How to Rebuild the Knicks
It has now been 17 years since Knicks legend Patrick Ewing left the team, and yet New York is still trying to find the right roster. Since the turn of the century, it is impossible to keep track of the combinations of players, coaches, and front office personnel the Knicks have put together. This season has only raised more questions as the Knicks find themselves at 17-20 fighting for a playoff spot. Reaching the postseason is still a realistic goal, but it is hard to imagine New York making much noise in the playoffs. The unfortunate reality for Phil Jackson and Knicks fans alike is that the best move for the franchise is a rebuild. As much criticism as Carmelo Anthony receives, there’s no denying that he is still one of the NBA’s star players. After this season, Carmelo Anthony has one more year guaranteed on his contract, followed by a player option in 2018-19. Anthony’s body is starting to wear down and he is already 32 years old, but true superstars like Melo are in limited supply. Many teams would be willing to give up quality assets to acquire Carmelo. The problem for the Knicks is that Anthony holds a full no-trade clause. This means the Knicks would need Anthony’s approval before trading him to another team. There are only a handful of teams that Anthony would be willing to be traded to, which would make it difficult to move him.
The biggest problem for the Knicks is Joakim Noah. Noah was a bad signing when the Knicks added him this summer, and the deal now only looks worse. Noah will be 32 years old in February and he already looks like a shell of himself. Signing Noah to a one or two year deal would have been acceptable, but giving Noah a 4-year $72 Million contract was simply stupid. It’s already scary to imagine the Knicks paying Noah nearly $20 Million at 36 years old in the final year of his contract. It is pathetic that Noah isn’t even halfway through his first season with the team and fans were already hoping for an amnesty clause to be included in the new collective bargaining agreement (before a tentative agreement was reached). Making matters worse is the fact that the Knicks don’t even need him. They have two capable centers in Kyle O’Quinn and Willy Hernangomez and both are on very team friendly contracts. In addition Kristaps Porzingis is likely better suited as a center, and both Carmelo Anthony and Lance Thomas are able to play some minutes at power forward. New York even has Marshall Plumlee for insurance at center. Noah does bring many intangibles both on and off the floor that don’t show up in the box score, but the team would be as good without him. Unless the Knicks were willing to package him with Porzingis (which they shouldn’t), Noah appears impossible to trade.
The good news is that other than Noah the Knicks don’t have any other obviously bad contracts, and they finally own all of their future first round draft picks. The only two contracts that aren’t clearly favorable to the Knicks are those of Lance Thomas and Courtney Lee, but both are useful players and have the potential to live up to their four-year deals. The Knicks have recently turned themselves into one of the better teams at finding international talent. In recent years the Knicks have found great value overseas in players like Timofey Mozgov, Porzingis, Hernangomez, and Mindaugas Kuzminskas. Kuz and Hernangomez have already shown that they are at the very least solid rotation players on very affordable contracts.
Barring a trade before this season’s trade deadline, the biggest decision for the Knicks will come at point guard. Both Derrick Rose and Brandon Jennings will be free agents next season, leaving New York with no point guards under contract for 2017-18. Rose is no longer an MVP level talent, but he is still a very good starter and just 28 years old. If Rose keeps up his current production and plays the majority of the team’s remaining games, he will be looking for a long-term deal. Similar to Noah last season, the Knicks shouldn’t be willing to give Rose more than one or two years on a new deal. If Rose is looking for a three or four-year deal, NYK should let him walk. The team can’t afford another terrible contract on the books, and Rose’s injury history makes him incredibly risky on a long-term contract. The last thing the Knicks need is a repeat of the Stoudemire contract situation. Jennings has also had a nice season for the Knicks, but he has also shown that he is not the answer if Rose leaves. Jennings has been perfect as a backup for Rose and has even played alongside him in limited minutes. However, in the games where Jennings has had to play big minutes he hasn’t been up to the task. Jennings’ ball hounding defense and elite passing skills are great in short spurts, but when he plays starter’s minutes, he commits to many careless turnovers and reach-in fouls. If the Knicks have enough room to bring back Jennings as a backup point guard once they sign a starter they should do so. However, Jennings may look elsewhere for a starting point guard role and salary in similar fashion to Jeremy Lin with the Nets. The only other significant free agent for the Knicks is swingman Justin Holiday. Holiday has been great thus far for the Knicks and probably deserves more minutes. The Knicks should look to re-sign him, but this will be difficult. The Knicks priority is to take care of the point guard position and they already have Melo, Lee, Thomas, and Kuz to play the wings.
The big question will be who to sign if the Knicks don’t bring back Rose. The Knicks may be able to find a backup point guard with their first round pick this year, but they will need to find a starter through free agency. The top free agent point guards will be Rose, Jennings, Michael Carter Williams (restricted), Deron Williams, Jeff Teague, Chris Paul, Jrue Holiday, Darren Collison, Patty Mills, Kyle Lowry, and George Hill. Stephen Curry is also a free agent, but he is a near lock to re-sign. Russell Westbrook would have also been available, but he just signed an extension this summer. The top target for the Knicks would be Chris Paul, who could be more realistic than many realize. Anthony and Paul are very good friends so it’s not hard to imagine Paul coming to play with Melo in New York. Paul will turn 32 years old in May, and he has still yet to reach a conference final. It will take at least a conference final appearance and maybe even a championship appearance for Paul to stay with the Clippers. The Clippers have no means to improve their team if they manage to re-sign Paul, Blake Griffin, and JJ Redick. Paul might decide that this core has had its run and simply isn’t good enough to reach the next step. If that is the case the Knicks could be considered the frontrunner to sign him. Paul has had some injury history and is on the wrong side of 30, but the risk of signing Paul to a max contract is far lower than signing Rose to the same deal. Paul is still alongside Curry and Westbrook as the top floor generals in the game, and his skill level should allow him to age well as his athleticism declines. Lowry, a player the Knicks nearly traded for a few seasons ago, would also be a great option but my bet is he stays with Derozan in Toronto. Hill, Holiday, and Teague would all be intriguing players carrying less risk than Rose. Hill would be the best option of the three, than Holiday, and then Teague. Perhaps signing Jrue would make Justin Holiday more likely to re-sign in order to play with his brother.
If the Knicks can’t upgrade at point guard with a player like Paul, trading Melo and building around Porzingis is the team’s best long-term plan. The Knicks can build a good team around Melo, but as many teams of the 90s (including the Knicks) would tell you that doesn’t matter if you can’t beat the best. NBA team’s shouldn’t simply blow up their roster if they aren’t as good as the Cavaliers or Warriors, but organizations have to position themselves to at least have a fighter's chance, no matter how small that is. As currently constructed I do not believe the Knicks could beat a team like the Cavs or GSW under any fathomable circumstance. Unless the Knicks disagree, they are doing themselves, their fans, and their veteran players a disservice by keeping this roster together. The Knicks should take one last free agency period to see if they can build the right team around Melo. If they fail one can only hope they are smart enough to blow things up rather than making terrible moves out of desperation as they have with past regimes.