New York Knicks president Phil Jackson and general manager Steve Mills effectively overhauled the team’s roster this summer. The primary focus of their offseason work was addressing the frontcourt.
They brought in Joakim Noah, Mindaugas Kuzminskas, Maurice Ndour, Marshall Plumlee, and Guillermo Hernangomez. They also re-signed Lance Thomas.
Noah is the only new addition expected to start, as Carmelo Anthony and Kristaps Porzingis will start at small forward and power forward, respectively. When last summer’s free-agent signee Kyle O’Quinn is also factored in, the Knicks appear to have plenty of depth up front.
Their backcourt, on the other hand, isn’t nearly as deep. The point guard position is particularly concerning.
The Knicks’ much-publicized trade for Derrick Rose generated buzz and lots of discussion. And while there are plenty of reasons to believe Rose has the potential to bounce back and play at an above-average level, the concerns regarding his durability are undeniable. Last year he remained relatively healthy, playing in over 65 games for the first time since his MVP campaign in 2010-11. In fact, Rose has actually played in more games over the last two seasons (117) than both Anthony (112) and Noah (96). Nonetheless, expecting him to stay healthy in 2016-17 may not be a prudent gamble. The reality is Rose has missed a total of 162 games since 2011.
The only other point guard on the roster with a guaranteed contract for next season is Brandon Jennings, who is also working his way back from a serious injury. He tore his Achilles on January 24th of 2014. He returned to game action in late December of last year, averaging 6.9 points (on below 37% shooting) and 3.5 assists in the 48 games he appeared in.
An Achilles tear is one of the more destructive and destabilizing injuries any athlete can suffer. The list of players that have successfully bounced back from this dreaded injury is not lengthy. Jennings is only 27, and avoided a major setback last season, which is encouraging. Still, much like Rose, the odds of Jennings playing 70 or more games next season are not high.
Thus the Knicks enter the season, one in which fans have high hopes, with their fingers crossed when it comes to the point guard position. Considering the rules currently in place and the way the game is officiated, it is impossible to overstate the importance of quality point guard play in today’s NBA. New Yorkers understand this reality all too well – the Knicks being forced to start a past-his-prime Jose Calderon torpedoed their previous two seasons.
The Knicks did sign Chasson Randle and Ron Baker after each played for the organization in the Las Vegas Summer League, but it remains unlikely that either makes the final 15-man roster, let alone contributes as a rotation player any time soon. Baker went undrafted this past summer and is not a pure point guard. Randle went undrafted in 2015 and played in the Czech Republic National Basketball League last season. The most likely scenario is both players spending the majority of the season in Westchester for the Knicks D-League affiliate.
The Knicks currently have 14 players with guaranteed deals for 2016-17; both Randle and Baker, as well as J.P. Tokoto, inked non-guaranteed contracts. Might Phil Jackson solidify their potential point guard problem by using their 15th and final roster spot on a reliable, veteran point guard?
Listed below are a handful of currently unemployed, yet established point guards that might fit the bill:
* Mario Chalmers: Arguably the most accomplished point guard still available, Chalmers was the starting point on back-to-back title teams in Miami. He was playing well for Memphis last season before tearing his Achilles in March. He isn’t a great fit in New York, as the Knicks would be investing in two players returning from similar, serious injuries.
* Norris Cole: Cole’s career got off to a promising start in Miami, but he never developed into the reliable rotation player the HEAT had hoped he would become. Cole played decently in stretches for New Orleans last season, but only appeared in 45 games after being limited by a back injury late in the year. The numbers aren’t encouraging (he has a career PER south of 10 and a True Shooting Percentage of just 47.7), but he is still just 27 years old with some experience and bit of potential upside.
* Kirk Hinrich: The 35-year old Hinrich spent the majority of his career in Chicago and has familiarity backing up Derrick Rose. He shot nearly 39% from three-point territory last season, an encouraging figure.
* Steve Blake: Much like Hinrich, Blake has been a reliable and consistent throughout his 13-year NBA career. He’s a solid locker room presence.
* Nate Robinson: The former Knick put up big numbers in Israel last year and has let it be known he badly wants to return to the NBA.
* Jordan Farmar: Farmar actually ended up starting for the Grizzlies in their first-round playoff loss to the Spurs this past April. He averaged 9.0 ppg and 3.1 assists in the 10 total games he started for Memphis.
* Andre Miller: The Professor turned 40 last season, finishing the year as a member of the San Antonio Spurs. He currently ranks ninth all-time in the NBA career assists, and while he obviously can’t be relied to play heavy minutes, he can still get by on guile.
* Lance Stephenson: While certainly not a pure point guard, Stephenson can handle the ball when needed. He also possesses far more pure talent and athleticism than any other player on this list. After disastrous stints in Charlotte and Los Angeles, Stephenson seemed to revive his career with a strong showing in Memphis late last season. He averaged 19.2 points, 6.0 rebounds and 3.8 assists per-36 minutes during 26 games with the Grizzlies. However, the fact that he’s still a free agent confirms that teams still have major concerns regarding his maturity and professionalism. Coming home to NYC would be worrisome on many levels, but would Phil Jackson and company be willing to take an inexpensive flier on a reclamation project?
With training camp starting in less than a month, the Knicks will likely have to make a decision soon. One player that was originally on this list when the column was initially crafted was Ty Lawson, but he’s since signed a one-year deal with the Kings on Monday.
The worst case scenario would be having too many healthy point guards, which is obviously a “problem” the Knicks would be happy to confront should it arise. Not only would that mean Rose and Jennings stayed avoided injury, but it would conceivably allow Coach Jeff Hornacek to play two point guards at the same time. This was a strategy Hornacek successfully employed in Phoenix.
The other option New York could consider would be addressing their lack of point guard depth by trading a big for a small. Would Phil consider shipping out one of the backup forwards or centers to acquire a guard? Might Kyle O’Quinn, who is locked into an affordable contract, draw some interest if dangled around the league?
Personally, I am of the opinion that the Knicks’ plan is to earnestly pursue their “point guard of the future” next summer via free agency. Rose only having one year left on his deal was an important factor in New York’s decision to acquire him, and it’s not a coincidence that Jennings was inked to a one-year deal. As currently constructed, the Knicks will shed approximately $27 million worth of contracts with Rose and Jennings coming off the books next July. It is safe to assume they will look to reinvest that in a stud at the point. There are a number of top-tier point guards that will hit the open market next July (including ‘Melo’s good buddy Chris Paul), so if the Knicks were to trade for one, they would likely only consider for a guard with an expiring contract.
Either way, common sense seems to dictate the Knicks would be dangerously rolling the dice if they decided to enter the season with just Derrick Rose and Brandon Jennings manning the point guard position.
Perhaps Phil Jackson and the Knicks’ brain trust disagree. Maybe they saw enough from Chasson Randle or Ron Baker this summer to assuage their fears? We shall see. New York’s activity, or lack thereof, in the remaining weeks prior to the start of training camp should give plenty of insight into the Knicks’ plans.
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