It’s been five years and five days since the Knicks consummated the franchise-altering trade that brought Carmelo Anthony to New York. During the half-decade Anthony has spent in New York, the Knicks have tallied a regular season record of 182-216. The Knickerbockers are 7-14 in the postseason over that stretch. They have won just one playoff series. The current 2015-16 campaign will very likely be the third consecutive season in which ‘Melo’s Knicks fail to even qualify for the postseason.
It should be noted that the Knicks were actually even worse in the years preceding Anthony’s arrival (145-238 in the five seasons before ‘Melo landed in NYC), so New York’s dismal record with Carmelo is not, in and of itself, a direct indictment of the trade. Furthermore, Anthony is but one player on a 15-man roster. It would be unfair to pin the franchise’s continuing disappointments solely on his shoulders. Despite what some overly optimistic Knicks fan may have hoped, Anthony is not one of the rare NBA superstars who is capable of carrying a team by himself.
That said, Phil Jackson, Steve Mills and the rest of the Knicks’ decision makers need to acknowledge an irrefutable reality: Making Anthony the focus of the organization has resulted in an alarming lack of success. Thus, there needs to be a dramatic shift in philosophy within the front office going forward.
If Anthony in his prime, at age 26 through 31, was unable to lead the Knicks deep into the postseason, or even into the playoffs, it would be foolish to assume that Anthony (while dealing with a serious, nagging knee injury) can carry his team to the Promised Land during his age 32-35 seasons. Consequently, Phil Jackson and company must adjust their approach to crafting a competitive roster. The first step is acknowledging that team is not going to compete for a championship in the immediate future. The Knicks have lost 100 of the 141 games they’ve played since the start of last season. Yes, 59 games below .500. New York is light years away from competing with the Warriors, Spurs and Cavaliers of the NBA universe.
This realization should impact the way the Knicks approach free agency this summer. It’s not as if New York is just “one piece away.” Even if they upgrade their roster this July, incremental improvements would likely only push them into the back end of the playoffs, the dreaded “six-to-eight seed” territory in the conference standings. No team wants to fall into the middle of the pack; not good enough to win a playoff series, yet not bad enough to land a stud with a high lottery pick.
The presence of Anthony may tempt the Knicks to patch up the roster with immediate upgrades in an effort to “win now” and maximize what’s left of ‘Melo’s prime. However, the smarter, shrewder move is to think long-term.
The Knicks are not going to win a title with Anthony as their best player. The goal should not be sneaking into the playoffs next season. The objective should be competing for a championship. Fortunately for the Knicks, there is hope on the horizon. Kristaps Porzingis has been so impressive over the first four months of his NBA career, that it’s not inconceivable to think he could be a key cog on a title contender.
Although Knicks fans won’t like the idea of suffering through another down year, the 2016-17 campaign should be used a stepping-stone season. Assuming Kevin Durant is unwilling to sign with the Knicks this summer, there is not another franchise-caliber superstar worth spending max money on. Consequently, Phil Jackson should protect his cap space and save for the summer of 2017. Again, this will be a tough pill to swallow for New Yorkers who haven’t been able to enjoy a consistently successful squad since Bill Clinton was in office. Yet, taking a couple steps back will put the Knicks in position to potentially take a few major steps forward the following season.
It is common knowledge that the Knicks desperately need to upgrade at the point guard position. The only upper-echelon PG to hit the open market this summer will be Mike Conley. However, Conley is going to demand a maximum contract and, due to the spiking salary cap that will have many teams flush with cap space, he’ll get his wish. Based on a cap projection of $92 million, here is the annual salary breakdown of the max contract offer Mike Conley would be eligible to receive from the Knicks:
2016-17: $25.9 million
2017-18: $27.1 million
2018-19: $28.3 million
2019-20: $29.6 million
Sum total of $110.9 million over four NBA seasons
Keep in mind, Conley would have to leave money on the table from the Memphis Grizzlies to sign with New York, as the Grizz would be able to offer five years and larger annual raises.
Adding Conley sounds good in theory because he is an extremely talented point guard, but is he the “difference maker” that the Knicks would need him to be? Remember, Carmelo will earn $24.6 million next season and $26.3 million in 2017-18. That means that Conley and Anthony would make a combined $53.4 million in 2017-18. Even with the cap set to spike to a purported $108 million that season, that’s still nearly 50 percent of the Knicks’ entire cap going to two borderline All-Star players who would both be on the wrong side of 30. The Knicks would undoubtedly be much better with Conley on their team next season, and for years thereafter, but that’s likely not the best use of the team’s limited resources, especially considering signing Conley in 2016 would preclude them pursuing a true superstar point guard in 2017.
As I detailed earlier this month, the 2017 free agent crop will be arguably the greatest class of free agent point guards the NBA has ever seen. Russell Westbrook (who has already been rumored to be interested in New York), Steph Curry, Chris Paul, Kyle Lowry, Jrue Holiday, Derrick Rose, Jeff Teague, Tyreke Evans, Darren Collison, Jarrett Jack and George Hill will all likely hit unrestricted free agency together in July of 2017.
In years past, it would be foolish to believe the Knicks would be able to convince an elite game-changing, All-NBA player to consider New York, but it now seems far more reasonable, as the thought of running with a maturing Porzingis in his prime would be enticing to the NBA’s elite.
All things considered, the best decision for the Knicks may be to scrounge for value contracts in 2016, or sign players to one-year deals (or take on an expiring contract or two – the Blazers recently used conserved cap space to absorb Anderson Varejao’s contract and received a future first-round draft pick in the process). New York could patiently plot a course that enables them to make a major splash in the summer of 2017.
Another reason to spend next season regrouping and laying the groundwork for a massive, instant rebuild is that the Knicks own the rights to their 2017 first-round pick. So even if the Knicks struggle mightily next season, they will reap the rewards of a high lottery pick.
In this scenario, 2016-17 will be viewed as a transition year, which would allow Knicks coaches and management to figure out what they have on the roster. Continue to bring Porzingis along slowly, limiting his minutes in the process. Throw Jerian Grant into the deep end of the pool and see if he sinks or swims. The Knicks, currently 11 games under .500, are out of the playoff picture yet Sasha Vujacic, who will be out of the NBA next season, is averaging 10 minutes a night since Kurt Rambis took over as head coach. Vujacic has gone scoreless in 38 minutes over his last four games, while Grant collects DNP-CD’s on a nightly basis. This is inexcusable. Grant, 23, is also older than your typical rookie and spent five years playing high-level DI basketball at Notre Dame. We know what Vujacic and Jose Calderon are; Phil Jackson needs to find out whether Jerian Grant is an NBA-caliber point guard.
The Knicks can also bring over Willy Hernangomez, their second-round pick from the 2015 draft. Hernangomez played in Seville with Porzingis in 2014-15 and has impressed international scouts with his post play and interior defense this season. Play the 6’10 Willy in the frontcourt alongside his buddy Kristaps and find out if he’s worthy of a roster spot going forward.
The Knicks have wasted enough money and time chasing quick fixes. It’s time New York starts thinking big picture. To use a football analogy, Phil Jackson could choose to punt in 2016 and play the “field position game,” setting up the franchise to finally reach pay dirt the following summer.
Going back to Carmelo Anthony, he can still be a valuable contributor on a revamped NY roster. For the most part, he’s been a great all-around performer this season. ‘Melo has shown a willingness to expand his game to compensate for his diminishing athleticism, and has also competed more consistently on the defensive end. He currently leads the Knicks in scoring, rebounding and assists; the only player in the league to lead his team in all three categories. In addition, due to the spiking salary cap, his contract is not quite as onerous as it was at the time he inked the deal. So, if Melo (who has consistently professed his desire to stay in NYC) is willing to patiently wait for the Knicks to rebuild the right way, he (even at age 34) could be an important piece of the puzzle as a second or third offensive option on a well-balanced team. However, if Anthony has an issue with the Knicks taking a gradual, measured approach to the future, he can certainly waive his no-trade clause, which would allow Phil Jackson to determine if he could improve the Knicks roster by flipping ‘Melo for players(s)/picks more in alignment with New York’s modified timeline. In all honestly, that’s probably the best course of action for both parties at this stage of the game.
Would waiting for 2017 be a risky and possibly unpopular play by Phil Jackson? Yes. Considering Phil has already turned 70, and ‘Melo will be 32 in two months, it may not seem like time is on the Knicks’ side. However, if/when the Knicks become a truly great NBA team, neither man will be the face of the franchise at that point. As a result, the Knicks have to sacrifice incremental progress in the short-term, in order to put the organization in the best position to significantly succeed in the future.
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