Take a long, hard look at the New York Knicks' roster if you dare. What you'll find isn't nearly as pretty as it should be.
Welcome to Phil Jackson's new world.
It's a new world for which he was brought in to restore order. Jackson's task is to somehow make something out of bloated contracts and uneven performers, to do what his predecessors never could. Somewhere in the mix, this team needs to get younger—preferably sooner rather than later.
The longer Jackson waits to inject new life into his rotation, the more likely it is that that life will inject itself by virtue of the lottery. That's not exactly the resolution this organization is looking.
Like most teams, the Knicks would rather rebuild without actually having to go through a rebuilding process. Those processes too often become protracted struggles, and New York is on the verge of just that.
Getting younger isn't just an end in itself. It would also position the franchise to be a more competitive trading partner. Much as New York might like to get in on the Kevin Love sweepstakes, that's pretty hard to do without some young assets to grab the Minnesota Timberwolves' attention.
But young assets are precisely what the Knicks are lacking at the moment.
The closest thing to an attractive trade chip is guard Iman Shumpert, a plus-defender with the potential to become a pretty good two-way player in this league. Tim Hardaway Jr. isn't far behind Shumpert after a debut season that stood out among a relatively unimpressive rookie class.
Whether used as a means to an end or groomed as in-house talent, Jackson and Co. have to get out in front of this rebuild before it takes on a life of its own.
When the losing begins in earnest, turning things around will be that much harder.
Not that getting a head start will be much easier.
Trading Raymond Felton...for Anything
ESPNNewYork.com's Ian Begley recently cited a league source indicating that, "New York Knicks president Phil Jackson recently told point guard Raymond Felton that he will look to trade him in the offseason."
He won't get much in return.
And legal issues might get in the way. Begley notes that, "The league may seek to suspend Felton after the legal proceedings conclude," on account of "two felony gun charges [from] late February." That could put a crimp in trade plans, even if Felton's recent history of subpar play doesn't.
Felton was among the league's worst-overall starting point guards this season. He averaged just 9.7 points and 5.6 assists, and he did so with an inefficient 12.90 PER. He never developed much of a shooting rhythm, ultimately making just 39.5 percent of his field-goal attempts on the season. Even for a perimeter player who does much of his damage from beyond the three-point arc, that's not an especially impressive mark.
Nevertheless, there will be a team or two out there who fancies Felton as a relatively affordable backup, perhaps one with the potential to serve as something of a sixth man. Felton is scheduled to make about $4.3 million next season, with a player option and slight raise scheduled for the 2015-16 campaign.
If you're a playoff team who can afford to spend that kind of money on a reserve, why not?
Still, no team will be willing to give up a prime prospect for Felton, and that's alright. Jackson can't afford to be choosy. He has to usher in a youth movement by any means necessary, even if that means taking back a second-round pick.
Sometimes second-round picks turn into something special.
For a minute there, that appeared to be the case with Landry Fields—the first of those three All-Rookie first teamers. Fields was selected with the 39th-overall pick and had two pretty good seasons with the Knicks before signing a three-year deal with the Toronto Raptors.
In that instance, New York was probably wise not to match the offer (which was close to $20 million), even if it meant losing one of those young assets we're going on about.
But the point remains that young talent can emerge from anywhere in the draft. Stockpiling picks is the quickest way to replace the losses of guys like Fields and forward Chris Copeland, solid bench pieces that complement a team's core.
Parting ways with Felton will create some immediate questions at point guard, but it's a necessary step to averting long-term pain.
The One-Year Tank
Intriguing as it may be to play for a team run by Phil Jackson, free agents won't have a realistic opportunity to sign with New York until 2015. That's when Amar'e Stoudemire and Tyson Chandler's mega-deals finally come off the books.
In the meantime, the Knicks have a choice to make.
They could embrace their mediocrity and wait. In time, Jackson might be able to lure a free agent or two to the organization. Much of that depends on whether Carmelo Anthony is still around, though. Prospective free agents will be more inclined to sign with the team if there's already a premier star in place.
They'd be all the more likely to sign up if a young, emergent star were added to the mix.
That's where the idea of tanking comes in.
If Carmelo Anthony departs this summer via free agency, tanking becomes all the more intriguing—if not straight-up inevitable. But either way, the Knicks still own the rights to their 2015 first-rounder, and they should make the most of it.
Should that pick become a prime lottery selection, New York would be in position to either build for the long-term or deal it in a package for a more established star.
The road map to tanking isn't especially convoluted.
The first step is dealing Tyson Chandler, who's still got a couple of good years left in him—and just one season remaining on his contract. Ideally, the Knicks wouldn't trade Chandler for long-term salary so as to maintain cap flexibility in 2015. Instead, they should look to unload him in a deal that brings another draft pick or young prospect into the mix—even if it's a marginal one.
Chandler is one of the few assets this team has that's both affordable and still capable of making an impact on the right team. Unless the franchise plans on eventually re-signing him to a smaller deal, there's really no reason to keep him around for another season.
The market for Chandler might not be extensive, but there should be enough of one. Earlier this month, ESPN.com's Marc Stein reported that, "The most interesting whisper, at this early stage, is that the Mavs intend to be at the front of the line to try to reacquire Tyson Chandler should the Knicks make their defensive anchor available via trade."
There's a concept in finance called "salvage value." When an asset is no longer useful, its salvage value is how much you can get in return for selling the asset.
Chandler's salvage value isn't great, but it's enough to justify trading him. Again, Jackson should be looking to get his hands on just about any prospect he can find, anyone who could either join a younger supporting cast or one day be included in trade packages.
Without Chandler and Felton around, chances are the Knicks would take a step back into the lottery—with or without Anthony.
Getting something in return for Amar'e Stoudemire would be nice, too, but realistically that's not happening—not without taking on long-term salary in return.
The Knicks could probably make themselves even worse by dealing J.R. Smith, though there hasn't been much speculation surrounding that possibility.
Before Knicks fans unleash wrath at the notion of tanking for a season, just look at where the Philadelphia 76ers are sitting right now. Bad as they were this season, they can boast a Rookie of the Year and the unveiling of Nerlens Noel. They'll also have the third pick in this summer's draft, which is sure to net them a star in the making.
It will take the Sixers some time to put it all together, but when they finally do, the sky is the limit.
A More Conservative Approach
Let's say Anthony decides to stick around long-term, sold as he may be on Jackson's ability to turn the Knicks into a contender.
In that world, tanking may be out of the question. Wise as it may be from a team-building perspective, there's no guarantee Anthony would stand for it. And with Anthony (and Stoudemire) around, there's still less of a guarantee the Knicks would actually be bad enough to wind up with a really good pick.
Could the Knicks still get younger while middling through another season just on the edge of the playoff picture?
It might take longer, but sure. Anything's possible.
In this scenario, the key is spending that cap money in 2015 and spending it wisely. New York can't afford to get bogged down by big contracts. It can't afford to remain a fundamentally old team. The summer of 2015 should perhaps be comprised of smaller moves, acquisitions designed to build an arsenal of assets rather than to contend right away.
Unless someone of LeBron's stature decides he wants to come to New York, the organization is better served not forcing the issue.
Whatever the Knicks decide to do over the next two seasons, patience will be in order. This isn't a team that's going to fix what ails them right away. Fans have to accept that.
Chances are Phil Jackson already has.
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