At the moment, reports that Anthony could bolt the Bockers for greener pastures might amount to little more than mere hearsay (Stephen A. Smith's comments in early December being the first noted example).
But if New York’s already-tenuous playoff push ends with the Knicks on the outside looking in, the odds of 'Melo leaving money on the table—$29 million, to be exact—will increase exponentially.
If that once-impossible scenario comes to pass, the Knicks would find themselves in a wholly uncomfortable situation: over the salary cap, a host of onerous contracts still on the books and psychologically shell-shocked over losing the franchise’s biggest superstar in nearly two decades.
As the Knicks look to pick up the pieces and patch their franchise back together, choices will have to be made.
How the team approaches those choices—be they trades, free-agent signings or draft picks—will go a long way in determining whether a traditionally impatient organization will finally be ready to heed the mantra of so many of the NBA’s once-woeful teams: rebuild.
The Long and Winding Road
It’s the summer of 2014, and headlines across the country are trumpeting the news most every Knicks fan has theretofore dreaded: Anthony Signs With…
What that team is will hardly matter in the context of the bigger challenge for the Knicks: bandaging their bruised egos and beginning the long path back to relevance.
The minute 'Melo leaves, so does his $24.5 million salary. That would put the Knicks’ payroll at around $68 million, likely still a good $10 million over the NBA-sanctioned cap (the specific number will be revealed next offseason).
Beyond that, most of the Knicks are locked in for at least the next two years, the one exception being Metta World Peace, who holds a $1.7 million player option for the 2014-15 season.
Even assuming Metta bolts—and judging by his precarious rapport with head coach Mike Woodson, that’s a distinct possibility—the Knicks are still looking at a ledger above $66 million, meaning another year of luxury taxes and tight financials.
Being a tax-paying team, the Knicks will have one and only one option for signing a free agent: the mid-level exception. That amounts to a little over $3 million—not nearly enough to sign a game-changing player.
Sadly, the new collective bargaining agreement (CBA) also prevents tax-paying teams like the Knicks from acquiring players in a sign-and-trade—which, ironically, was the very template for how the Knicks landed Anthony in the first place.
Still, there will be options on the mid-level front: Jerryd Bayless, Luke Ridnour, Shaun Livingston, Thabo Sefolosha, Brandon Rush, Elton Brand, DeJuan Blair, Chris Kaman and Jordan Hill—yes, that Jordan Hill—will all be unrestricted free agents come next summer, and none of them will make more than $5 million this season.
Assuming the Knicks decide to use their mid-level on bolstering their frontcourt—say with Brand, Kaman or Hill—they would be in a better position to achieve what should be their short-term end game: trading one of their remaining big contracts.
As it stands today, Amar’e Stoudemire, Andrea Bargnani and Tyson Chandler are owed a combined $50 million for the upcoming season.
Before the Knicks consider any other major move, they should first attempt to find a taker for Stoudemire—no small feat, but by no means an impossible one.
Why Stoudemire over Bargnani (we'll get to Chandler in a second)? For the simple reason that, even if the Knicks resign themselves to rebuilding, they’ll still need offensive production—something Bargnani, for all his limitations at the other end, can provide.
The marketplace of bad, expensive contracts is, by its nature, a restrictive one: If a team is willing to take on yours, it’s probably because they’re looking to unload their own.
Still, there are trades the Knicks could make that would bolster them in both the short and the long term.
The one that most immediately comes to mind is one that has actually been bandied about, although in a slightly different context:
Boston gets: Amar’e Stoudemire
New York gets: Kris Humphries, Gerald Wallace
Having already commenced their own rebuilding project, the Boston Celtics might well consider taking on Stoudemire—whose contract ends at the end of next year—if it means getting rid of Wallace’s millstone three-year deal.
New York wouldn’t necessarily be getting the stick's short end, however: Though limited, Humphries is still more-than-serviceable, and provides a pair of skills lacking with the current Knicks—rebounding, and scrappy toughness.
Wallace’s contract might be a bit tougher to swallow—he’s due north of $10 million through the 2016 season—but if the Knicks play the rest of their cards right, it should by no means be a cap-killer.
Additionally, by the time 2015 rolls around, the Knicks might well be able to find a new taker for Wallace, whose near-expiring deal will be that much more attractive.
Because trading Stoudemire would theoretically have to be done before Melo leaves (at least in the context of the above trade, which would have to be done before the deadline), that move should be seen as a net-positive—even in isolation.
Which brings us to Tyson Chandler, whose contract is clearly the most tradable of the above-mentioned three. Indeed, teams like the Oklahoma City Thunder, Portland Trail Blazers and Los Angeles Clippers would all stand to benefit from Chandler’s rim-protecting prowess and championship pedigree.
Of those three teams, the Thunder might be the most enthusiastic trade partner, if only to upgrade over—and dispense of—Kendrick Perkins’ onerous contract. So let’s use them as guinea pig.
Here’s how that particular trade could work:
Oklahoma City gets: Tyson Chandler, Toure’ Murry
New York gets: Kendrick Perkins, Steven Adams, Thabo Sefolosha
A season of Kendrick Perkins likely wasn’t a part of any Knicks fan’s plans. Then again, no one said this would be easy.
In this scenario, the Thunder make their best move to win now by getting a top-tier defensive presence to couple with the team’s young, potent core. Meanwhile, the Knicks can take some solace in adding Adams—a raw but talented pivot with solid upside and a motor seemingly devoid of an off-switch—while only giving up Murry on the young-talent-with-upside front.
Let’s assume the above-mentioned moves carry us through next season, presumably ending with the Knicks in the lottery.
Should they hold on to their first-round pick—something they don’t currently have for 2014—they’ll be able to further strengthen a team already well on its way to rebuilding.
The 2015 draft may not end up being the embarrassment of riches promised by the 2014 lottery, but there will most certainly be prospects-aplenty.
Here’s what New York’s roster would look like after the 2015 draft:
|Player||Salary (in millions)|
|Tim Hardaway Jr.||$1.3|
|Rookie X||~ $2.0|
|Total = $13.7|
What the team manages to accomplish with trades and drafts will have significant bearing on what happens that summer, when LeBron James, Rajon Rondo and a host of other upper-echelon players become free agents.
A big X-factor here is whether the Knicks match another team’s offer for Iman Shumpert, a restricted free agent in 2015 (the qualifying offer is $3.9 million).
Let’s now assume, for sake of argument, that the Knicks decide to let Shumpert go—not exactly shocking, given the headstrong guard’s tempestuous relationship with Knicks management.
That would put New York at or around $23.8 in committed salary, or approximately $35-$37 million below the cap.
At that point, the Knicks could do one of three things:
- Spend 95 percent of that on two max or near-max level players (Rajon Rondo and LaMarcus Aldrige, for instance).
- Hedge between reloading and another year in the draft by targeting value signings (Goran Dragic, Jeff Green, Paul Millsap and the like).
- Hold tight under the cap, make no big splashes and target the draft again.
Each one of these scenarios has the potential to boom or bust—such is the nature of life in the NBA.
But these are the Knicks we’re talking about. James Dolan might be content to blow it up for a year or two, but a four-or-five year plan simply isn’t in the cards, barring a monumental shift in philosophy.
Let’s say the Knicks target and land one superstar—Aldridge, for example. Assuming Aldrige’s first year begins in the $20 million range, that leaves anywhere between $15 and $17 million for the Knicks to play around with.
However, it might be the case that New York will have to bolster their roster before a Rondo or an Aldridge could be enticed to sign there. Here’s just one possible menu of options:
Robin Lopez: ~$6 million (assuming his stock continues to plummet).
Lou Williams: ~$5 million
Carlos Boozer: ~6 million (a pay-cut, but one that might well be worth it).
Add a sprinkling of second-round draft picks and mid-level exceptions, the Knicks might suddenly have the makings of a sustainable team: Well-balanced without being overextended, deep without being onerously committed and a star (hopefully) on the right side of 30.
Obviously, a lot of pieces have to fall into place for this or any other scenario to come to pass.
But for the Knicks' long-suffocated fans, any future that finds their franchise taking the long view on success—rather than banking on flawed stars and faulty expectations—will be one replete with a pair of welcome phenomena: fresh air and financial flexibility.