The Knicks have transitioned almost flawlessly from a disappointing postseason to an underwhelming offseason with the addition of Andrea Bargnani, the man who just had his "Softest Player in the NBA" title wrenched away from him by Cody Zeller.
From a basketball standpoint, Bargnani leaves a lot to be desired, as he shot just under 40 percent from the field last season and ranked 259th in PER. He is a serious defensive liability despite being 7-feet tall and has had issues staying healthy. But, he fits the system for the New York Knicks, as he can watch Carmelo Anthony from the three point line and shoot well (sort of; only shot 31 percent last year from three), and hopefully he doesn’t see much of the floor without Tyson Chandler.
So, Bargnani will be an upgrade over Steve Novak and Marcus Camby. But he’s due almost $24 million over the next two years, which manages to give the Knicks even less roster flexibility.
Luckily for New York, the contracts for Bargnani, Tyson Chandler, Amar’e Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony are all ending together in the summer of 2015. New York can, once again, drool over the idea of hitting it big in free agency in one fell swoop like 2010…
Remember the summer of 2010? That was supposed to be it. It was their target year since Donnie Walsh took over after the 2007-2008 season. He was going to do whatever it took to make sure the Knicks had cap flexibility so they could go out and get at least one big name player.
LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and others were about to make up the best free agent class ever. The Knicks were finally out of the Isiah Thomas wilderness, and Walsh had lined everything up to contend for the next decade.
The Knicks were in a position to sign a whole new team in 2010, and LeBron James was supposed to be the first domino to fall. But, he went to Miami instead. So if they weren’t going to get LeBron, what were they going to do? Could they simply not sign a marquee free agent and save the cap room?
No, they needed someone.
The Knicks had been too bad for too long to just shrug it off and continue being bad. And honestly, the Knicks didn’t need to contend for a title right away; making the playoffs would’ve made pretty much everyone happy.
So, Walsh looked at the cons of Amar’e Stoudemire, like his terrifyingly fragile knees, happening to have his best year the season before his contract ended, and playing with the greatest point guard of the generation in an offensively focused system…And still gave him a max deal.
Coming away empty handed was never an option.
Looking back, and even in the moment, everyone could see that Amar’e wasn’t the franchise player the Knicks thought they were going to get. They should have just waited to trade for or sign Carmelo. But they couldn’t do that. Walsh’s whole tenure with the Knicks was created on a go-for-broke strategy in the summer of 2010. He couldn’t just tank for two years and then not get any better because of it.
Further complicating things, the new CBA was agreed on the next year, which would place the Knicks under far greater constraints with Stoudemire’s contract.
Walsh’s lunge at Stoudemire has put the Knicks right back where they were before: capped out waiting for contracts to expire, this time in 2015 instead of 2010.
So, for the next two years, the Knicks won’t be making any upgrades, meaning they’ll be finishing anywhere between second and fifth in the East. But they will be putting themselves in an opportunity to strike free agent gold in the summer of 2015. This is where Glen Grunwald, the GM of the Knicks, can outshine his predecessor.
It’s important to note that the Knicks couldn’t have picked a better time to be a second-tier team. The Heat are going to be perhaps the heaviest favorite ever to keep winning titles the next two seasons, if Wade’s knees hold up. So, even if the Knicks were the second best team in the NBA, they would still be far away from a championship.
Grunwald will have a few advantages over Walsh this time around, though. First, going into free agency in 2015, the Knicks will be winning and making the playoffs. While the pressure to win is always great in New York, Grunwald won’t be burdened by a decade of failure like Walsh was. The CBA is also going to be the same for the next decade, which will make it easier to forecast the salary cap and luxury tax numbers.
Grunwald also already has a franchise player in Carmelo Anthony. Everything in 2015 begins with re-signing Carmelo, which could become harder than anticipated if these next two seasons prove frustrating. Everyone wants LeBron, but he’s not going to leave a potential four-time defending champion team with a great coach, owner and president for a team owned by James Dolan.
And, even if they sign Carmelo, it will still be hard to support him: the Knicks only have three draft picks over the next three years, two second round picks in 2014 and a first rounder in 2015.
The new CBA has made turning your draft picks into quality rotation players important when assembling a championship contending roster (Kawhi Leonard with San Antonio or Paul George with Indiana are just two examples) either by actually drafting players or through trades. Picks in the mid to late first round, where the Knicks will be picking, will be earning in the $1 to $2 million per year range as opposed to $6 million per year, which is what most veteran rotation players make. It is also hard to lure free agents away from their current teams as they are the ones who can offer the most money, meaning free agents worth keeping are kept.
Even if Grunwald is able to re-sign Carmelo and a supporting star, he is still going to be squeezed on filling out the roster for players three through eight of the rotation. Pablo Prigioni and J.R. Smith are the only players under contract after the 2014-15 season and Prigioni can be bought out then. While it’s not impossible to assemble a quality roster without draft picks and players on their rookie contracts, it makes it infinitely harder.
Is 2015 going to be the big boom for the Knicks that 2010 wasn’t? No, because LeBron isn’t coming to New York. But, assuming they avoid a bust signing like Amar’e, which isn’t a given, they’ll be in a better situation. They’ll have more money to give out, but without picks, it will be tough sledding to rely heavily on free agent signings. Just hope Grunwald doesn’t fall into the go-for-broke trap that Walsh did.
By: Graham Nolen