In the wake of Carmelo Anthony’s record-breaking 62-point performance last Friday night, the temptation to take it as a sign that all was right in the world must have been a burning one for fans of the New York Knicks.
No need to break up the band mid-song, the thinking goes—Melo’s here to bring it all back home.
What a difference a good weekend has made for the Knicks, mired as they've been for months, it seems, in speculation over Anthony’s basketball future.
Still, not even the most robust renewed hope can mask the reality: New York probably couldn’t upgrade its roster even if it wanted to.
Not now. Not this season, with these players, these onerous contracts and with so few assets.
Of course, in a league where one team can give up three—count them, three—draft picks for Andrea Bargnani, anything is possible.
Problem is, even the moves the Knicks are best prepared to make are rife with perils and pitfalls, risks and very little in the way of immediate reward.
The most obvious target is, of course, Anthony himself, who at 29 years old is precisely the kind of “final piece” that a team on the brink of contention—the Los Angeles Clippers or Golden State Warriors, for instance—would be looking to acquire.
But if you're the Knicks, how quick are you to pull the trigger on a deal to jettison the guy who just broke your franchise's single-game scoring record?
Talk about bad PR.
For good or ill, the Knicks are resigned to waiting it out and gauging the two parties’ mutual interest come summertime, when owner James Dolan can hopefully convince his cash-crop cornerstone to take a haircut and go for one more rebuild.
Tyson Chandler is another option, but here the risk lies in the return. With 31 years and nearly 13 seasons ground into Tyson’s treads, any team willing to take an 18-month flier would be looking to do one of two things: send back low picks or send back expiring contracts.
Needless to say, the Knicks are all set in that department.
Speaking of expiring contracts, the Knicks will have plenty of them soon enough—Amar’e Stoudemire's, Andrea Bargnani's, Anthony's and Chandler's being chief among them.
If the Knicks choose to continue building around Anthony, they might well explore unloading one or more of them. Just not until next season.
The remainder of New York’s roster is mostly a hodge-podge of roster flotsam and flat-out untradeable contracts which, taken together, don't offer much more than mere lateral moves.
Even Beno Udrih has backpedaled on earlier statements demanding that the Knicks cut him adrift, according to the New York Post's Marc Berman—encouraging, considering the Knicks probably wouldn't get much for the veteran point guard anyway.
“Yeah, that’s my first option,’’ Udrih said. “There’s a lot of options out there for everybody. I’m a Knick. I want to be here. I think the team has more than enough talent to succeed. We just got to get it together and do our job.’’
The Post reported Thursday Udrih would be fine if nothing happened on the trade front despite a previous report of a trade request.
There are, of course, two notable provisions in New York's otherwise barren cupboards: Iman Shumpert and Tim Hardaway Jr.
Both are young, both have upside and both are eminently tradeable.
However, the conundrum for the Knicks is this: If you don’t know where Carmelo Anthony will be next year, but you do know that—assuming he decides to stay—you’ll have to augment the roster in as cheap and effective a manner as possible, why would you squander your only upside-heavy assets for stagnant pieces or question marks?
Of the two, Hardaway—with his cap-friendly rookie deal good through the 2018 season—is the more valuable asset. In that the Knicks could either get more than he’s worth in a trade, or stand pat and let the talent carry through.
Shumpert, meanwhile, could prove a bit trickier. His contract is up following next season, at which point he becomes a restricted free agent. The price tag: $3.8 million, a figure that might be enticing to a team looking to bolster its wing depth.
Indeed, Shumpert is exactly the kind of player for whom teams will fall over one another to overpay: young, athletic and with a fiery ferocity to match the enticing upside.
Should the Knicks decide to match any outlandish qualifying offer, however, they can do so with the full faith and credit of the Bank of Dolan behind them.
If, on the other hand, teams find Shumpert’s ancillary drama too much to handle, they’ll at least rest easy knowing they’ll have something on the order of the mid-level exception with which to work—not exactly a bad consolation prize.
When all’s said and done, there’s still this elephant in the room: Can the Knicks convince Carmelo Anthony to stay, and if so, at what cost?
B/R's own D.J. Foster did a masterful job of sussing out some free-agent destinations for Melo, all equally compelling in their own right.
If you believe Anthony’s wife, however, his hometown team still has the inside track. ESPN New York’s Ian Begley had the scoop:
"I definitely think he will stay," La La Anthony said in an interview with Bravo TV's "Watch What Happens Live." "I know that he wants to stay, and I support him wherever he wants to go.
"Listen, I used to live in Denver with him. If I can live in Denver, I can live anywhere. I just want him to be happy."
So let’s take La La’s word at face value and assume, for the sake of argument, that Melo does what LeBron James did in 2010 and takes a bit of a financial hit—say to the tune of a five-year, $100 million deal that starts out at $18 million in the first year.
J.R. Smith and Raymond Felton both hold player options for the 2015-16 season, so we’ll allow that the Knicks manage to trade one of them—we won’t say which—and keep the other. As such, we’ll split the difference on the two’s respective salaries.
We’re also assuming that the Knicks match an offer for Shumpert—somewhere in the neighborhood of four years and $30 million.
Here’s what the Knicks' salary situation could look like:
|Carmelo Anthony||~$18 million|
|J.R. Felton (?)||~$5.5 million|
|Iman Shumpert||~7 million|
|Tim Hardaway, Jr.||$1.3 million|
|Pablo Prigioni||$1.7 million|
That leaves them with approximately $25-$27 million left to spend, depending on where the salary cap lands—plenty to sign a second max player, assuming the Knicks choose to go that route.
There’s just one small snag to this scenario: If the Knicks can convince Anthony to stick around, they’ll do so knowing that the 2014-15 season will likely wind up a wash.
Whether Anthony is prepared to suffer through another middling campaign for a chance—not a guarantee, but a chance—at a retooled roster come 2015 is anybody’s guess.
Which brings us back to the here and now.
Here’s what we know: The only deals that could help the Knicks right now involve parting with their two cheapest and most promising assets.
But if the Knicks can’t turn Shumpert or Hardaway into pieces that can help them contend (spoiler: they can’t), then there’s absolutely no point in doing so.
Unless, that is, the Knicks know something we don’t, namely that Carmelo is dead set on leaving New York this summer. Even then, why would you throw away your best shot at a sustainable future for the sake of a couple extra postseason wins?
In the end, the most logical short-term strategy for the Knicks is to stand pat through the trade deadline, accomplish what they can with what they have, and convince Melo to scale back the bank account and weather another season of mediocrity before taking one last shot at building a contender.
Should Anthony choose to take the money and run, New York will still have the 2015 draft to look forward to. That, coupled with one or both of its flashy young guards, could go a long way in attracting a new marquee name 18 months from now.
Even if the ultimate Anthony endgame doesn’t come to pass, the Knicks can at least take solace in a future built upon a bendier bottom line.
Either way you cut it, New York would be best served by reeling in this year's trade feelers for good.