With half of the NBA season in the books, it's clear now that the New York Knicks, as constructed this past offseason, are worlds away from championship caliber and may have a hard time competing for a mere playoff berth in a sorry Eastern Conference.
The team will certainly have a decision to make following this season when Carmelo Anthony is set to hit the open market for the first time in his career. Make no mistake, he'll be chasing a max-level contract. It'll be up to Steve Mills and the team's front office to decide if Anthony is worth the full $129 million maximum.
If they do decide to re-up with Anthony for the next five years, the Knicks will certainly need to shake up the core, as it's clear the current nucleus' run capped out last season with a second-round ouster.
With Amar'e Stoudemire's team-high $23.4 million—second highest in the NBA for 2014-15 behind Kobe Bryant—the Knicks won't be able to make a severe free-agency splash this summer. But, through trading and low-key summer pickups, there's a chance to make a 'Melo-led Knicks team a playoff contender in the immediate future.
With the Miami Heat, Shane Battier's role within the team's system brings the best out of his 35-year-old skill set. His deal with the reigning champs runs through the end of this season, and assuming the specialist plans on continuing his career, the Knicks should be one of the teams in close contact.
With New York, even at 36, his role would be essentially identical. With the ball, Battier would be stationed along the outside awaiting kickouts from Carmelo Anthony. On defense, he'd act as the type of wing and post defender that the team doesn't currently have.
82games.com reports Battier's small forward counterparts have posted a mere 11.1 PER this season, and according to Synergy (subscription required), he's held his opponents to just 0.67 points per play when isolated one-on-one.
Anthony has seen Battier's aggression on defense firsthand, often being the one assigned to the veteran in matchups. Battier has all but eliminated Anthony from New York's game plan at times with fronts.
His .371 clip from long range is down from the .430 mark he posted last season. However, after a slow start in terms of shooting, Battier has nailed 46 percent of his threes since Dec. 20, a 16-game sample (via NBA.com).
Adding on Battier wouldn't be the flashiest move of any offseason, but it would help the Knicks get back to their 2012-13 scheme and replicate the personnel from that 54-win squad. Management ditched the small-ball approach this season in favor of adding on Andrea Bargnani. The results have been predictably discouraging.
Battier will likely be in the Knicks' price range this summer, with either the entire taxpayer mid-level exception or a portion of it, assuming he opts to remain in the league for one last contract.
Shawn Marion's contract is set to expire at the end of the 2013-14 season, and he'll surely be due for a steep paycut after making $9.3 million this year.
Assuming the team re-signs Carmelo Anthony, the most New York would be able to offer Marion, or any free agent, would be $3.278 million annually over a max of three years. The Knicks would be fortunate to have Marion at that number on a one-to-two year commitment.
Marion is still a capable producer at both forward spots, averaging 31.4 minutes per game this season. He's scoring 11 points per game while grabbing seven boards and, more importantly from a Knicks, floor-spacing perspective, shooting a fine 36 percent from three.
His defense has been a primary calling card over his 15-year career, and that's mainly held true as his career has dwindled into its final seasons. According to 82games.com, he's held his small forward opposition to a PER just around league average, and his power forward counterparts have posted an effective field-goal percentage below 50.
A team headlined by Carmelo needs to be rich in defenders and three-point shooters. Marion covers both those gaps, and may be in the Knicks' price range this summer.
In his role, Knicks center Tyson Chandler is very good. On offense, he'll scoop up his teammates' trash and usually jam it home for two points. He's a former Defensive Player of the Year, and despite recent regressions on that end, he's still one of the game's most reliable 7-footers in terms of rim protection.
But maybe that isn't enough anymore.
When Glen Grunwald inked Chandler to a four-year contract before the 2011-12 season, he knew he wasn't getting a versatile scorer—but at the time, it was fine. Carmelo Anthony was heading into his first full season with the Knicks, and Amar'e Stoudemire was on the heels of an MVP-caliber season offensively. In fact, Stoudemire may have been a top-five scorer over that 2010-11 campaign.
With two All-Star scorers in the starting lineup, the team planned on competing for rings with Chandler, and all his offensive limitations, in such a prime role.
It didn't take long for that plan to fall apart.
Stoudemire's back and knees couldn't remain intact over the shortened 66-game season, and when he was on the floor, terrible spacing impeded everything the team tried to do on offense. In many senses, the Knicks' "Big Three" was a failure.
Though the Knicks' offense thrived last season as a small-ball, three-point-heavy attack, it's clear now that behind Anthony, the team is desperate for a reliable threat with the basketball—something Chandler will never be.
If the Knicks decide it's time to move on from Chandler, they could place a call to another team desperate for change: the Cleveland Cavaliers, about Anderson Varejao.
The 31-year-old's contract runs through 2014-15, like Chandler's, but at a discounted rate of $9.7 million, compared to Chandler's $14 million. A package of Chandler and Iman Shumpert, whose talent is becoming more superfluous in New York with each Tim Hardaway three-pointer, could be enough to get Cleveland to consider.
Varejao is every bit the rebounder Chandler is, posting an 18.5 total rebound percentage over the last five years, compared to Chandler's 18.3. The primary difference between the two is Varejao's ability to create his own looks and his range on a jumper that extends to just inside the three-point line. He's shooting an outstanding 54 percent on shots in between 16 feet out and three-point range this season.
A 2014-15 frontline of Varejao and Anthony—by no means championship caliber in itself—would be a stark improvement, offensively, from this season and give Anthony a bona fide scorer to fall back on.
Of course, the immediate drawback with Varejao is the fact that he's played in just 125 games since 2010-11. Over the last two seasons, though, the center's health issues have become slightly less discouraging. He missed most of last season, but due to a blood clot scare rather than an avoidable injury. This season he's played in 44 of the team's 46 games.
There are a number of guidelines to constructing a successful Carmelo Anthony-led team. One of them, and perhaps the most crucial, is courting a reliable point guard that 'Melo respects—and one that would have no qualms with standing up to Anthony in the huddle.
When it comes to point guards that are accessible through the current trade market, the two names that stand out are Jeremy Lin—as the Houston Rockets have taken a liking to Patrick Beverley's fit in the starting lineup—and Kyle Lowry.
Despite how much sense it may make for a Linsanity rerun in New York, Anthony has shown a prior unwillingness to share the offensive spotlight with Lin. Immature as it may seem, this is one of the risks you run when tabbing Anthony as your franchise player. Speaking of immature, James Dolan would never sign off on a deal that would essentially admit his own incompetence two summers ago, anyway.
With Lowry, however, there's real potential for a great fit. Another guideline for a 'Melo team is that his surrounding cast must be full of plus-defenders, to make up for whatever he lacks in that department. The 27-year-old has established a reputation as one of the league's grittier defenders along the perimeter, so he fits the bill in this regard.
Another staple of Anthony's offensive accessories is that three-point accuracy is a necessity, so that 'Melo has reliable options to pass out to when doubled on the inside. Lowry is a career 35 percent shooter from downtown, including 40 percent this season and a combined 38 percent since the 2010-11 season.
The Knicks and Raps had thought a deal was struck earlier in the season, when the sides agreed to exchange Lowry for a package headlined by Iman Shumpert, Tim Hardaway Jr. or a first-rounder. James Dolan vetoed that deal before the finishing touches were signed off on, though, according to the New York Daily News.
The Knicks have been linked to Lowry through rumors as recently as January, according to Ken Berger of CBS Sports. Lowry is a free agent after this season and will presumably be out of the Knicks' price range on the open market.
It's clear the Knicks need an improvement at the point. Raymond Felton has regressed in essentially every category this season, and the team will need to explore all options to improve the position for the future.
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All stats gathered from Basketball-Reference unless otherwise noted.