and focus on the future. This, unfortunately for Dolan, means that the Knicks need to stay away from high-profile free agents like George Hill, Kyle Lowry and Jrue Holiday, three point guards that’ll demand top dollar this summer. On the surface, grabbing a player like Hill to set up Anthony and Porzingis sounds good in theory, but the Knicks have been down this road before.
Additionally, the Knicks would be wise not to make the same mistakes their cross-river rivals have made in recent years. The Brooklyn Nets once responded to the Knicks’ acquisition of Anthony by dealing for Deron Williams to make a splash for their big move to New York. Under the unrelenting pressure of owner Mikhail Prokhorov, general manager Billy King pushed his chips to the middle and dealt a treasure trove of assets for the (diminishing) talents of Gerald Wallace, Joe Johnson, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett. Today, the Nets are barely keeping their head afloat and must convey the likely No. 1 overall pick to their bitter rivals in Boston.
So, even if things look dismal, the Knicks need to look no further than the Nets to see their future should they get too hasty. Chasing two of the Chicago Bulls’ restricted free agents, Nikola Mirotic and Cristiano Felicio, would be a solid strategy for the Knicks come July. Mirotic, who has fallen out of head coach Fred Hoiberg’s rotation, is a burly, court-stretching forward that shot 39 percent from three-point range in 2015-2016, and could offer some nice interplay in a smaller front court with Porzingis. On the other hand, Felicio is an underutilized 24-year-old center that could do well with a change of scenery, averaging a solid 11.3 points and 11.1 rebounds per 36 minutes.
Other intriguing options could include the Miami HEAT’s James Johnson and Willie Reed (player option), the Milwaukee Bucks’ Terrence Jones, the Oklahoma City Thunder’s Andre Roberson (restricted) and the Phoenix Suns’ emerging Alan Williams (restricted).
Bonus: Fix The Charles Oakley Situation
For a team that’s been consistently disappointing over the last 20 years, it’s difficult to watch the Knicks hurt their relationship with one of the franchise icons. After ejecting Charles Oakley from the arena in February, owner James Dolan went to war with one of the Knicks’ fan-favorites from the 90s. While this has little to do with the on-court product, the Knicks’ historic brand has taken quite the hit and it’s time to make good.
What free agent would want to sign with a franchise that’ll ultimately turn their backs on them? The Madison Square Garden ban has been lifted for Oakley, but the retired center certainly still feels the relationship’s strain. At this point, it would be best for the Knicks and Dolan to bury the hatchet and start treating a beloved former player with the praise he deserves. Without an overhaul of the situation, the Knicks may just find the free agent well running a little dry this summer.
While most of these issues start and end with the front office, the dominoes will only fall once the Anthony situation is definitively answered again. Should he stay, the Knicks will be stuck with a superstar on a team that desperately needs to clean house outside of their budding Latvian sophomore. If he doesn’t, the Knicks have a handful of potential paths that’ll take them closer to respectability once more — but which road will they choose?
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