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Rebuilding the New York Knicks

Phil Jackson and company will soon have to decide how they want to rebuild this once storied franchise…

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At the start of this season, and even as recently as last month, there were questions as to how Phil Jackson and the New York Knicks would handle the 2014-15 campaign. If New York played well enough early on and were on the periphery of playoff contention, would they bolster the lineup this season in hopes of salvaging a year of Carmelo Anthony’s prime (whom they signed to a massive five-year, $124 million contract over the summer)? However, as the losses piled up, and the Knicks shockingly fell 25 games under .500 by the start of January, it became abundantly clear to everyone that only one course of action could be pursued: Jackson had to blow apart the roster and start from scratch.

Jackson shed two significant contributors earlier this week, trading away Iman Shumpert and J.R. Smith. Samuel Dalembert was then unceremoniously released after they couldn’t find a taker for his services.

A new direction has been determined. The Knicks have no choice but to start over this summer. Questions still remain, though. There are a few different paths Jackson can venture down. Is Phil itching for a quick fix? Will he bide his time if he can’t land a stud this summer?

Below we have outlined a few different alternatives for Phil Jackson and the Knicks:

The “Land a Big Fish This Summer” Plan

It appears the Knicks will have approximately $27 million in cap space this summer. That could change based on any moves New York might make between now and the February trade deadline. For instance, might Jackson be able to unload Jose Calderon, who is owed $15.2 million over the next two seasons?

Either way, the Knicks will have the requisite cap space (for just the second time in nearly two decades) to make major moves. The free agent class of 2015 doesn’t look quite as promising as it once did (before LeBron, Bosh, Wade opted out last summer, and Kevin Love got dealt to Cleveland etc.); however, there are still some top-tier talent available as unrestricted free agents. LaMarcus Aldridge, Marc Gasol, Rajon Rondo, Kevin Love, Paul Millsap, and Wes Matthews among others will be up for grabs on July 1.

But there’s a catch. A stud like LaMarcus Aldridge, who is undoubtedly worth a max contract, would have to leave money on the table to join the Knicks because the Trail Blazers possess his Bird rights and thus can offer him more money and a longer contract (which is how the Knicks were able to keep Anthony). Even for other players, who likely won’t be able to demand max money, will these stars be willing to join a team coming off two terrible seasons in a row? Will winners want to join a team with a “loser mentality,” as Jackson described this Knicks squad earlier this season?

Would Marc Gasol be willing to take less money to leave a stable/winning organization in Memphis to play in New York? The Knicks would first have to hope the Grizzlies wouldn’t be willing to pay the full max, then New York would have to decide for themselves if Gasol worth upwards of $18 million a season.

There are also a number of restricted free agents available this summer. Kawhi Leonard, Jimmy Butler and Draymond Green are the three most enticing names. Safe to assume Leonard and Butler will receive near-max offers from their current, respective squads. Green won’t command max money, but he’s earned a major payday.

It stands to reason that that the Knicks will likely have to overpay players to get them to come to New York. The last time the Knicks had cap space to work with they struck out on their top targets (LeBron, Wade, Bosh, Joe Johnson, ect.) and had to over pay for Amar’e Stoudemire despite the obvious issues with his injured knees. Knicks fans were appeased in the short-term, but the long-range ramifications have been damaging.

This begs the question: If Jackson can’t get the top-tier talent he covets this summer, might it be wiser for him to be patient, bide his time, and wait for the summer of 2016 and beyond? Phil is being paid $12 million annually, will he feel immense pressure to facilitate a quick turnaround? Yet, would it make sense to squander valuable cap space on guys that might take the Knicks from a 20-win team to a 40-win team next season?

Yes, Knicks fans will be horrified by the mere thought of waiting another 12 months before being able to watch entertaining, competitive basketball, but it may the best course of action.

As shockingly bad as this season has been, having the worst record in the NBA is not actually the worst situation to be in. In today’s NBA, the worst possible scenario is being stuck in the middle of the pack, finishing the season as the ninth or tenth seed in your conference. Because of the high lottery pick they will select this summer, New York is closer to re-establishing respectability than if they had won 39 games this season

The “Stay Patient and Wait Until 2016” Plan

Jackson has previously preached patience. Can he resist the urge to use valuable cap space this summer in order to make incremental, short-term improvements?

The 2016 free agent crop could (depending on various player/team options) include the following: Kevin Durant, Joakim Noah, Al Horford, Chris Paul, Chandler Parsons, Dwight Howard, Mike Conley, Kobe Bryant, Nicolas Batum, Deron Williams, Ryan Anderson, Brook Lopez, Roy Hibbert and DeMar DeRozan.

Obviously it would be a gamble to wait another full season (and “waste” a year of Anthony’s prime), but you can’t cheat the rebuilding process. Sometimes you have to take three steps back in order to take one huge step forward.

The shrewder course of action may be to cherry-pick quality young role players and only offer huge contracts to truly elite talent worth top-tier money. Will Jackson feel intense pressure to immediately upgrade the talent level of the roster and chase a playoff berth, as opposed to sacrificing short-term upgrade in hopes of landing a true franchise-changing superstar the following summer?

The other benefit of waiting until 2016 would be giving the Knicks 2015 first-round draft pick, possibly the top overall selection, a year of seasoning. (As an aside, it is impossible to overstate the importance of the Knicks’ top pick this summer. If the Knicks whiff on this pick, it could be crippling.)

Yes, it would be perceived as perilous, but limiting the franchise’s ultimate potential by tying up cap money in median, mid-tier talent would also be fraught with risk, as it could hamstring the organization for years to come.

The “Use the Cap Space to Trade for Another Team’s Disgruntled Superstar” Plan

There is one other option that may lie somewhere in-between going all in this summer and waiting until 2016. This would be using some/most of the cap space that has been carved out to trade for player(s) that, for whatever reason, are available via trade. We’ve seen the Clippers completely change the landscape of their franchise by trading for Chris Paul, after he let it be known he wasn’t planning on re-signing in New Orleans. The Houston Rockets bottomed out, but then acquired James Harden, a move which revitalized that city. Last year, the Raptors traded away Rudy Gay and his massive contract for spare parts.

Granted, the Knicks don’t have the assets the Clippers used to pry Paul from the then New Orleans Hornets, or the Lakers traded away to acquire Dwight Howard. But in today’s NBA, there are often superstars on the precipice of free agency that scare their current teams into making a move. Could DeMarcus Cousins threaten his way out of Sacramento if that situation worsened? And of course every team in the NBA is keeping their eye on Anthony Davis in New Orleans (although the chances of the Pelicans ever allowing Davis to escape their franchise would seem slim to none).

Even if New York can’t procure a star in return, we’ve seen teams parlay cap space into extra first picks by collecting unsavory contracts for a year.

The moral of the story is that the true value of cap space rarely depreciates. Spending it wisely and shrewdly often pays benefits down the line.

Which road will Phil Jackson and his Knicks travel down? Stay tuned…

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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