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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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A Few Good Free Agents Left

David Yapkowitz looks at several free agents still remaining on the market ahead of the season.

David Yapkowitz

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The start of the 2017-2018 NBA season is finally here, and teams are required to have their 15-man roster (plus two possible two-way contacts) finalized. Every year there are players that are left off a roster. Some are younger guys who maybe haven’t proven they belong in the league just yet. Some are older veterans looking for that one final hurrah.

A few of these players might take open gigs in the G-League or overseas in hopes of attracting the attention of NBA front offices as the year goes on. Others remain at home, working out and waiting for that call that might never come. And sometimes, the waiting and anticipating pays off as playoff teams come looking for veteran help and tanking teams are on the hunt for unrealized potential.

For most of the veteran guys, their opportunities will likely come later in the season when teams gear up for the playoffs. Here’s a look at a few of the top veteran free agents left that could certainly help a team at some point during this season.

David Lee

Since being traded from the Golden State Warriors to the Boston Celtics three year ago, Lee has adapted to his new role as a veteran big man helping to anchor second units. He is no longer the automatic double-double machine and borderline All-Star he once was, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have anything left in the tank.

He didn’t really fit quite right in Boston, but in his stops with the Dallas Mavericks and San Antonio Spurs, he still showed he can be a solid contributor off the bench. In 25 games with Mavericks in the 2015-2016 season, Lee put up 8.5 points per game on 63.6 percent shooting while pulling down seven rebounds per. With the Spurs last year, he averaged 7.3 points on 59 percent shooting to go along with 5.6 rebounds. For a playoff team that needs a little big man depth, he is a solid option.

Deron Williams

Much was made about Williams’ disappearing act in the Finals last year, and rightfully so, but lost in all the chatter was the actual solid job he did with the Cleveland Cavaliers leading up to that point. Once in the conversation for best point guard in the league, injuries and poor play in Brooklyn sort of made Williams a forgotten man. The Nets bought out his contract and he joined his hometown Dallas Mavericks.

After a so-so first year in Dallas, Williams looked rejuvenated last year to the point that he actually drew some interest around the trade deadline. With the Mavericks looking to get younger and head closer to that rebuilding path, they cut Williams and allowed him to join a contending team. Over the final 24 games of last season, including four starts, he averaged 7.5 points per game on 46.3 percent shooting, 41.5 percent from the three-point line, and 3.6 assists. Of course, his Finals performance is all anyone cares to remember, but if a team needs a veteran backup point guard, they could do a lot worse.

Monta Ellis

Last season in Indiana, Ellis posted some of the lowest numbers of his career since his rookie season. Heading into a rebuilding year, the Pacers waived Ellis and his name barely came up in free agent rumors during the summer. At his best, Ellis was a borderline All-Star talent who could put up points in a hurry. Despite his reputation as a gunner, Ellis was a bit of an underrated playmaker and was never as bad defensively as most made him out to be.

He never really seemed to find his groove in Indiana. In his first year with the Pacers during the 2015-2016 season, he posted 13.8 points per game, down from 18.9 the previous year in Dallas, and his shooting dropped from 44.5 percent from the field to 42.7 percent. His playoff numbers with the Pacers were down even more than his regular season numbers, despite exploding in the postseason a few years before with Dallas. His starting days are almost assuredly behind him, but as a sixth man type scorer bringing energy off the bench, he’s probably better than a lot of the players currently in that role.

Leandro Barbosa

The Brazilian Blur’s best days are behind him, but similar to Ellis, he can still help a team in need of additional scoring punch off the bench. It was only two years ago that he was a key contributor off the Warriors bench. Firmly on the rebuilding track, the Suns waived Barbosa during the summer. Despite still being a capable player, his name also rarely came up in the free agent rumor mill.

He didn’t play all that much last season for a Phoenix Suns team that is clearly rebuilding, but he still was able to average 6.3 points per game in only 14.4 minutes per. His role on a rebuilding team would be a veteran mentor, but for a playoff team, he’s not a bad option. He showed that he can still play at the NBA level despite losing a step or two. Perhaps later on in the season when teams start looking for playoff help is when he may find his phone starting to ring.

Derrick Williams

The former No. 2 overall pick in the 2011 draft hasn’t quite lived up to the expectations that come with being drafted that high. He’s only averaged double figures (12.0) in scoring once in his career and that was during the 2012-2013 season. When he came into the league, he didn’t really have much of a set position. He was a tweener, somewhere in between small forward and power forward. That was prior to the changes occurring in today’s NBA with more of a premium on stretch big men.

During Williams’ time in Cleveland last season, he played in 25 games and averaged 6.2 points per game. What stood out most, however, was his shooting. He shot 50.5 percent from the field, including 40.4 percent from the three-point line, both career-highs. Shooting from long range was always a bit of a weakness for him and prior to last season, he had never shot higher than 33.2 percent from downtown. He also didn’t register much chatter by way of free agent rumors, but if he can reproduce shooting percentages like that, he fits right in with the direction of the league.

With league rosters pretty much set, there likely won’t be much roster movement, if any at all, for the next few months. Teams are looking to see how their new summer acquisitions work out. But after a few months of real game action, other roster needs start to become more apparent. Don’t be surprised if come the new year, teams start knocking on a few of these player’s doorsteps.

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NBA PM: The Wizards Are “More Than Ready” For A Big Year

Washington Wizards shooting guard Bradley Beal says his team is “more than ready” for the start of the NBA season.

Buddy Grizzard

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With several teams in the Eastern Conference taking a step back, the Washington Wizards will be one of the beneficiaries due to roster continuity. Shooting guard Bradley Beal, one of several key Wizards signed to a long-term contract, said the team is “more than ready” for the season and has large expectations.

“This is going to be a big year for us,” said Beal after a Monday practice. “We’re healthy. There’s no excuse for us [not to] get off to a good start.”

Beal added that, while health is a key for the entire roster, it’s especially important for him after struggling with injuries in the past.

“It’s really a confidence booster, realizing my potential, what I can be, the type of player I can be when I had a healthy season,” said Beal of last year’s campaign. “That’s probably what I was more proud of than anything, playing 70-plus games and then playing in the playoffs every game.”

In Basketball Insiders’ season preview for the Wizards, we noted that Beal was Washington’s most efficient ball handler in the pick and roll last season. Beal said that creating for teammates is something he’s worked on in the offseason and will continue to be a point of emphasis.

“That was great for me and the strides I made throughout the year, working on my ball handling, working on creating for other guys and getting my own shot,” said Beal. “Those are the primary things I’m focused on … being able to create better, getting guys easier shots than before, getting more assists and improve everywhere.”

Wizards coach Scott Brooks said after Friday’s preseason finale in New York that he’s been encouraged by the ball movement he has seen since the start of camp.

“I thought a lot of good things happened in training camp,” said Brooks. “The ball movement was outstanding. Guys were sacrificing for one another on the offensive end.”

One thing that should help the ball movement of the second unit is the arrival of backup point guard Tim Frazier, who missed most of the preseason due to a strained groin. Frazier had nine assists and no turnovers in his preseason debut against the Miami HEAT.

“I feel very comfortable with Tim,” said Brooks. “He finds corner threes, which we like.”

Beal added that one area he hopes to improve, both individually and as a team, is rebounding.

“I think I only had like three rebounds [per game] last year,” said Beal. “I obviously love scoring the ball. That’s something I never worry about. I want to continue to fill up the stat sheet a little bit more and contribute to the game in different areas. I think rebounding was something that hurt us a little bit last year.”

The Wizards host the Philadelphia 76ers to open the season Wednesday, and Brooks said it will take a team effort to defend emerging star Joel Embiid.

“He’s a problem,” said Brooks after Sunday’s practice. “His athleticism is off the charts. We’re going to have to do a good job of staying in front of him. You’re talking about a guy that can put the ball on the floor, that can get to spaces and spots that normally a 6-10 guy doesn’t.”

With a revamped bench, roster continuity and good health entering the season, the Wizards look like a team that could challenge the Cavaliers, Celtics and Raptors for supremacy in the East. Beal certainly seems to think so.

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NBA Opening Night Storylines

Hours before the 2017-18 season gets set to tip off, here are some storylines to follow for Tuesday’s games.

Dennis Chambers

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The long summer is over. We finally made it. NBA opening night is upon us.

Rejoice, hoop heads.

Because the NBA is a perfect concoction of chaos at all times, Tuesday’s opening night slate has some can’t-miss built in headlines that the entire league is going to be glued to.

With a new year set to begin, everyone is on the same page. Whether that page includes the likes of Kevin Durant and Steph Curry or Doug McDermott and Tim Hardaway Jr. is a different story. But still, Tuesday marks day one for all teams and as it stands they’re all equal.

As we get set to sit down and dissect these opening game matchups on Tuesday, let’s highlight the most intriguing storylines that will be followed for the rest of the season. There’s nothing like watching a story grown in the NBA from its inception, right?

Boston Celtics vs. Cleveland Cavaliers — 8 p.m. ET (TNT)

This is the game we’ve all been waiting for since late June, when Kyrie Irving let it be known to Cavs owner Dan Gilbert that he wanted out from under LeBron’s shadow.

Three years of NBA Finals appearances, the greatest comeback in basketball history, and a ring to show for was all Irving wanted to walk away from. For him, he felt it was his time to shine.

And because the NBA is the perfect mix of beautiful insanity, it would only make sense that Irving would get dealt to the very team that is jostling for position to unseat the Cavs and King James.

The Irving-led Boston Celtics will have to wait a grand total of one second in the new NBA season to begin their matchup with their point guards old teammates and the team that stands in between them a Finals appearance. With Gordon Hayward and Irving together for the first time against meaningful competition, there’s no better way than to check their fit from the jump than by challenging the conference champions in their building.

But Irving’s homecoming isn’t the only storyline heading into the first game of the season. There are some changes on Cleveland’s end as well.

While the main return for Irving — Isaiah Thomas — won’t be suiting up for the Cavs anytime soon due to injury, there are still plenty of new faces to keep an eye on Tuesday night. First and foremost, Flash is in town. After having his contract bought out by the Chicago Bulls, Dwyane Wade joined forces with his buddy in The Land in hopes of recapturing some of the magic that led them to two championships in South Beach.

By teaming up once again, James and Wade provide some of the best chemistry in the league. Yes, Wade isn’t the player he once was when he and James were winning rings. But something is to be said for knowing exactly where someone will be on the court at all times, and that’s the trait exactly that Wade and James share.

Along with Wade, James and the Cavs are hoping to get some type of resurgence from Derrick Rose and Jeff Green off of the bench. Once Thomas returns to the court for Cleveland, this is arguably the deepest team James has ever been around in Cleveland.

Even with Irving and Hayward on board, Boston will be relying on some role players of their own — namely Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. The back-to-back third overall picks will occupy most of the time at the forward spots opposite of Hayward. As the season moves on, the development of both of these wings will be crucial to how dangerous the Celtics can be past their two star players.

Tuesday night will be must-see television at Quicken Loans Arena. New eras for the Eastern Conference heavyweights are about to begin.

And as James told ESPN’s Rachel Nichols, “The Kid” will be just fine.

Houston Rockets vs. Golden State Warriors — 10:30 p.m. ET (TNT)

On the Western side of the basketball landscape Tuesday night, the potential conference finals matchup will see its first act when the revamped Rockets head to the Bay Area.

Last season at this time, the basketball world was bracing for what the Warriors would look like after adding Kevin Durant to a 73-win team. And as expected, they dominated. Not even LeBron James could put a stop to them, managing just one win in their finals bout.

This year brings in more of the same questions. Can anyone stop the Warriors? Will Golden State just steamroll their way to another championship, effectively sucking the fun of competition out of the entire league?

Well, a few teams this offseason did their best to try and combat that narrative. One of them being the Rockets, who they added perennial all-star point guard Chris Paul to their backcourt.

Putting Paul in the same backcourt as superstar James Harden has the potential to create some of the biggest headaches for opposing teams. The constant ball movement and open looks the two star guards can provide are nearly endless.

While the league swoons over the Warriors’ ability to hit shots from well beyond the arc, it should be noted that it was Houston last year that led the NBA in three-point shooting, not Golden State. It’s certainly not wise to try and go toe-to-toe with the Warriors at their own game, but if there’s ever a team equipped to do it, it’s Houston. Tuesday night will provide a nice preview look at how things in the Western Conference could shake out in the coming months.

Aside from the barrage of scoring that will take place in this matchup, what would a big game be for the Warriors without a little Draymond Green trash talk?

After Rockets head coach Mike D’Antoni told ESPN that, “You’re not gonna stop them. It’s just not gonna happen. They’re not gonna stop us, either,” Green clapped back with a comment of his own, as he always does.

“I don’t know how serious they take defense with that comment,” Green said. “But they added some good defensive players.”

It’s true, the Rockets aren’t considered a defensive stalwart by any means. Last season, Houston was 26th in points allowed, compared to second in points scored. Green may be onto something when it comes to questioning how serious his opponents take defense.

That being said, last year’s Rockets didn’t feature Paul. Even at the age of 32, Paul is still one of the league’s best on-ball defenders. And no matter his age, he’ll always possess that competitive fire he’s been known for over the last 12 years.

Going up against the Warriors at Oracle is usually nothing short of impossible, but if there’s going to be a team to challenge their supremacy this season, we’ll get a good look at how they stack up on night one.

With all of this in mind, let’s not forget that the world’s best league is finally back in action. Give yourself a pat on the back, you made it. Now, go enjoy some basketball.

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