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Should Knicks and Cavaliers Stay the Course or Break It Up?

The New York Knicks are one of a few teams with talent that must decide to stay the course or start over.

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While some organizations are blessed with the on-court talent and executive personnel to lay out a pretty reasonable road map for the next half a decade, and other organizations have already admitted failure and have begun the purging and rebuilding process in earnest, there are some teams that really don’t fit into either extreme.

For the following two organizations, life in the NBA has been challenging this season, but the players on the roster are just promising enough to make the front office wonder if it would be wiser to hold onto the core players or just blow the whole thing up and start from scratch.

It’s a heck of a conundrum, and one that is likely to prove more challenging for Cleveland and New York than most of the other teams in the league.

Cleveland Cavaliers

Anybody who watched Kyrie Irving dominate the All-Star game knows this kid is for real. Statistically, he’s as overpowering and well-rounded as any point guard in the league, and while his leadership skills may not be fully developed just yet, it’s important to remember that he turns 22 years old this month. The kid’s got room to grow, and whatever else the Cavaliers do, they know they’ve got to put something around him to make him happy enough to want to stay in Ohio long-term.

Beyond the certainty of Irving, however, it’s a mess in Cleveland. Spencer Hawes and Luol Deng are about to hit unrestricted free agency, and the young guys with any sort of promise—Dion Waiters, Tristan Thompson and Anthony Bennett—are anything but sure things. The Cavs would love for those guys to work out, and the way they’re all priced right now there’s little reason not to give it another year or two.

By that time, though, Irving will be staring restricted free agency in this face. Cleveland would match any max offer, obviously, but what if Irving was unhappy enough to take the one-year tender and go unrestricted a year later? There is a sense of urgency in Cleveland, but unfortunately the trade value of their best young players is about as low as it could be. Even if they wanted to cash those guys out, what return could they get right now that outweighs those players’ potential?

Ideally, they’d strip down to Kyrie and rebuild around him, but they don’t have the time or the assets for that. So they’re forced to stay the course and hope everything comes up roses.

New York Knicks

Financially, the Knicks don’t really have a whole lot of freedom this summer, with Tyson Chandler making $14.6 million and Amar’e Soudemire and Andrea Bargnani all but certain to decline exercising their early termination options, which are worth $23.1 million and $11.5 million, respectively. J.R. Smith is on the books for $6 million next season, too, so it’s pretty obvious that the Knicks’ payroll is not pretty.

Those guys are all essentially sure things for next year, but star forward Carmelo Anthony is a bit of a different story. Not a lot of players would terminate a $23.3 million contract, but Anthony has one last shot at a massive multi-year deal, and cutting that last year loose would allow him to get the most of that last contract. New York is probably going to do everything they can to hold onto him, but should they?

Knicks could have had a reasonable shot at a top-five draft pick in this lauded 2014 draft (it was traded to the Nuggets in the Carmelo Anthony deal), and while next year wouldn’t be particularly pretty, by the summer of 2015 they’d have tons of cap space, a couple of lottery picks, and a rebuilding plan that actually would made a lot of sense.

Now the Knicks have to decide if trying to keep Anthony is better than betting on the future.

With Stoudemire, Anthony, Chandler, and Bargnani off the books, New York would have no more than $17 million in committed salaries (not including future rookies) owed for 2015-2016. With a couple of decent youngsters and all that cap space, the Knicks could rebuild the right way. Meanwhile, somebody else could pay Anthony $25 million a season and discover the answer to the question of whether or not he’s good enough to lead a team to a championship.

It’s not easy making the decision to blow up a team that appears to have some really talented veteran players on the roster, but sometimes it’s a decision that just has to be made. What’s interesting is that the team that probably would love to rebuild, can’t, and the team that doesn’t look like they will, probably should.

However this all pans out, both teams have changes to make. Full rebuilds are possible, but neither will come back next season identical to this season. In other words, neither is truly standing pat.

Joel Brigham is a senior writer for Basketball Insiders, covering the Central Division and fantasy basketball.

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