On the brink of being eliminated from postseason contention, after finishing as the East's second-best team just a season ago, the New York Knicks are in desperate need of change heading into 2014-15.
At this point, though, the only question that remains is whether or not any of the team's current pieces should stick around.
And one hypothetical that could become real very soon, based on what transpired this season: If Carmelo Anthony bolts in free agency this summer, then what?
With just four games left in the season, and sitting two games back of the Atlanta Hawks for eighth place in the East, New York's season is all but over. But even if by virtue of a remarkable Atlanta tank job the Knicks squeak into the playoffs, the emphatic failure that was 2013-14 cannot—and will not—go unrecognized in the team's front office. Anthony's New York arrival was intended to make the Knicks championship contenders, not mere playoff contenders.
Team president Phil Jackson surely understands the status quo simply isn't enough, and it'll be some time before the Knicks can truly contend for a championship. Noted by Posting and Toasting's Seth Rosenthal immediately following Jackson's introductory presser:
Asked about winning a championship, Jackson responded "Wow, you've jumped ahead", mentioning that a championship would be the end of a long process and "a capstone on a remarkable career that I've had."
Phil knows it, the fans know it, and 'Melo certainly knows it. building the Knicks into a title contender will be a hefty task. But in order to build the most sustainable winning model, what's the best way for Jackson's front office to tackle the upcoming offseason?
Who Should Stay?
Encouraging for Knicks fans is that Jackson seems to have taken a liking to the team's players that are, you know, pretty good.
Yes, there are a few.
Outside of Anthony, the team has drafted and signed certain players that Mike Woodson hasn't managed to—or bothered to—develop.
The trademark case of this has been third-year swingman Iman Shumpert, whom Woodson has transformed from attacking playmaker to timid, indecisive mess.
Last postseason, after fully recovering from a torn ACL the year prior, Shumpert was arguably the team's most consistent player. He shot 43 percent on threes—including 57 percent from the corner—and the team was 11 points per 100 possessions better with him on the floor, according to NBA.com (subscription required).
Even while struggling from the field this season, Shumpert has posted the team's second-best net rating, and ranks top-100 league wide in ESPN.com's real plus-minus (RPM) and WAR. When he's on the floor, the Knicks benefit from everything he brings to the lineup.
After receiving February trade calls from the Los Angeles Clippers and Oklahoma City Thunder regarding Shumpert, Knicks management must have realized that it has a winning piece on its hands. A fresh start could give Shumpert new life and revive his play. After Jackson brings in a new head coach, that fresh start might happen in New York.
Similarly to Shumpert, Tim Hardaway Jr. has injected youth and athleticism into the Knicks offense, and last summer's No. 24 overall pick has proven to be a great value pick.
Over his first 46 career games, Hardaway shot the lights out from the field, nailing 47 percent of his shots, including 43 percent of his threes. He's been slumping a bit since, but as a rookie Hardaway has shown enough to make Jackson think he has a potential scoring threat for years to come.
At the opposite end of the career arc is Pablo Prigioni, the team's backup point man, who is currently the most reliable point guard on the roster.
Prigioni has made 46 percent of his threes this season, placing him second on the NBA leaderboard behind Atlanta's Kyle Korver. Prigioni ranks 16th among point guards in RPM and is one of just three Knick reserves to log a positive on-court rating. While he's sitting, the Knicks get outscored by roughly three points per 100 possessions.
It's questionable how much basketball the 36-year-old Prigioni has left in him, but considering the shape he stays in, it's reasonable to believe the Argentine guard has another season or two left in the tank.
Pablo is under contract for the next two seasons for under $2 million per, so that's one constant the Knicks will have at their advantage.
Toure' Murry and Jeremy Tyler have both displayed a few signs of life off the end of Woodson's bench, but those guys can't help the fact that Woodson doesn't believe in giving young projects a chance to play their way into a job.
Murry is capable of bringing defensive tenacity and size when battling opposing point guards. Tyler has shown tons of offensive maturity in limited time this season, averaging 13.5 points and 10.8 boards per 36 minutes this year.
Murry is a free agent after the season and could look for a shot elsewhere, but Tyler is on the Knicks' books next season for a non-guaranteed minimum salary.
Entering this offseason, the Knicks will be stocked with large, expiring contracts that can be dangled in potential swaps.
Amar'e Stoudemire, Tyson Chandler and Andrea Bargnani's deals amount to nearly $50 million in expiring salary, assuming Stoudemire and Bargnani opt into their final contract years. Depending on the deal, the Knicks could use these to their advantage in building a well-rounded roster.
The most desirable player for other teams would be Chandler, who's averaged 10 points and 10 rebounds over his Knicks tenure.
With the Knicks severely lacking scoring depth behind Anthony—and with the Triangle offense, a system the Knicks my utilize next year, better off with a low-post scoring threat—New York may explore swapping their center.
If Jackson seeks a more offensive-minded player at the pivot spot, a potential deal with the Cleveland Cavaliers for Anderson Varejao could benefit both sides. Both centers are on expiring deals, and will be in the same ballpark in terms of salary. After an almost equal disaster in 2013-14, the Cavs could be desperate for major change as well.
Chandler has a winning history and possesses those qualities that contribute to a contending team. Hanging onto him certainly wouldn't hurt the Knicks, but it'll be tough to fit him into the team's post-2015 plans as they're trying to bring in a max-level player.
Stoudemire and Bargnani's salaries would be more difficult to move, but of the two, Stoudemire's would likely be the more tradeable—which speaks to how disastrous New York's trade for Bargnani really was.
STAT will be on the receiving end of $23.4 million next year, and although his play certainly hasn't warranted that type of salary, he has proven to be useful on the offensive end this season. In his 16 games since returning full time to the starting lineup, Amar'e has shot 56 percent from the field while adding 16 points and six boards over 28 minutes. In the right situation, he could be a quality scorer off a contender's bench.
The rub with sending Stoudemire away is that the Knicks would likely be hampering future spending, as other teams would force them to take on different undesirable contracts in return. Jackson's front office may opt to keep Stoudemire if this is the case and watch his salary wipe off the books at season's end.
Considering the situation the Knicks find themselves in, of course there are a number of players on the roster that are neither conducive to winning, nor are desirable to other teams in trade talks.
The most obvious case is starting point guard Raymond Felton, who was signed to a four-year deal in 2012 when the Knicks were bidding against nobody but themselves. Through much of this season, Felton has struggled and was posting stats akin to only first-year players at the point guard position.
The team desperately attempted to trade him at the deadline, to no avail. With Felton facing trial this summer stemming from gun charges after a February arrest, it's safe to say that no trade interest will be imminent. From a business standpoint, the Knicks can only explore the possibility of voiding the guard's contract and getting out from those final two seasons.
No team can contend for a ring with Felton as its starting point guard—that much we've learned over the last two seasons.
Andrea Bargnani's deal, although expiring, will likely remain on the team's payroll through next year, given he picks up his $11.5 million player option. Bargnani hasn't been cleared to practice since tearing the UCL in his elbow during a failed January dunk attempt. Even when he was suiting up, he was hurting his team's chances every minute he was out there—not unlike what he's done over the length of his career.
He posted a career-worst minus-7.5 net rating this year, while shooting a career-low 27.8 percent from three-point range. The only team that would trade for a player like Bargnani is the Knicks...and they already did.
What's evident is that Bargnani, who has been a net-negative player over the course of his career, should come nowhere near any winning team's depth chart. If the trade market is as thin as we're predicting, the Knicks could even benefit from simply cutting Bargnani, eating the $11.5 million and freeing up the ensuing roster space.
This leaves J.R. Smith, who, depending on the night, is either among the league's most incompetent scoring options or a perpetually budding star. As usual, this season has been something of a roller coaster for Smith.
At a relatively reasonable salary range over the next few seasons, Smith could be a tremendous asset for a team if he could simply contribute at his potential on a nightly basis. This, of course, has been the issue with him since day one.
Smith got off to a rocky start this season, headlined by extremely poor shooting and untying shoelaces. But since Jan. 24, Smith has actually shot at a robust 45 percent clip, including 43 percent from three, while adding 16.5 points, four boards and three assists per contest.
Still, it's unclear whether teams would give anything of value to take on the walking headache that is J.R. Smith.
What's also unclear is whether Smith can play a prime role on a winning Knicks team. What we've seen over the last three months would lead one to believe so, but even after three seasons with the New York, it's still hard to tell.
The verdict? A complete overhaul would be a tad extreme, as the team already has a few pieces who can fit into a winning team's rotation. But several changes need to be made, and the sooner the better.
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