Can Phil Jackson Make NY Knicks a Player in Free Agency?

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Can Phil Jackson Make NY Knicks a Player in Free Agency?
Seth Wenig/Associated Press

When the New York Knicks brought in Phil Jackson to run things, the hope was that he could strengthen their wait-and-see approach.

Turns out Jackson doesn't like waiting very much.

The Knicks were never expected to do anything substantial this summer. Trading for Jose Calderon is a splash in itself purely because the Knicks were considered inflexible to the highest degree. 

Acquiring Calderon, in addition to draft picks that turned into Cleanthony Early and Thanasis Antetokounmpo, sends a message: The Knicks aren't waiting. They are striking as hard and as fast as they can. 

That, in actuality, still means little. 

Strapped for cash and stripped of tradable assets, marginal needle-nudging moves are the best New York can do. The Knicks aren't in position to trade for or sign another substantial piece.

Once again, though, Jackson has something else entirely in mind. It's just not certain this attempt to defy logic will pan out as well as the last one.

 

The Reported Plan

Rocky Widner/Getty Images

Making the Knicks immediate free-agency contenders demands Jackson clear tens of millions of dollars in cap space.

The following words and phrases have all been associated with such a venture in the past: Impossible. Ludicrous. This isn't 2010. Bargs. What's cap space? 

Creating wiggle room isn't as easy as Jackson snapping his fingers or making a sacrifice in the name of Buddha. The Knicks saved almost $4 million in the Calderon trade, according to the New York Post's Marc Berman, but their salary commitments still toe the line of $90 million if they wish to retain Anthony.

Unloading that much salary falls somewhere between "Never going to happen" and "Lol." But this brutal yet truthful designation hasn't stopped Jackson from trying, according to The Knicks Blog's Moke Hamilton:

Anyone who thought that Phil Jackson came to New York City to sit around and wait until July 2015 may be mistaken. According to a league source, his grandiose vision of building a contender may begin sooner than anyone—even Carmelo Anthony —thought possible.

On the heels of a Monday morning account from ESPN that states the Knicks have engaged the Philadelphia 76ers on a salary-dumping Amar’e Stoudemire trade, a league front office source tells SNY.tv and TheKnicksBlog that the Knicks have also been shopping Andrea Bargnani. Jackson, according to the source, recently rebuffed a trade offer that would have seen Bargnani and Tim Hardaway Jr. sent out in a similar cap-clearing maneuver.

Other outlets have since confirmed that Jackson is scouring the market looking for teams willing to absorb the contracts of Amar'e Stoudemire and Andrea Bargnani. 

Ian Begley of ESPN New York says the Philadelphia 76ers are indeed a potential landing spot for Stoudemire—who is owed more than $23.4 million next season—provided the Knicks include Iman Shumpert as a buffer. That is something they've been unwilling to do thus far.

Jackson has taken a similar hardline approach with Bargs. Berman and Hamilton confirm the Zen Master turned down a Bargs salary dump that would have forced him to trade Tim Hardaway Jr. 

Jackson apparently believes he can pull off a similar deal without sacrificing the sophomore-to-be.

Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
Can Jackson deal Bargs and STAT?

All of this is admirable. Really, it is. But if Jackson isn't going to use Shumpert or Hardaway as buffers, there's almost no chance he's able to pawn Stoudemire and Bargs off on other teams, especially when one of those teams is the Sixers.

Philly is in tank mode once again after drafting the injured Joel Embiid. Stoudemire makes them a better squad if healthy, compromising the sanctity of next summer's draft pick.

If the Sixers plan on playing Embiid and Nerlens Noel together moving forward, plugging the latter alongside STAT does make for nice preparation. Stoudemire is also still someone—who, again, when healthy—will put fans in the seats.

At $23-plus million, though, the Sixers are going to need another incentive. Shumpert or Hardaway fits exactly what they're looking for—a shooting guard with potential on at least one end of the floor.

But Jackson continues to radiate confidence. That could mean he has some irons in the fire we can't see.

Or that wishful thinking is his drug of choice.

 

The Subsequent Cap Situation

Melissa Majchrzak/Getty Images

If Jackson somehow dumps STAT and Bargs without taking back any salary in return, the Knicks clear roughly $34.9 million from their books.

After said epic salary dumps, the Knicks have nearly $30.6 million committed to 11 different players—Jose Calderon, J.R. Smith, Samuel Dalembert, Wayne Ellington, Shane Larkin, Shannon Brown, Lamar Odom, Pablo Prigioni, Jeremy Tyler, Hardaway and Shumpert.

They're also going to round out the roster with Carmelo Anthony. The Knicks have informed their seven-time All-Star that they'll give him a max contract to stay, according to ESPN.com's Chris Broussard:

Anthony's 2014-15 salary will take up roughly $22.4 million in cap space if he signs for the maximum allowed, per Larry Coon, author of the CBA FAQ. Combined with that $30.6 million from before, the Knicks are left with roughly $53 million in salary obligations, leaving them $10.2 million under the projected $63.2 million cap

This is, of course, a rough estimate. But $10 million is enough to make a splash. 

Pau Gasol has drawn interest from the Knicks, according to Begley. Conveniently enough, Yahoo! Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski says Gasol is seeking a contract that pays him $10-12 million annually, which would be right up the Knicks' alley. 

Only the Knicks aren't thinking about Gasol. 

They're thinking bigger.

Per Marc Berman of the New York Post:

This is Carmelo Anthony’s “dream” — play in New York with LeBron James this season.

That’s right. New York. Not Miami.

Too bad it’s a long shot to happen.

According to a friend of Anthony’s, Melo has held out faint hope Knicks president Phil Jackson can pull a miracle and clear out the necessary salary-cap space to get it done, but he is running out of time.

Well now. 

Pursuing LeBron James makes sense—because it makes sense for any team that wants to win games.

Opening up $10 million in cap space isn't going to be nearly enough, though. Wojnarowski reports that James is seeking a max contract. The first year of his new deal would pay him about $20.7 million, as CBS Sports' Zach Harper notes, thereby forcing the Knicks to clear at least $10 million in additional cap.

Ronald Martinez/Getty Images
Are the Knicks chasing what cannot be caught?

Dalembert, Odom, Brown and Tyler are all on non-guaranteed contracts leading into next season. They total close to $7.6 million when added together. If the Knicks dump each of them, they would shed something like $5.6 million from their payroll after accounting for four minimum cap holds.

Offering James $15 or $16 million isn't going to cut it. The Knicks would need to do more.

Getting to this point would have them exploring a Smith salary dump, or they could look to trade Shumpert's $2.6 million salary—which they may have to do anyway—and hope Anthony accepts $2 million less so that he and James can rake in at least $20 million per year.

It must be noted that this is all before factoring in what Early will be making. He'll eat into the Knicks' cap space if they retain him.

Antetokounmpo poses no such problems at the moment; Berman reveals the team plans on stashing him in Europe. They can do the same with their other second-round pick, Louis Labeyrie of France, as well.

 

Incredible Challenge

Can Jackson make the Knicks free-agency players this summer? 

In theory, yes. But doing so is beyond difficult.

Can he make them players for James? 

Again, in theory, yes. But that venture is even less likely.

Can Phil Jackson make the Knicks free-agency players this summer?

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Time isn't on the Knicks' side. Free-agent decisions are going to be rendered soon. Fred Kerber of the New York Post says Anthony's will be delivered incredibly soon. By the time you read this, he could be a member of the Chicago Bulls, Los Angeles Lakers, Knicks or Flint Michigan Tropics.

Whatever moves the Knicks are going to make, they must make them now, otherwise they'll be for naught. That's all predicated on there being more moves for them to make. Jackson may have exhausted all his options, exploited all his flexibility already.

“We have many handicaps with our salary cap,’’ Jackson said on draft night, according to Berman. “There’s always a possibility. I’m not going to rule ourselves out of anything with a chance to do something special.’’

Something special, while feasible in theory, may wind up being impossible when pitted against time-constraints and inordinate amounts of starry-eyed action.

 

*All salary information via ShamSports and Spotrac.


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