The Knicks are poised for a postseason run in 2012-13, but don't be surprised to see some major changes in New York if things go south next season.
In the midst of an offseason of optimism, there is plenty of reason to hope for the Knicks right now.
Carmelo Anthony, Amar'e Stoudemire and Tyson Chandler finally get a real offseason together. Mike Woodson seems up to the task of getting the team to gel, instilling his guys with a toughness reminiscent of the Knicks in the '90s. Lastly, Woodson has the defenders to make his system work, with Marcus Camby, Kurt Thomas, Rasheed Wallace and Ronnie Brewer giving New York a stifling second unit.
If everything falls into its right place, New York can contend for a title with this team. However, if the pieces still don't fit together and the Knicks languish in the middle of the pack once again, then there won't be much to be hopeful about anymore. Instead, the Knicks will be a team that is declining with age and clearly not capable of winning a championship as currently constructed.
Even with the Big Three still under contract beyond 2012-13, failure next season will be the end of New York's experiment. It will be time to start over and try again, and here's how the Knicks should do it.
Here's the list of Knicks with favorable contracts after this season: Iman Shumpert, J.R. Smith and Raymond Felton. Maybe you consider Tyson Chandler a bargain at anything below a max contract, but otherwise, that's it.
Meanwhile, Amar'e and Melo are getting $20 million a year apiece to stylistically clash, and 79 years worth of Marcus Camby and Jason Kidd will make a combined $7 million a year through 2014-15.
As long as these guys and their bad deals are in New York, the Knicks will be paying the luxury tax. While no one will weep for James Dolan's expenses, the tax will inhibit New York's ability to rebuild; just ask any Knicks fan who watched the Marbury era.
If either Camby or Kidd is a major liability for the Knicks, hopefully he would want to retain his dignity after a long career and just retire. Unfortunately, that's the only easy cap aid New York could get. The other options are not so simple.
It won't matter whether or not it's Carmelo Anthony's fault. New York would need flexibility, in terms of finances as well as personnel; Melo hurts a transitioning team on both fronts.
Besides, it's either him or Amar'e who goes, but with Stoudemire's uninsured contract and achy everything, the Knicks cannot find any possible way to trade him. Trading Anthony is the only way.
Even then, based on what Orlando ended up getting for Dwight Howard, the pickings will likely be slim. Knicks fans could cry fair value all they want, which would likely look something like this trade with Indiana for Danny Granger, but average teams don't get fair value for superstars.
Rather, the Knicks would either have to dump Melo on a team with lots of prospects and cap space or send him to a big-market team in exchange for some middling vets. The former could bring back a package from Cleveland highlighted by Tristan Thompson and Alonzo Gee, while the latter would bring a disappointing Pu Pu platter back from Dallas.
Either way, the return will not be pretty for New York. On the other hand, there is one silver lining to a Melo trade that would be a shot in the arm for the Knicks.
With the Knicks' salary situation, they aren't going to spend their way to a new roster. They will have to reload through the draft.
This has not been New York's forte in recent years. The Knicks have picked in the first round just once in the past three years, which they used to select Iman Shumpert sixteenth overall in 2011. In fact, Shumpert is the only current Knick who was originally drafted by the team.
The cost-effective way to rejuvenate a team is with young players, and that's the one positive about a Melo trade. Regardless of the package the Knicks receive, they will be able to demand multiple first round picks for Anthony.
That's vital, sine the Knicks still owe multiple picks over the next few years. Most notably, the Nuggets have their 2014 first rounder and have the right to swap first rounders with New York in 2016; ironically, these debts stem from the trade to acquire Carmelo Anthony in 2011.
If the Knicks can get back to picking consistently in the first round, they will have a better chance of getting young contributors like Shumpert. Otherwise, they'd have to look for aid entirely through free agency, and they don't have the money to pull it off.
As we noted earlier, the Knicks do have some good contracts amidst the rampant spending. One of those deals provides a good precedent for how New York should approach free agency after the Big Three era.
J.R. Smith is an explosive wing scorer and an unrelenting defender when he sets his mind to it. However, he's also an erratic player who has clashed with multiple NBA coaches. That's why he's in New York for just $2.8 million this season, with a player option for 2013-14 for roughly the same price. Compare that to Steve Novak commanding more than $4 million a year, and Smith looks like a great deal for New York.
That's the kind of Moneyball signing a cash-strapped team needs to make. The Knicks won't reload through their free agency exemptions alone. High-reward signings for reasonable salaries are the way to go.
So who should the Knicks be looking at in the summer of 2013? It's tricky to predict a year in advance who will be undervalued in free agency, but one guy to watch for is Aaron Brooks.
The point guard has shown flashes of dynamic play, but he still ended up in Sacramento this summer for $3.2 million. If Brooks declines his player option next year, he would provide a nice change of pace alongside Raymond Felton.
There might be an instinct to clean house for a new era in New York, but Mike Woodson should stay on for the transition.
Just consider what Woodson's done as a head coach. The Atlanta Hawks were just 13-69 in his first season at the helm, but their record improved over each of the next five years; by the end of the 2009-10 season, they were 53-29. In his last three seasons split between Atlanta and New York, Woodson has posted a 118-70 record.
What's more, Woodson found success in Atlanta without the aid of elite players. Joe Johnson was the closest thing he had to a star, but he built a winner by preaching hard-nosed defense and a team mentality.
That's the sort of philosophy that an organization in transition needs. When you don't know who's going to be in the long-term picture, you don't worry about building around specific guys; you build a team and just go out and play fundamental basketball.
If the Knicks have a rough 2012-13 season, the decision on Woodson's future would come down to what's best for appearances just as much as what's best for the team. Yet if New York lets Woodson go just for the sake of making a change, it would be an ill-advised step into an uncertain future.