Believe or Not, Knicks Made Good Decisions This Summer
By MARTIN JOHNSON
August 29, 2006
The Knicks had an extraordinarily successful off-season and the best part of it wasn't what they did, but rather what they didn't do.
What they did was notable. The Knicks started their summer with a roar, dumping coach Larry Brown after letting him twist in the wind for a couple of weeks (clearly an Isiah Thomas tradition given his handling of Don Chaney and Lenny Wilkens). The move was necessary as Brown had sabotaged the season, going 2359 using 42 different starting lineups, failing to set a rotation, and devoting more energy to warring with his players in the newspapers than setting clear roles for them.
The Brown fiasco closed with an interview where the Knicks' chairman, James Dolan, told the team president and head coach, Isiah Thomas, that he had one year to show substantial progress. The ultimatum garnered many headlines but it was dog bites man. Any team executive in charge of an outfit that has posted winning percentages of .476, .402, and .280 in successive seasons would be sitting on a very hot seat
The draft brought two players, Renaldo Balkman and Mardy Collins, who are primarily known for their defense and hustle. Their free agent shopping resulted in nabbing Jared Jeffries, another defense and hustle type. These are good additions to a club chock full of players who like to score and do little else.
What was remarkable about the Knicks' summer was that those were the only personnel moves made. The Knicks are so far over the cap, $138.5 million according to www.*********.com
, that they can be hit with a luxury tax penalty of more than $70 million in other words, they've reached depths of cap hell that not even Dante imagined. However, their hands aren't tied. Next to young skilled pivot men and point guards, the most sought-after commodity in the NBA is expiring contracts and the Knicks have two, Jalen Rose (due $16.9 million this year) and Maurice Taylor (owed $9.7 million).
Every competitive NBA team (I'm excluding Atlanta from the discussion) is over the cap and one way to get relief is to trade your bad, long-term contracts for expiring deals. Throughout Thomas's tenure, the Knicks have been a repository for mediocre players with bad, long-term contracts. Rose, Taylor, Malik Rose, Anfernee Hardaway, Steve Francis, and Antonio Davis have all donned the blue and orange because the Knicks were willing to take on their bloated contracts. There are signs that this policy has finally changed.
When rumors surfaced that the Knicks were talking to Portland about troubled swingman Darius Miles and with Philadelphia about aging power forward Chris Webber, the centerpiece of the Knicks' offer was swingman Quentin Richardson who is owed $33 million until the summer of 2010. Richardson has a bad back and an uninsured contract, which makes him a very expensive risk. He missed 27 games last season and his play has declined steadily for the last four seasons. Rather than an expiring contract for someone's bad long-term pact, the Knicks were said to be offering one bad deal for another, a subtle but significant change; if I'm reading the Garden tea leaves correctly, the team may finally be seeking some cap flexibility by keeping their expiring contracts and getting the cap relief themselves.They have tried to spend their way out of cap hell, but found themselves spinning their wheels in quicksand.
But what can we expect if the current assemblage is "our New York Knicks" for the near future? For one, substantial improvement can be expected this year. Last season Brown went with a set lineup and rotation for two weeks in late December and early January. The result was six wins in eight games including thrilling overtime wins against Phoenix and Dallas, two of the three best teams in the Western Conference. I don't think the Knicks are a .750 team, but that stretch speaks to the team's actual ability with some basic structure in place. I think the team will improve to 3540 wins this season and contend for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
The improvement will give fans a sense that things are finally moving in the right direction. Also in the summer of 2007, the Knicks' cap situation goes from comically bad to just plain bad as about $50 million worth of salary comes off the books.Rose and Taylor's deal will expire as will those of long gone players like Alan Houston, Shandon Anderson, and Jerome Williams.
From there, the cast pretty much is set for two years. Next summer, the Knicks will have a mid-level exception and Chicago's first round draft pick to bolster this lineup.The Knicks will have one expiring contract next summer, Malik Rose who is owed $7.1 million through summer of '08, but more importantly they will have two guards, Stephon Marbury and Steve Francis, who turn 30 in February and may be nearing the decline phase of their careers.Without reinforcements and unless Jamal Crawford and Nate Robinson can dial it up a notch, then the Knicks' backcourt play may decline a bit in 200708 resulting a few fewer victories and greater distance from the playoff chase.
The 200809 season will determine the Knicks long term. Marbury and Francis will be in the final years of their deals. If allowed to expire, the Knicks would have a payroll of about $40 million in the summer of '09 and would be able to shop aggressively for free agents to surround a team that would have Crawford, Robinson, Channing Frye, and Eddy Curry in the primes of their career as the cornerstones. They would also have the expiring contracts of Richardson (if he's still around) and Jerome James as bargaining chips. The team would be poised to take the next big step toward contending for a title.
That's what's possible.It's also possible that the Knicks' prudence this summer was a fluke and that they'll resume dealing expiring contracts for bad long-term ones in which case, mediocrity en route to possible contention will be replaced by veryexpensive bad teams becoming a fixture on the Manhattan landscape.
It would make Nets owner Bruce Ratner a very happy man as his team gets settled in Brooklyn.
Knick Fan Representin'