Back in June of 2015, before New York Knicks fans were forced to come to terms with a harsh reality, hopes in New York were sky high. For the first time in a very long time, the Knicks were well under the salary cap, allowing them to be major players in the 2015 free agency bonanza.
Coming off their worst season in franchise history, New Yorkers were optimistically hoping that nearly $30 million in cap space would enable the Knicks to rapidly rebuild their crumbling franchise. With Phil Jackson doing the recruiting, and the allure of the bright lights of Broadway beckoning, surely New York would be extremely appealing to the the majority of top-tier free agents, right?
The Knicks’ most pressing need heading into last offseason was adding a quality big man to a dangerously depleted frontline. Fortunately for New York, there was a plethora of top-tier, unrestricted power forwards and centers up for grabs. Yet, the cream of the crop never seriously considered taking the Knicks’ money. The best center available, Marc Gasol, re-signed with the Memphis Grizzlies without even meeting with Jackson. LaMarcus Aldridge landed with the San Antonio Spurs. Kevin Love re-upped with the Cleveland Cavaliers. DeAndre Jordan (after a brief detour to Dallas) ended up back with the Los Angeles Clippers. Paul Millsap decided to stay with the Atlanta Hawks. Greg Monroe, whom many had prognosticated was highly likely to sign with the Knicks, ended up choosing the Milwaukee Bucks instead.
The Knicks eventually rounded out their frontcourt by adding Robin Lopez (four-year, $54 million contract), Kyle O’Quinn (four-year, $16 million contract), Derrick Williams (two-year, $10 million contract) and Kevin Seraphin (one-year, $2.8 million contract). O’Quinn has been a bit of disappointment thus far. Williams has been a relatively pleasant surprise, exceeding expectations of many who thought New York overpaid. Seraphin has been buried on the bench. Lopez, to the surprise of nobody, has been impressively solid.
Still, Knicks fans were disheartened by the fact that Jackson was forced to “settle” for a solid veteran such as Lopez after the elite stars rejected the Knicks advances, seemingly without even giving the Knicks so much as a second thought.
It was a harsh way to learn a valuable lesson.
At one point in the not so distant past, having the good fortunate of being located in a city such as New York often tilted the playing field when it came to attracting superstars. Nowadays, simply playing in a major market is no longer enough to lure in the most sought after targets. Knicks and Lakers fans can attest to this proven fact. In this new, flattened world we live in, players know they don’t need to live in a major metropolitan hub in order to become internationally famous and land incredibly lucrative endorsement deals.
Desirable free agents in today’s NBA (Love, Aldridge, Monroe and David West being the latest examples) often end up choosing their new team in large part based on which organization has the most attractive foundation in place, thus giving them the greatest chance to win big.
The Knicks, coming off a season in which they were arguably the worst team in the entire league, were anything but alluring.
The good news for Knicks fans is that (due to the enormous pending spike in the salary cap) Jackson and company will once again have cap space to spend this summer. Depending on whether current Knicks Derrick Williams and Arron Afflalo decide to opt out of their current current contracts, New York will be looking at somewhere between approximately $20 million and $30 million to spend on free agents.
Still, based on the somber situation New York found itself in last July, Knicks fans should anticipate another discouraging and anticlimactic offseason, right?
Things have changed in NYC. The future of the Knicks has been altered dramatically, in large part because of one person.
The arrival and emergence of Kristaps Porzingis has resulted in a monumental directional shift in the present and future of the organization.
Knicks executives no longer have to rely on futilely attempting to sell players solely on the virtues of living in New York City and playing in the “World’s Most Famous Arena.” Future free agents will now be enticed to consider the Knicks because they would then be able to play alongside the world’s most famous and uniquely talented 7’3 forward/center.
We know about the consternation that consumed New York once the Knicks lost the draft lottery last May and dropped to fourth overall, which meant they would lose out on the opportunity to draft one of the only three “sure-fire” future stars available in the 2015 draft (Karl-Anthony Towns, D’Angelo Russell and Jahlil Okafor). We know all too well about the boos that greeted Porzingis after Commissioner Adam Silver called his name. Yet this pessimistic prologue only makes Porzingis’ rapid rise to fan-favorite status all the more remarkable.
To say that the rookie big man has simply exceeded expectations is obviously an understatement. Porzingis hasn’t just been good, or “good for a rookie.” Not only do his teammates sing his praises on a daily basis, but rival coaches, players and executives across the country rave about the kid at each stop the Knicks make on the road.
Porzingis currently ranks third among all rookies in points (13.9), second in rebounds (8.0), first in blocks (2.0), first in free-throw percentage (86 percent) and second in double-doubles (15).
His versatile skill set is remarkably unique, even in a league chock full of freakish athletes. Consider this: There is currently only one player in the league this season who has blocked more than 80 shots and knocked down more than 40 three-pointers. That player is Kristaps Porzingis.
There are plenty of other extraordinary stats that could be used to highlight his early-season success; however, it’s not simply the mind-boggling numbers that stand out when discussing Porzingis. It could be argued that the most amazing aspect of his first three months as an NBA player is the way he’s handled the sudden flood of fame and adulation. Considering he’s a 20-year-old kid from Latvia, it’s almost inconceivable how well he’s dealt with the crush from local and national media alike. Somehow, he carries himself with incredible confidence on the court, yet remains remarkably humble once he steps off the floor.
And he’s only getting better, and bigger. Both his game and his frame are still growing.
The scary reality is that if Porzingis was playing this well two years from now, when he was just 22 years old, he’d still be considered way ahead of schedule. The phrase “the sky’s the limit” is an overused cliche, but in this case it actually rings true. His upside is not simply All-Star level, it’s All-NBA level.
And, tangentially, because of Porzingis, the Knicks’ future is brighter than it’s been in a very, very long time.
Playing alongside one of the most intriguing young big men to come into the league in some time will surely change the way future free agents view the Knicks. He’s a big man who can stretch the floor and create space, finish alley-oops in traffic and erase defensive mistakes at the basket. That’s the kind of individual other great players want to run with.
Furthermore, Carmelo Anthony, who has embraced Porzingis as a “little brother,” is enjoying a renaissance and is currently playing some of the best, most unselfish, well-rounded basketball of his career. Joining the tag-team of Porzingis and Anthony will be an enticing proposition.
The Knicks’ biggest need heading into the 2016 offseason will be upgrading the point guard position. Jose Calderon, while providing valuable veteran leadership, is simply not a starting-caliber NBA point guard. Although Calderon is still relatively effective on the offensive end, he is an absolute sieve defensively. Rookie Jerian Grant has shown flashes here and there, but he’s no where near consistent enough to be relied on as the undisputed point guard of the present or future.
In today’s NBA, having a top-level point guard who can break down defenses by penetrating into the paint to score and creating opportunities for others – as well as being able to defend other quality point guards – is imperative.
If the Knicks are able to add an elite point guard to their current nucleus, they would have a legit chance to push into the postseason and make some noise in the Eastern Conference.
The best point guard on the market in 2016 will be Mike Conley. Currently 28 years old, Conley has spent his entire career with the Grizzlies. He doesn’t get much national attention, likely because he flies under the radar down in Memphis, but he’s widely considered one of the more underrated floor generals in the NBA. He posted his best statistical season in 2013-14, when he finished the year as one of just six players to average at least 17 points and six assists while shooting at least 45 percent from the floor (the other five players in that club were Steph Curry, Chris Paul, LeBron James, Isaiah Thomas and James Harden). And despite a nagging foot injury, Conley has been remarkably durable throughout his career, playing in at least 85 percent of the Grizzlies’ games in each of the last six seasons. It is also important to note that Conley has been a winner. He’s captained a Memphis team that has won at least 50 games in three straight seasons.
When Conley officially becomes an unrestricted free agent on July 1, it’s safe to assume the Knicks will have interest. Conley will seek max or at least near-max money, and considering the shifting financial landscape of the NBA (so many teams with excessive cap space and many others needing to spend money to hit the rising salary floor), he’ll get it from someone. From a Knicks perspective, he seems to check all the boxes: a savvy point guard who is both efficient offensively and solid defensively. He has posted a PER north of 18 in four straight seasons. In contrast, the Knicks have had only one point guard with a PER greater than 18 in the last 25 years (Stephon Marbury).
However, here’s where things get interesting.
If the Knicks fork over $90+ million to Conley this summer, they are obviously making a long-term commitment. This is important not only because of the financial investment it entails, but also opportunity cost. It would mean the Knicks wouldn’t be able to shop for a point guard the following summer, when arguably the three best point guards in the NBA will likely all hit the free agent market at the same time.
Russell Westbrook’s contract expires following the 2016-17 season. Ditto for Steph Curry. Chris Paul has a player option in his contract that will allow him to become an unrestricted free agent on July 1, 2017, as well.
Obviously, the odds of landing any of those three superstars are low. However, unlike last summer, the Knicks are now holding an ace of their own and will be able to ante up at the big boy table.
Would the uber-talented (yet temperamental) Westbrook contemplate re-locating to NYC? Considering he’s developed his own major clothing line, would he prefer to live and play so close to the 5th Avenue and the Fashion District in Manhattan?
It would certainly be surprising, if not shocking, to see Curry leave a great situation in Golden State to move across the country, but obviously a lot can change over the next 16 months.
Paul would seem to be the most realistic target. It’s common knowledge that he’s very good friends with Anthony. At Carmelo’s wedding in 2010, CP3 toasted to them eventually uniting as teammates.
However, would a 33-year-old Chris Paul be a major upgrade over a 30-year-old Mike Conley?
There is one other All-Star-caliber point guard likely to hit free agency in 2017. Toronto’s Kyle Lowry also has a player option to become a free agent as well. He would be another interesting option to consider at that point.
The summer of 2017 obviously seems like the distant future right now, but the decisions made this summer will have a direct impact on what New York can do going forward.
Furthermore, it’s unknown if Conley would be willing to even entertain signing with the Knicks. However, it’s obviously not just Conley or bust for New York in the summer of 2016. There are a handful of other point guard options (Rajon Rondo, Brandon Jennings and the restricted Jordan Clarkson to name just a few). And of course the Knicks are not obligated to use the lion’s share of their cap space on a playmaker, especially since Jose Calderon has another year at over $7 million left on his contract.
Still, at some point Jackson and Steve Mills will have to decide what direction they want to take the franchise. What will be their primary focus? Is the goal to maximize Anthony’s dwindling prime? That would mean adopting a win-now approach – zeroing in on players who complement ‘Melo’s game in an attempt to build a team that gives them the best chance of winning next season, even at the possible detriment of the long-term salary cap situation.
Or will Phil and company come to the conclusion that the best chance the Knicks have to eventually become a legitimate contender (as opposed to merely a playoff participant) several years in the future and focus on that? Will they build with several years down the road in mind, when Porzingis eventually inherits the responsibility of being the face of the franchise and the team’s best and most important player? If the Knicks embrace that philosophy, it may necessitate sacrificing in the short-term, in order to build the best possible foundation around Porzingis, which ideally would result in sustained, long-term success.
Or, will the Knicks attempt to somehow find a middle road and try to blend both approaches?
These are important questions Phil Jackson is going to have to answer sooner rather than later.
If Conley is interested, do they make a full-court press? Does New York use all of their cap space in 2016 to round out their roster with players who provide immediate bang for their buck? Or, do the Knicks get greedy and take a risk, holding out hope they can land a franchise-changing point guard the following summer?
Prior to the arrival and emergence of Porzingis, it would have been preposterous to say that New York had even an outside shot at signing a superstar such as Russell Westbrook, Stephen Curry or Chris Paul via free agency. But the Knicks no longer have to rely on the bright lights of Broadway and the Big City as their major selling point. Kristaps Porzingis is now the beacon that will hopefully attracts other stars into New York’s orbit.
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