NBA

Knicks Still Stuck in the Middle

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With the NBA trade deadline just a week away, the Knicks find themselves in an unenviable position. Despite being ten games below .500, with a 23-33 record, New York is just three games behind the Detroit Pistons, who currently hold the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference. However, the Knickerbockers are also just 2.5 games ahead of the Orlando Magic in the standings. This is significant because Orlando has the fourth-worst record in the NBA, which means that if the regular season ended today, they would most likely end up with a top-four pick in the draft, in addition to having the fourth-best odds (approximately 11.9 percent) to win the draft lottery.

The Knicks are once again trapped in the NBA’s equivalent of “no man’s land.”

They aren’t good enough to be considered anywhere near a top team, or even a playoff participant. Yet, they haven’t been bad enough to secure a top pick in the upcoming draft. If you are an NBA organization, this in-between, middle-ground is the one place you don’t want to be.

New Yorkers don’t know if whether they should be wishing for wins or praying for ping pong balls.

It’s an undesirable, unappealing predicament the Knicks have been stuck in for the better part of two decades. Remarkably, New York has not had a top-three pick or advanced past the second round of the postseason since 2000. In fact, the Knicks have had only one top-five pick and won only one playoff series this century.

The losing would be far more palatable if the Knicks had a clear plan for the future. For instance, teams such at the Philadelphia 76ers and Milwaukee Bucks are currently stuck in the same situation, but they are stocked with young, promising players on the rise and are clearly building towards the future.

The Knicks’ path has no such clearly discernible destination. Do Phil Jackson and the Knicks’ front office feel they are in the early stages of a rebuild? Or do they believe they are just a piece or two away from being a real contender? Because Phil chooses not to speak to the media and only communicates via cryptic, emoji-infused tweets, we can only speculate as to his true feelings on the topic.

Nonetheless, with the NBA trade deadline rapidly approaching, Jackson and company have some important decisions ahead of them. The first step in the process is making an honest assessment of the roster. That will help shape the direction they chose to pursue. Do the Knicks aggressively shop Carmelo Anthony in hopes they can find a deal he would agree to? Anthony having a no-trade clause in his contract certainly makes it a more difficult proposition. However, Melo agreeing to a trade seems more likely today than it has in previous weeks and months. Has Anthony grown tired of dealing with a team president who has been disrespectful? After seeing the way owner James Dolan handled the Charles Oakley situation, badly besmirching the reputation of the Knicks franchise, might Melo be more open to putting New York in his rear-view mirror?

And with Kevin Love sidelined for six weeks due to knee surgery, might Cleveland now be willing to considering exchanging Love for Anthony? It could be argued that Anthony gives the Cavs a better chance to win a title this season, given the uncertainty surrounding Love, as there is no guarantee he’ll be close to 100 percent by the time the postseason begins. From a Knicks perspective, it would be a no-brainer. The rest of this season is far, far less important than the long-term health of the franchise. Trading a 32-year old former All-Star with a no-trade clause and a history of knee issues for a 28-year old current All-Star coming off a relatively minor knee surgery is an easy decision.

Even if the Knicks aren’t infatuated with Love’s game or are concerned how Love might fit alongside Kristaps Porzingis and the rest of the Knicks core, Love has far more value than Anthony on the open market. Love could easily be flipped this offseason or next February (the Celtics would certainly be interested), which could jumpstart the Knicks rebuild. Also, moving Melo would increase the likelihood of the Knicks obtaining a top pick in the 2017 draft.

However, based on how adamant Anthony has been about wanting to stay in NYC, the most likely scenario is still him remaining with the Knicks the rest of the season and beyond.

And assuming Melo stays put, the Knicks have very few other assets that are attractive to other teams. Kristaps Porzingis and rising rookie Willy Hernangomez should be considered off limits.

The Knicks would surely love to trade Derrick Rose for a player or a pick that would help the team down the line, but it’s unlikely that another team would be willing to give up anything of value to rent Rose for a couple of months.

Courtney Lee and Kyle O’Quinn are the two Knickerbockers who could draw interest from other clubs if New York made them available. Lee is a solid two-way player signed to a relatively affordable four-year pact. Kyle O’Quinn, who actually leads the Knicks in PER this season (20.9), is also signed to a discounted contract. O’Quinn will make just $4.1 million next season and then has a player option for $4.3 million in 2018-19.

However, it’s unknown if the Knicks would be able to improve their roster by moving one of those two. Part of that calculation is determining which direction the Knicks are headed in.

Even if Jackson and the Knicks stand pat at the deadline, New York will have to address a similar, fundamental question this summer: Do they commit to a “win now” mindset, as they did this past offseason when they traded for Derrick Rose and signed veteran center Joakim Noah to $72-million four-year contract?

Or, are they willing to take an immediate step backward to take two steps forward in the future?

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This is an incredibly important summer for Phil Jackson.

He was hired back in May of 2014 and was immediately hailed as a savior by long-suffering fans. He was a former Knick who had been part of their championship days of yore and, although he had never been an architect of a team, he was arguably the most successful coach in the history of the league. He entered New York with had a giant stockpile of trust among the Madison Square Garden faithful.

However, as we sit here today, the patience of those same fans has already worn quite thin. The Knicks are 72-148 since Jackson took over. On the surface, the team doesn’t appear any closer to the promised land, or the playoffs for that matter, than they did on the day he arrived.

If you dig a bit deeper, that’s not entirely accurate. Phil was responsible for drafting Porzingis and Hernangomez, and not for trading away any of the team’s future first-round picks. Nonetheless, fans want to see a return on their investment, sooner rather than later. In an interview with ESPN in the wake of the Oakley fiasco, Jim Dolan was asked about the fans who boisterously blame him for the Knicks’ mounting losses. Dolan said, “Ask Phil,” before laughing awkwardly.

It is worth wondering whether this added external pressure will force Phil’s hand this summer.

Instead of rebuilding around a core of Porzingis, Hernangomez and the 2017 draft pick, might Jackson swing for the fences and commit the majority of his cap space to an aging veteran in hopes that the Knicks can crack the 40-win plateau for the first time in his tenure?

That might not be what’s best for the long-term health of the franchise, but that all-important criterion hasn’t always been the deciding factor during Dolan’s reign as owner of the Knicks.

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About Tommy Beer

Tommy Beer

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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