A Crucial Summer for the New York Knicks

As the Knicks balance two timelines, they walk a thin tightrope

The Carmelo Anthony era in New York has been one marred by organizational disfunction, on-court mediocrity and unfulfilled expectations. Outside of the 2012–13 season, the Knicks have compiled a 136–204 record since the Anthony trade and are onto their 5th head coach in Jeff Hornacek. Nevertheless, Phil Jackson and Steve Mills have cleared the salary cap of albatross contracts, infused youth to the roster, retained all future 1st round draft picks, began to expand the team’s resources to include the draft rights of European players and identified a franchise-level talent in Kristaps Porzingis. This upcoming summer presents a crossroads, two diverging strategies that could set the franchise on starkly different paths. The road they take remains anyone’s guess.

The Knicks won 54 games and set an NBA record for threes in 2012–13.

Building around Carmelo

The best model for building a winning basketball team around Carmelo Anthony is the 2012–13 New York Knicks. A jump-shooting behemoth, the Knicks set the record (at the time) for 3s made in a season with 891. They were not a run-and-gun team, ranking 26th in pace, but managed to rank 3rd in the league in ORtg (111 points per 100 possessions). They won 54 games, and lost in the Eastern Conference Semifinals to the Pacers after Sixth Man of the Year JR Smith was suspended for elbowing Jason Terry in the face in Game 3 of Round One against the Celtics. That year, Anthony finished 3rd in MVP voting, scoring 28.7 ppg on 45% shooting (38% 3pt).

Above are the Knicks most popular five-man and four-man lineup combinations in 2012–2013. The data informs how best to build a team around Carmelo, and thus how the Knicks should move forward, should he elect not to waive his no-trade clause.

Carmelo played power forward the majority of 2012–13. He spent most of the season next to a rim protector (Tyson Chandler) and surrounded by wings (Felton, Kidd, Smith, Shumpert, Brewer). The Knicks often played two-PG sets with Felton and Kidd, with Smith or Shumpert at the other wing position, and were nearly unstoppable offensively.

In their four-man lineup combinations, the Knicks Net Rtg was consistently excellent when Carmelo was flanked by Chandler and wings. The reason for this is that Anthony frequently draws extra attention from opponents. His ability to create a reasonably efficient shot from anywhere on the floor forces defenders to stay aware and provide extra help when Anthony has the ball in their vicinity. Anthony is an underrated passer, and when surrounded by perimeter shooters, an offense can flourish with him as its focal point.

The Knicks’ progress began to stagnate in 2013–14 due to multiple factors. Chandler only played 55 games due to injury and his production declined. They also acquired Andrea Bargnani in a fruitless trade that still defies explanation or belief. Their defense cratered without a viable rim protector, and the Knicks adjusted to their new acquisition by playing big. They moved Carmelo back to his ‘natural position’ of small forward, who played often next to multiple big men like Amar’e Stoudemire, Kenyon Martin, Bargnani and Chandler.

In 2012–13, the Mike Woodson defense of “switch everything” was moderately effective. The team had more wings than New York-Presbyterian and their individual defensive prowesses were more-or-less the same. The next year, Woodson took until midseason to realize that switching every pick and roll with a starting lineup involving Ray Felton, JR Smith, Anthony, Bargnani and Chandler was an awful idea.

With Chandler’s deteriorating play and health, it soon became clear that the former iteration of the Knicks was untenable. Chandler was its foundation and the reason Anthony was passable defensively at the power forward spot. The Knicks brought in Phil Jackson, who presumably realized the same, and traded Chandler, signaling the beginning of the roster’s deconstruction.

As They Currently Stand

The cap projection for 2016–17 sits at $92 million. The Knicks have the following players under contract for next season: Carmelo Anthony, Robin Lopez, Jose Calderon, Kristaps Porzingis, Kyle O’Quinn, and Jerian Grant. Tony Wroten is on a non-guaranteed contract. Arron Afflalo has a player option, which he will decline, as does Derrick Williams. The Knicks hope he will pick up his option, but it’s doubtful in the new NBA economy. They have two restricted FAs in Langston Galloway and Cleanthony Early. They also have Early Bird Rights on Lance Thomas. If the Knicks renounce the rights of their FAs not named Thomas or Galloway, their pending free agent cap hold is $3.3 million. If both Afflalo and Williams deny their options, the Knicks will have 7 players under contract, including Wroten, for a total of $56.3 million with a $3.3 million cap hold for Thomas and Galloway. On a $92 million cap, that comes out to $32.4 million in cap space. There’s more to consider with Willy Hernangomez, Porzingis’s big man teammate in Spain that is reportedly joining the team next season, and potential draft picks should the Knicks acquire them. Furthermore, there are restrictions on the amount the Knicks can offer Thomas and Galloway should they sign them above the cap, but I digress, this is not a salary cap post.

The Diverging Timelines

I know what you’re thinking. We’re pretty deep here and I haven’t even talked about the biggest question facing the Knicks’ future. What do you do when your two best players are separated by 12 years of age? Undeniably, it is a conundrum, but quite frankly it is not so onerous as some make it seem.

Anthony had a career year in some respects. He passed and rebounded at career-high levels and took fewer FG attempts than any year since his first in the league. He was more engaged defensively and often spoke in the media about how he spent much of the year recovering from his knee surgery, despite his strong play, and began to hit his stride late in the year. There is reason to think Anthony will be a dominant scorer again next season, and until there is evident decline, whatever you may think of him, he is an asset for a winning basketball team. When he was a free agent two summers ago, he was coveted by every team in the league with max cap room, and remains a highly sought-after player.

Regardless of his play or how it’s perceived publicly, Anthony will be a Knick until he says otherwise. He has a no-trade clause, and until it is waived, the Knicks must plan to build simultaneously around Porzingis and Anthony. They must walk a difficult tightrope, targeting players that have youth and upside, but also players that can contribute to winning basketball in the near-term. Their hand is also forced by the free agent pool, and the exploding salary cap. Every team has money to spend, and there are not many talented players to spend it on.

How to Proceed

What direction will the Knicks take?

With significant cap space, but also significant holes in the team, the Knicks must spend judiciously this summer. They are well-stocked in the front court, with Anthony, Porzingis, Lopez, and Hernangomez, along with potentially bringing back Lance Thomas and Derrick Williams. Galloway will likely be their only shooting guard on the roster assuming Afflalo leaves and Sasha Vujacic does not return (God forbid). They have three point guards with Calderon, Grant and Wroten if they elect to guarantee his contract. In attacking the free agent market, the Knicks should look for shooters to surround Anthony, and players that can defend the perimeter.

Many Knicks fans want to throw truck-loads of money at Rajon Rondo or Mike Conley. A move like this would be reminiscent of Knicks follies of the past, overpaying for a big-name that fails to fill a need. The Knicks must find contributors on Porzingis’ timeline that fills their primary requirements: 3-point shooting, perimeter defense, and athleticism.

The Knicks should look to acquire 2–3 mid-tier players this summer, depending on the status of the top tier of free agents. Obviously, if they have the opportunity to sign Kevin Durant, they should do so.

While some of the players suggested below seem like fringe-rotation players who scored 5 points-per-game last season, the acquisitions would represent a change in priority and attention. Focusing on defending the perimeter, stopping transition and easy baskets is the Knicks #1 priority. Upgrading from Jose Calderon and Afflalo to some of the options below will result in major changes in the Knicks’ play defensively. Replacing Afflalo offensively with spot-up three point shooters will increase possessions’ efficiency, and the Knicks can model their team after the roster in 2012–13.

Jason Kidd, Ray Felton, JR Smith, Iman Shumpert, Steve Novak and company were no world-beaters. They simply were a group of wings that could bomb threes with the best of them and switch adequately on defense. Surround Carmelo with 3-and-D wings and rim protection and good things happen. They have rim protection, and $30+ million to get the rest.

In your dreams, Carmelo.

The Top Tier (“I don’t see it happening, but kick the tires”)

  • Kevin Durant: lol
  • LeBron James: LOL
  • Nic Batum: Good player, fits well. Likes small cities and a low-key atmosphere.
  • Bradley Beal (Restricted): An injury risk but a great talent at only 22. Hard to see the Wizards letting him go.

Tier 2 (“Top realistic targets”)

  • Kent Bazemore: A good on-ball defender who shot well from 3 this season. Teammates seem to love him.
  • Evan Fournier (Restricted): A surprisingly young 23, has shown scoring flashes and glimpses of strong defense. Magic have a lot of guards, he may be attainable.
  • Allen Crabbe (Restricted): This dude is going to get paid. I don’t think Portland lets him leave.
  • Eric Gordon: Major injury risk, but in his prime (27) and has shot 40% from 3 over the last three years.
  • Courtney Lee: He’s 30, but he has shot 40% from 3 his whole career and is a proven perimeter defender.

Tier 3 (“Unproven players worth pursuing”)

  • Tyler Johnson (Restricted): 24 years old, a strong defender that can play both guard positions at 6'4", and on a team with an expensive payroll. The exact type of player the Knicks should target.
  • Matthew Dellavedova (Restricted): 25, a limited game, but fits a similar profile to Johnson. A 40% 3-point shooter that can guard opposing point guards.
  • Seth Curry: Shot 45% from 3 this season while getting extended run after the All Star Break, and was repeatedly called one of the team’s best defenders by George Karl. It’s worth a shot.
  • E’twaun Moore: Made 47 of 104 threes this year. Is that sustainable? He’s 27 and plays above-average defense.
  • Solomon Hill: More of a small-forward, but a good defender. Perhaps a target if Lance doesn’t return.
  • Jonas Jerebko (team option): Similar profile to Hill. Unknown if Boston will retain him.
  • Marvin Williams: Same as the two above. Shot an impressive 40% from three this year.

Tier 4 (“I see what you’re thinking, but I’d prefer not”)

  • Joakim Noah: Think Noah has some good hoops left in him, but not sure how he fits next to Carmelo and KP.
  • Evan Turner: Actually played well this year, and can defend/pass. But he’s a walking 4–11 from the field.
  • Brandon Jennings: Not sure how much better he is than Jerian Grant.
  • Dion Waiters: Can’t get played by what you saw in May.
  • Jamal Crawford: An ‘ok’ addition depending on cost, but no needles are being moved here.

Tier 5 (“Please, don’t”)

  • Mike Conley: Paying a 6'0" guy $30+ million past 30 years old is a no-go.
  • Rajon Rondo: Hasn’t played defense in 4 years.
  • DeMar DeRozan: Career 28% 3pt shooter and 110 Def Rtg.
  • Dwight Howard: If they deal Lopez to bring in Dwight… man.
  • Lance Stephenson: Nah.

An Eye Towards the Future

The Knicks’ true goal should be establishing their legitimacy for the summer of 2017. Next summer, Steph Curry, Russell Westbrook, Blake Griffin, Chris Paul, Kyle Lowry, Paul Millsap, Gordon Hayward, and Jrue Holiday, among many others will become unrestricted free agents. The list of potentially-available impact players is overwhelming, and the league will likely undergo another massive cap spike where each team is flushed with money.

If the Knicks can make another reasonable jump next season, assembling a roster that plays better perimeter defense, and play more efficiently on offense under Jeff Hornacek, they would be far more attractive going into the following summer, especially as Porzingis continues to blossom. Although Porzingis’s and Anthony’s timelines seem far apart, the Knicks do have a chance to salvage Anthony’s remaining years. This summer, they have an opportunity to bring in rotation players that bolster their defense and outside shooting that also match Porzingis’s timeline. Next summer, their opportunity will come to lure another superstar to play alongside Anthony. Walking the tightrope to contention may be difficult, but it can be done.

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