Here's a fun game: Ask a New York Knicks fan what was the worst personnel move the team has made in the last 10 years. The range of facial expressions will run the gamut from a defensive grin, to "take those jumper cables off my thumbs!", to "death of a family member."
The number of possible responses are endless too.
The most popular responses would be any one of the three times the team hired Isiah Thomas in various capacities, signing Eddy Curry to a six-year $60 million contract, trading for the enigmatic native New Yorker Stephon Marbury, various draft blunders with the picks they didn't give away such as taking Channing Frye ahead of Andrew Bynum and Renaldo Balkman ahead of Rajon Rondo, trading for Zach Randolph and Steve Francis, failing to renew Donnie Walsh's contract, signing Jason Kidd (too soon?) and trading for Carmelo Anthony rather than waiting to add him as a free agent.
It's probably a bad sign for your franchise that every time I thought I was finished with that paragraph there were two more moves that I couldn't leave out and went back to add in.
If you thought the move that I was referencing in the title was electing not to match the Houston Rockets' offer for restricted free agent point guard Jeremy Lin, you are mistaken. Don't get me wrong, it's on the list, but we'll get to that later.
There's one move that likely won't be on anyone's list, yet it can be traced back as the root of every bad move of the last two offseasons for the Knicks, and will be for the next three to come.
When the Knicks were on the verge of shifting from "decade-long laughing stock" to "possible contender" at the beginning of last offseason, this move hurtled them backward toward "cap-strapped unmitigated disaster of a basketball roster."
With a lockout looming and the future climate of the league being uncertain to say the least, the Knicks decided they would exercise their team option for $14.2 million to keep point guard Chauncey Billups, who came over as part of the Melo trade with the Denver Nuggets the previous winter. On the surface, it didn't seem like a bad move.
The Knicks wanted to keep Billups because his huge contract would become a valuable asset in its final year. However, when the lockout ended and general managers across the league attempted to digest the specifics of the new collective bargaining agreement, the Knicks decided to use the amnesty clause, a feature of the newly ratified CBA, to wipe Billups' contract from their salary cap. The move cleared space for the team to sign center Tyson Chandler.
So let's review. On the verge of a lockout, the Knicks picked up Billups' option so that he could be a part of their team while the league was shut down, then admitted their mistake by amnestying him.
Here's where the move really gets troubling. The amnesty clause can only be used once, not each season, but ever. It's a one-shot deal to erase a bad contract.
The Knicks would have been perfectly justified to decline Billups' option and allow him to walk away.
If they did, the possibilities to improve their team, in an age when they have been closer to a title than a joke for the first time since the turn of the century, would be endless.
For starters, the Knicks would have the option of amnestying forward Amar'e Stoudemire, whose frequent injuries and trouble gelling with Anthony are not what the Knicks envisioned to get out of his near $100 million contract that pays him about $20 million annually. Rather than pretending the duo will one day work, the Knicks would be free to cut their losses and surround Melo with the right players.
With Amar'e off of the books, the Knicks would have the salary cap space to pursue a trade for center Dwight Howard, sign Chris Paul if he's available next offseason or at a bare minimum match the Rockets' offer to Jeremy Lin.
Instead, the Knicks missed out on Lin because they didn't want to approach the luxury tax that would siphon more money out of owner James Dolan's pocket, despite the fact that "Linsanity" t-shirts would probably cover that cost in about a half an hour.
Here the Knicks stand with a star in Carmelo Anthony that hasn't meshed with a single teammate since he's been in New York, an albatross of a contract that isn't going anywhere via trade, amnesty or otherwise in Amar'e Stoudemire, defensive anchor Tyson Chandler and a bunch of spare parts squeezed under the salary cap for the next three seasons.
The troubling part is that if I told you that exercising Billups' option was another bright idea from Isiah Thomas, or a move that Dolan had a hand in, Knicks fans wouldn't think twice. In reality, this move that has all but guaranteed the Knicks won't be able to improve their team until Stoudemire's contract expires in three years was one of Donnie Walsh's final acts as the team's head of basketball operations.
The team seemed to be in better hands than ever when Walsh replaced Thomas. Yet Walsh's final move could be the one that handcuffs the Knicks for the next three years in a time when superstars have been more available than ever.
When the dust settles on this tumultuous era of Knicks basketball, many will point to allowing Lin to walk as the turning point if he turns out to be the player that he looked like for a few weeks in a Knicks jersey.
It would be hard to blame Knicks fans for pointing to this.
They lost their most exciting player who made their team not only a national story, but a global one. They lost him because Dolan finally decided to draw a line and be frugal with his money for the first time in a decade. They lost him because they had $14 million tied up in a player that they paid not to play for their team a year before, and another who they payed $60 million not to play for their team for the six years before. They cut off their nose to spite their face, and Knicks fans are the ones who get to suffer yet again.
Few will point to picking up the Billups option for whatever reason. Every time a superstar changes teams in the next three years, remember this move, and remember that the Knicks could have been a possible destination for said superstar if they just had some cap flexibility.
On the bright side, the Knicks will continue to lead the league in "if's" and "buts" for the umpteenth year in a row.
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