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Knicks Shouldn’t Splurge During 2016 Free Agency Frenzy

The Knicks won’t win a title with Carmelo Anthony as their best player. Phil Jackson should act accordingly.

Tommy Beer

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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.

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

NBA Daily: Pelicans Might Be Better Off Without DeMarcus Cousins

Without DeMarcus Cousins, Anthony Davis has excelled. It might not be a coincidence.

Moke Hamilton

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Forget Kawhi Leonard, the most interesting storyline of this NBA summer is going to be DeMarcus Cousins.

By now, if you’ve wondered whether the New Orleans Pelicans would be better off without the talented big man, you’re certainly not alone.

Just ask the Portland Trail Blazers.

On Saturday, the Pelicans pulled off an improbable sweep of the third-seeded Blazers in the first round of their best-of-seven playoff series. And while the immediate question that comes to mind is what to make of the Blazers, a similar question can be (and should be) asked of the Pelicans.

Without question, Cousins is one of the most gifted big men the NBA has sen in quite some time, but it shouldn’t be lost on any of us that Anthony Davis began to put forth superhuman efforts when Cousins was absent.

Ever heard the saying that too many cooks spoil the brew?

That may be pricisely the case here.

Sure, having good players at your disposal is a problem that most head coach in the league would sign up for, but it takes a special type of player to willingly cede touches and shots in the name of the best interests of the team.

We once had a similar conversation about Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant, mind you. Those that recognized that Westbrook’s ball dominance and inefficiency took opportunities away from Durant to be the best version of himself once believed that the Oklahoma City Thunder would have been wise to pitch Westbrook to New Orleans back when Chris Paul was still manning their perimeter.

For what it’s worth, with Cousins in the lineup, he averaged 18 shots per game. In the 48 games he played this season, the Pelicans were 27-21. With him in the lineup, Davis shot the ball 17.6 times per game and scored 26.5 points per contest.

In the 34 games the Pelicans played without Cousins, Davis’ shot attempts increased fairly significantly. He got 21.9 attempts per contest and similarly increased his scoring output to 30.2 points per game.

Aside from that, Cousins’ presence in the middle made it a tad more difficult for Rajon Rondo and Jrue Holiday to have the pace and space they need to be most effective. With both Davis and Cousins, the Pelicans struggled to consistently string together wins. Without Cousins, they improbably became the first team in the Western Conference to advance to the second round.

That Cousins tore his achilles tendon and is just a few months from becoming an unrestricted free agent combine to make him the most interesting man in the NBA.

* * * * * *

With Chris Paul having decided that the grass was probably greener with James Harden and Mike D’Antoni than it was with Doc Rivers and Blake Griffin, the Clippers fulfilled his request to be trade to the Houston Rockets and re-signed Griffin to a five-year max. deal. In doing so, they both gave Griffin a stark reminder of what life in the NBA is like and provided a blueprint for teams to follow when they have a superstar player with whom they believe to have run their course.

The glass half full perspective might be that Davis has simply become a better, healthier, more effective player and that with Cousins, he would have another weapon that could help catapult the Pelicans ever further toward the top of the Western Conference. But the half-empty glass might yield another conclusion.

At the end of the day, although he still hasn’t appeared in a single playoff game, Cousins is regarded as a game-changing talent and is one of the few players available on the free agency market this summer that could justify an annual average salary of $30 million. In all likelihood, the Pelicans will re-sign him for a sum that approaches that, but that doesn’t mean it’s the best move.

In the end, the Clippers traded Griffin for Avery Bradley, Tobias Harris, Boban Marjanovic, a first round pick and a second round pick. All things considered, it was a great haul for the Clippers when you consider that, just a few months prior, they could have lost Griffin as a free agent and gotten nothing in return.

Remarkably, after seeing Griffin dealt to Detroit, in the Western Conference, the Pelicans are on a collision course with the Golden State Warriors. Their health a constant concern, the team will have to deal with the pesky perimeter defense of Holiday and Rondo and versatility and two-way effectiveness of Davis.

Nobody gave New Orleans a chance against Portland, and for sure, not many people are going to believe in their ability to score an upset over the defending champions. But believe it or not, New Orleans has become a different team. And they’ve done so without Cousins.

Indeed, believe it or not, the Clippers gave us a blueprint for what a team should do when it has a superstar who might not be the best long-term fit for their program.

And if the Pelicans were wise, they’d be smart to follow it.

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NBA Daily: Rookie Contributors Lifting Playoff Teams

This year’s impressive rookie class has translated their regular season performances to the playoff stage.

Dennis Chambers

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This past NBA season had the luxury of an incredibly entertaining and high-powered rookie class. Every other day it seemed like the feats of either Donovan Mitchell, Jayson Tatum, Lauri Markkanen, Dennis Smith Jr., Kyle Kuzma, or Ben Simmons were dominating the discussion about how advanced the league’s crop of newbies appeared to be.

As a result, the 2017-18 Rookie of the Year race was a much more heated discussion than the year before.

With the impressive campaign these NBA freshmen put together, it should come as no surprise that on the on bright stage of playoff basketball, three of the aforementioned crop are helping lead their team’s in tight first-round battles.

Donovan Mitchell has been the leading scorer for the Utah Jazz through two games in their series against the Oklahoma City Thunder. Jayson Tatum is stepping up for the Boston Celtics to help fill in the void of Kyrie Irving as they take on the Milwaukee Bucks. Ben Simmons is nearly averaging a triple-double through three games for the Philadelphia 76ers in their matchup with the Miami HEAT.

Lottery pick talents are expected in today’s NBA to come in and have some level of impact for their clubs. Usually, they play the role as a foundational building block that shows flashes of promise with an expected up-and-down first season. While these three playoff contributors haven’t been perfect all year long, under the pressure of the postseason, they’ve stepped up their play and appear to be avoiding the learning curve.

With that, let’s highlight further what Mitchell, Tatum, and Simmons have been able to do thus far in the postseason.

Donovan Mitchell, Utah Jazz

All season long Mitchell threw the entire scoring load of Salt Lake City on his back for the Jazz and helped carry them to a 5-seed in the Western Conference when early season projections suggested they should head towards in the wake of Rudy Gobert’s injury.

However, the 13th pick out of Louisville had no intentions of missing out on the postseason. And from the looks of his production so far, who can blame him?

Through the first two games of the Jazz-Thunder series, Mitchell yet again placed his name in the same breath as Michael Jordan. Mitchell’s 55 points in his first two playoff games broke Jordan’s record of 53 for most points scored by a rookie guard in that scenario.

Mitchell’s 27 points in Game 1 and 28 points in Game 2 led the Jazz to even the series and steal home court advantage from the Thunder. While he hasn’t been responsible for setting up the team’s offense, tallying just five assists through those two games, Mitchell is fulfilling the role of Gordon Hayward as the team’s primary scorer.

In a series against a team that features the likes of Russell Westbrook, Paul George, and Carmelo Anthony, Utah needs Mitchell to go out there and get as many buckets as he possibly can.

So far, he appears to be welcoming the challenge.

Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics

When it was announced that Kyrie Irving would be lost for the entire postseason due to injury, the Boston Celtics’ hold on the 2-seed seemed a lot less intimidating than it once was in the Eastern Conference.

However, three games into the first round series against the Bucks, the Celtics hold a 2-1 lead. A lot part of that has to do with the role Tatum has been able to step in and play right away with the Celtics down their main scorer and playmaker.

Throughout the first three games of the series, Tatum 12.3 points, 7.3 rebounds, 2.3 assists, and 2.3 steals. The third overall pick in the 2017 draft started the series off with 19 points, 10 rebounds, and three steals to help Boston start off the matchup with a 1-0 lead.

At just 20 years old, Tatum is matching his age number with his usage percentage thus far against Milwaukee. For some perspective, Jaylen Brown managed just 12 minutes a night for the Celtics last season as a rookie when the playoffs rolled around.

Granted, injuries and missing players are helping in Tatum being on the court as much as he has, but the rookie is earning his time out there on the court.

Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers

The perceived frontrunner for Rookie of the Year, Ben Simmons has taken control in his first ever playoff series.

For starters, Simmons is averaging nearly a triple double over his first three games against the HEAT; 20 points, 10 rebounds, and 9.7 assists.

On top of his triple double ways, Simmons has upped arguably his biggest weakness so far in the playoffs, shooting 75 percent from the charity stripe. During the regular season, Simmons struggled from the line, hitting only 56 percent of his attempts.

With the offensive prowess of Simmons obvious, it’s the job he’s doing on the defensive end of the court against an aggressive and tough Miami squad that’s elevating his play to the next level.

Simmons’ ability to switch all over the defensive end of the court has placed his responsibilities from Goran Dragic to Justise Winslow to James Johnson, and seemingly everywhere in between.

Now with Joel Embiid back in the fold for the Sixers and Simmons, the rookie point guard has his defensive partner on the floor to help ease the workload on that end. A two-way performance each night will be imperative for Simmons in helping lead the young Sixers past the experienced HEAT team.

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Pelicans Role Players are Key to Success

The supporting cast in New Orleans is a big part of their playoff surge, writes David Yapkowitz.

David Yapkowitz

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The New Orleans Pelicans have taken a commanding 3-0 lead in their first-round playoff series again the Portland Trail Blazers. While surprising to some, the Pelicans only finished one game behind the Blazers in the standings. The Pelicans have the best player in the series in Anthony Davis and the defensive duo of Rajon Rondo and Jrue Holiday have stifled Portland’s backcourt.

The truth is, the Pelicans have been a good team all season long. A lot of attention and recognition has been given to Davis, Rondo and Holiday this season and playoffs, and rightfully so. But New Orleans wouldn’t be where they are without the important contributions of some of their role players.

Take E’Twaun Moore, for example. Moore bounced around the NBA early in his career, with stops in Boston, Orlando and Chicago before finding long-term stability contract wise with the Pelicans. He’s primarily been a bench player with them before this season, his second in New Orleans, his first as a full-time starter.

He’s given the Pelicans a huge boost, especially from the three-point line. He’s put up 12.5 points per game on 50.8 percent shooting from the field, both career-highs. He’s shooting 42.5 percent from three-point range.

“I think it’s just our style of play,” Moore told Basketball Insiders. “We play fast and open. Coach [Gentry] gives us a lot of freedom, a lot of confidence. That’s why my game is up, my shooting is up.”

It’s not just offensively though. Moore has always been one of the more underrated defensive guards in the league. Paired up alongside Rondo and Holiday, the trio form a solid wing defensive unit. They’re a big reason for Portland’s offensive struggles.

Moore is the type of role player that every playoff contender needs to succeed. He knows that his role may change from game to game. Some nights he may be asked to score a little more. Other nights his defense is going to be called upon. Whatever it may be, he’s always ready to do what’s asked of him.

“I bring the energy. I bring a spark,” Moore told Basketball Insiders. “It’s knocking down shots, playing defense, getting out in transition. Just trying to be a spark.”

The Pelicans bench has also been a huge factor all season long. Their depth took a major hit early in the season with the injury to Solomon Hill. Hill has since returned to the lineup, but his absence paved the way for other players such as Darius Miller to step up.

This is Miller’s second stint with the Pelicans after spending two years overseas. Drafted 46th overall in 2012, he didn’t play much his first three years in the NBA. In 2014, he was cut by the Pelicans only about a month into the season. This year was different, he was thrown into the rotation from the get-go.

“This is a huge opportunity,” Miller told Basketball Insiders. “I just come in and try to work every day, try to get better every day. My teammates have done a great job of putting me in situations where I can be successful.”

Miller has given the Pelicans a capable stretch four in the second unit who can slide over to small forward if need be. He’s averaging a career-best 7.8 points per game, the most out of any of New Orleans’ reserves. He’s their best three-point shooter off the bench, connecting on 41.1 percent of his long-range attempts.

While he acknowledges that he’s enjoying his best season yet as an NBA player, he’s quick to praise his teammates for allowing him to flourish.

“I just try to bring a spark off the bench. I come in and try to knock some shots down,” Miller told Basketball Insiders. “My teammates do a great job of finding me when I’m open, I just try and knock down shots and compete.”

Sometimes time away from the NBA helps players grow and mature. The NBA game is fast paced and it can take awhile to get used to it. While some players have begun to use the G-League as a means of preparing for the league, Miller took an alternate route of heading to Germany.

For him, it’s a big reason why he’s been able to make an easier transition back to the NBA. His contract for next season is non-guaranteed, but he’s probably done enough to warrant the Pelicans keeping him around. He’s a much different and much-improved player. If not, he’s sure to draw interest from other teams.

“It was a lot to learn for me personally,” Miller told Basketball Insiders. “I had to learn a lot of different things like how to take care of my body, how to manage my time, a whole bunch of stuff like that. The time overseas really helped me to mature and grow up and learn a few things.”

These Pelicans have most certainly turned quite a few heads since the playoffs began. We shouldn’t deal too much with hypotheticals, but it’s interesting to wonder what this team’s ceiling would’ve been had DeMarcus Cousins not been lost for the season due to injury.

This is a confident bunch, however. They’ve beaten both the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets during the regular season. They’ve already shattered a lot of expert predictions with their performance in the first-round. The Pelicans feel like they can hang with anyone out West.

“As far as we want to go,” Miller told Basketball Insiders. “I feel like we’ve competed with all the best teams in the league this whole season. We just got to come out, stay focused and do what we do.”

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