After weeks of reports and rumors, hearsay and speculation, the New York Knicks and Carmelo Anthony finally reached an agreement on a near-max contract that will keep the All-Star forward donning orange and blue for the foreseeable future (per Peter Botte of the New York Daily News).
Amazing as it sounds, that might've been the easy part.
Building a legitimate contender around a 30-year-old, mostly one-dimensional player who's gotten past the second round of the playoffs just twice in his 11-year career?
To call this Phil Jackson's stoutest test yet would be selling it short.
With the Knicks already well over the salary cap and only a handful of small exceptions at their immediate disposal, Jackson is understandably looking ahead to the summer of 2015, when the free-agent feeding frenzy promises to be even deeper—if not quite as top-heavy—as this year's installment.
Coupled with both Andrea Bargnani and Amar'e Stoudemire coming off the books, New York will find itself flush with cap space for the first time since 2010.
The goal: Find players who can both play off of Anthony and thrive in the triangle offense, the system made famous by Jackson and now poised for a reboot under new head coach Derek Fisher.
As far as twofold tasks go, the wire doesn't get much higher than that.
Then again, it's not everyday your front office is anchored by a guy with enough rings to fill a Kay Jewelers display case.
The Big Fish
While the Knicks made good on their gambit to retain Anthony, Jackson wasn't quite able to reel in New York's second prized catch: All-Star power forward—and newly minted Chicago Bull—Pau Gasol (per ESPN's Brian Windhorst).
To be sure, the Gasol-New York match made more than a bit of sense—not just because of Gasol's longstanding relationship with Jackson, with whom the Spaniard captured a pair of titles in 2009 and 2010 as a member of the Los Angeles Lakers, but for how well his strengths and weaknesses both complemented and covered for those of Anthony.
With Gasol's brother, Marc Gasol, slated to hit the open market next summer, you better believe Jackson was looking ahead.
If the Knicks are to swing for the fences on any of next summer's free-agent gems, Marc has to be one of the clear front-runners—a versatile, two-way 7'0" center who'd make for an almost absurdly perfect triangle fit.
It's unclear whether Marc, who stands to rake in close to $16 million this season, would even consider bolting Memphis, with whom he's spent his entire six-year career. With a team consistently on the cusp of contention, no less.
To land the younger Gasol, Jackson will likely have to dig deep into owner James Dolan's wallet—something at or near the max. Further complicating the calculus is the fact that the NBA's current collective bargaining agreement is set to expire in 2016.
It stands to reason the salary cap will be pushed up considerably higher if and when the league and the NBA players' union hammer out an agreement, meaning Jackson could roll the dice on backloading Gasol's contract to pay him considerably more in the seasons after 2015-16.
Let's assume, for sake of argument, that the Knicks successfully ink Gasol to a contract beginning at $16 million. With Anthony's purported second-year pay cut (according to Chris Herring of the Wall Street Journal), that would put the Knicks' salary commitments at somewhere around $50 million, depending on exceptions, options, etc.
The NBA announced that the salary cap will rise to $63.065 million for the 2014-15 season, giving the Knicks a little over $13 million—along with all requisite exceptions—to play with.
Another top-tier possibility would be point guard Goran Dragic, the sweet-shooting Phoenix Suns stalwart and recipient of the 2014 Most Improved Player award. Although Dragic, who will be 29 by the time next summer rolls around, likely has his sights set on a career payday (he stands to make $7.5 million this season with a matching player option for 2015-16).
Still, if the Knicks somehow miss out on Gasol, Dragic could prove quite the lucrative backup plan—a versatile offensive point guard with both the size and range tailor-made for the triangle. Assuming, of course, they could find a taker for Jose Calderon.
Alternatively, the Knicks could go steep on Dragic and pursue a cheaper center—Robin Lopez or Anderson Varejao, for example—as a Gasol replacement.
Just as important, however, is finding amongst the NBA's middle class the biggest bang for New York's buck.
Rounding it Out
At the $8 million he's currently making, the Portland Trail Blazers' Wesley Matthews could be a coup for Jackson's Knicks—a strong, physical point guard who's augmented his perimeter shooting to include more forays into the paint.
Of course, signing Matthews would almost certainly mean New York renouncing Iman Shumpert or—more unlikely still—J.R. Smith turning down his $6.4 million player option.
Other, potentially more affordable options (those that could be had for the mid-level exception or less) could include Luis Scola (he'll be 35 and likely willing to entertain a pay cut), Andrei Kirilenko (ditto) and Brandon Bass (a possible mid-level exception candidate), any of whose skill sets would make for intriguing triangle fits.
By now, you've probably noted the conspicuous absence of one Rajon Rondo, who, along with Gasol and Kevin Love, highlights next year's uppermost free-agent echelon. That Rondo has been one of the league's preeminent point guards barely warrants mention.
His fit in the triangle? That could be a concern. Indeed, even after eight seasons, Rondo has yet to develop a consistent outside jump shot—a no-no for teams looking to get the most out of Jackson's famed system.
Love might seem like another obvious oversight. Here, however, the logic for the exclusion is a bit different: We're simply assuming the Minnesota Timberwolves will trade Love before next summer, so as not to wind up empty-handed.
If, however, the Wolves opt to take their chances on Love staying and lose out, expect the Knicks—along with the Los Angeles Lakers—to be at Love's doorstep with bells on.
More cynical Knicks fans might express some trepidation at pairing their cornerstone with yet another score-first forward, as New York did with Anthony and Stoudemire. However, Love's range and passing ability make him a completely different basketball animal, one well worth risking a temporary bad fit for the sake of future gains.
While landing Love certainly isn't out of the realm of possibility, Minnesota's desire to get as much back for its prized forward as possible will likely trump any naivety over mending broken fences.
As an aside, while there are plenty of enticing restricted free agents, it stands to reason Jackson won't go out on too much of a limb in extending offer sheets, lest the Knicks wind up overpaying and therefore compromising what promises once again to be fragile financial flexibility.
Based on some of the names mentioned (and the most realistic free-agency scenarios), we've gone ahead and compiled what we think is a reasonable list of targets, together with the players already on New York's roster.
|Carmelo Anthony||~$20 million|
|Marc Gasol||~$16 million|
|Jose Calderon||$7.4 million|
|J.R. Smith||$6.4 million|
|Iman Shumpert||~$6 million (estimated match)|
|Brandon Bass||~$5 million (MLE)|
|Shane Larkin||$1.7 million|
|Tim Hardaway Jr.||$1.3 million|
|Pablo Prigioni||$1.7 million|
|Luis Scola||~$3 million|
|Jeremy Tyler / Cole Aldrich||~$2 million|
|Players X & Y (veteran's minimums)||~$2 million|
That puts the Knicks above the projected tax threshold but just below the tax apron, giving them the flexibility to pursue future bi-annual exceptions, etc.
This all purely speculative, of course. Judging by his first few moves, Jackson has more than a few trades up his sleeve, with Calderon, Smith, Shumpert and Hardaway—New York's obvious positional logjam—being the most likely candidates.
At first glance, the above-cited roster might not look like a title contender. But if Jackson can somehow parlay Gasol into even more secondary and tertiary moves heading into 2016 and beyond, it's not outlandish to think these Knicks—with Melo and Gasol levying the triangle anew—could sneak their way into the contention conversation.