It's nearly impossible to project the entire NBA's free agency until the Carmelo Anthony domino falls—let alone that of the New York Knicks—but it appears that the league is about to get a feel for things very soon.
According to the New York Daily News' Frank Isola, "barring a last-second change of heart," Anthony will return to Phil Jackson's Knicks next year.
With Anthony's future no longer a question mark, it's easier to understand the team's direction this offseason.
Without Melo, New York would likely be facing another lottery-bound campaign, and it wouldn't have the means to sign any attractive names. With Anthony locked up through the foreseeable future, it's conceivable that valuable players could take slightly below-market deals to team with Anthony under Jackson and coach Derek Fisher's watch.
It's extremely unlikely that New York enters into any long-term financial commitments this offseason, with next summer's impending spending spree looming after the deals for Amar'e Stoudemire and Andrea Bargnani expire. But there are still helpful moves to be made that wouldn't cost the Knicks much future cap space, if at all.
Jackson has surprisingly improved the roster already, after trading Tyson Chandler and Raymond Felton to the Dallas Mavericks for three players and two picks. The team's point guard dilemma has been solved with Jose Calderon set to man the spot this season, while Shane Larkin and Cleanthony Early are legitimate prospects who could contribute as early as 2014-15. But the roster for this upcoming season could certainly use more work.
Still, Anthony wouldn't have committed to the Knicks if Jackson intended on punting away this year. According to Isola's report, he trusts Jackson's plan to morph the Knicks into champions, and that process starts with establishment this season.
New York's options will likely be limited to the $3.3 million mid-level exception and veterans' minimums, but here's how the team could boost itself into contention for next year, assuming Anthony is on board.
Add Size off the Bench
This seems to be the mantra of every summer lately for the Knicks, but it remains true this offseason, even beyond the Mike Woodson era. Assuming 36-year-old Kenyon Martin isn't part of the team's plans next year, New York's only center is Samuel Dalembert. It'll need to tap into the free-agent market for a middle man, unless Jackson believes Stoudemire and Bargnani can miraculously log positive minutes at center.
Options in the Knicks' price range could include players like DeJuan Blair, who enjoyed a bounce-back campaign with Dallas last season, averaging 15 points and 11 rebounds per 36 minutes. He'll be due for a pay raise after making less than $1 million last season, but the 25-year-old has the potential to score well as a reserve in the triangle while not giving back much on the defensive end.
If the Miami Heat are broken up this summer, Chris Andersen could garner interest with a piece of the Knicks' MLE. Though he crumbled a bit in the playoffs, Miami was two points per 100 possessions better with Birdman on the floor last season, according to Basketball-Reference.com. Though he wouldn't provide much scoring ability outside of putbacks off misses, he could provide defense that the porous Knicks' backcourt would require.
According to Synergy Sports (subscription required), Andersen was the 42nd-ranked defender in the league last year based on opponents' points per play. He allowed just 0.57 points per play in isolation last year, including just 31 percent shooting. On post-up plays, opponents shot just 39 percent.
Greg Stiemsma, Ekpe Udoh and Knicks summer-league invite Cole Aldrich could be guys who get a look on minimum deals, or something very close. No matter how they do it, adding a sizable reserve to contribute off the bench will be a must. Because relying on Stoudemire or Bargnani for positive minutes—the Knicks were eight points per 100 possessions worse with each on the floor last year—is a lost cause.
Tack on Two-Way Talent
Jackson's regime has done its best to help reverse this trend over its short tenure, but through most of the last two seasons, New York's rosters have been critically devoid of players who contribute both offensively and defensively.
Last season, the only rotation player who wasn't a liability on one end was Iman Shumpert, and even he struggled mightily on offense. A related note: Shumpert posted the team's second-highest net rating, only to Carmelo Anthony, according to 82games.com.
Jackson added Shannon Brown toward the end of last year, who has thrived on both ends of the floor in his career and is a member of the Knicks' Las Vegas Summer League squad. Larkin also thrived on the defensive end in college at Miami, but at just 5'11", he doesn't project to be much of a difference-maker as a Knick. Lamar Odom is on the roster and used to be regarded as one of the league's best two-way guys, but it's tough to expect him to make the team this fall let alone contribute big minutes.
While the Knicks upgraded from Felton to Calderon, they may have acquired the only point guard in the league who is more defensively challenged than last year's starter. They'll need to specifically tack on a player or two who can help alleviate this weakness, while having just a small cap exception to work with.
They could scroll through last year's contacts to get in touch with Chris Douglas-Roberts, who failed to make the team out of camp last season. He eventually caught on with the Charlotte Bobcats, who handed him 20 minutes per game. On a playoff team in Charlotte, CD-R looked like a legitimate NBA role player.
According to 82games.com, he held his small forward opposition to just 13.5 points per 48 minutes and an 8.6 player efficiency rating. He was less effective in the backcourt but still held shooting guards to below-league-average PERs.
A more established name that may need to take a bit of a pay cut for the Knicks to afford him is Shawn Marion. A 36-year-old unrestricted free agent, Marion is coming off a season in which he averaged 32 minutes a game for Dallas and wasn't nearly as effective as he'd been in recent years. In a reduced role behind Anthony, though, The Matrix could end up fitting perfectly on next year's Knicks.
He shot 37 percent from three-point range as a spot-up shooter last year with the Mavs, according to Synergy, and could help space things out for Anthony in the triangle. He struggled through a down year defensively, but per 82games.com, still held power forwards to an effective field-goal percentage under 50, and a limited role would presumably help keep him fresh on that end with New York.
The roster is already stacked with an abundance of wings as it is, but loading up with talent that can help you on both ends of the court isn't a terrible issue to have.
Finding a Secondary Scorer
Anthony would only return to the Knicks with a promise that he wouldn't have to work nearly as hard for his points as he did last year under Mike Woodson. With J.R. Smith struggling through the first half, and no other player talented enough to draw defenses away from Melo, Woodson hung his star out to dry—for a league-leading 39 minutes per game—because he knew the team needed every second.
Though Smith enjoyed a sparking second half—45 percent shooting and 43 percent from downtown over his last 45 games—the roster needs more scoring. Stoudemire is far too much of a liability on the defensive end to rely on for major minutes, and ditto for Bargnani, who isn't even all that good at scoring. In tandem with these three, the Knicks need a player who defenses must respect.
With only the mini-MLE at his disposal, Phil will need to get creative with this one.
There are players like Caron Butler, Mo Williams, Evan Turner, Nick Young and Andray Blatche who are (a) free agents and (b) score points, but they are either out of the team's price range and/or simply shouldn't be touched. There are the Jimmer Fredettes and the Jordan Crawfords, but those types likely wouldn't contribute enough to make an impact.
As he scours the free-agent scoring market, Jackson knows there's one prime candidate for his secondary-scorer-role vacancy—somebody who has already fulfilled that need for him on championship squads.
Though it would take a supreme pay cut, tricky cap work by Jackson or even both, adding Pau Gasol to the mix for 2014-15 would be enough to boost the Knicks back into the midst of the East's playoff conversation.
But it'll probably end up being too good to be true, despite Yahoo Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski reporting on Anthony's interest in pairing with the Spaniard:
Hours before his final meeting with New York Knicks officials, free agent Carmelo Anthony reached out to obtain free agent Pau Gasol's phone number and discuss with him the possibility of playing together at Madison Square Garden, league sources told Yahoo Sports.
The Knicks had exuded an increasing confidence they can hold off the free-agent courtships of Chicago and Houston and were further encouraged with Anthony's desire to talk to Gasol about New York, sources said.
Another obstacle would be that New York will be reluctant to add salary beyond this season, and presumably only offer a one-year deal.
The Knicks have former teammates Fisher and Calderon, Gasol's teammate in international play, to help persuade the 34-year-old to join New York this offseason. But with the Chicago Bulls, Oklahoma City Thunder and San Antonio Spurs possibly interested—and able to offer more than $3 million per year—it'll come down to how badly Gasol wants to reunite with Jackson.
It's obviously easy to understand why New York would be interested in such a move.
With Calderon, Shumpert, Smith, Anthony and Gasol, the Knicks would instantly trot out one of the better starting fives in the East. Whatever logjams Gasol's arrival would create—what with Stoudemire and Bargnani already under contract—could simply be solved by Jackson or Fisher telling one or both to take a seat. Phil surely isn't one to let a player's salary get in the way of winning.
He's tried to deal the pair of expensive albatrosses this week, according to ESPN New York's Ian Begley, in order to create cap room that would presumably be used on Gasol. However, pitching Stoudemire or Bargnani would almost certainly require Shumpert or Tim Hardaway Jr. be included as compensation—something Jackson wants to avoid.
It isn't likely, but if the opportunity to add Gasol for 2014-15 presents itself, it would immediately help the Knicks' chances to make postseason noise and could even make the Knicks a more attractive landing spot in 2015.