The Knicks come into the season reeling after a disappointing and highly dysfunctional year. After winning the latest MSG power struggle, Carmelo Anthony has left for greener pastures and the chance to play meaningful basketball for the first time in years. The result of all this was yet another changing of the guard in the upper management of the front office, with longtime Knicks executive Steve Mills ascending to President and newcomer Scotty Perry taking over General Manager duties.
On the positive side of things, the Knicks gaze is finally focused firmly on the future. Typical of the Knicks though, the new(ish) front office must pay for the sins of the old. For a squad mired firmly in the tank, their cap sheet is bloated with a number of terrible contracts. Unless there are trades or uses of the Stretch Provision, the Knicks will be paying nearly $60 million annually to Joakim Noah, Tim Hardaway, Courtney Lee and Lance Thomas through 2020. This is a whole lot of money for a team on the outside of the playoffs and one that should consider themselves firmly in asset acquisition mode.
This is primarily a problem of opportunity cost but it is a significant one. Whereas teams like the Brooklyn Nets were able to turn their cap space into salary relief for the Lakers, taking on Timofey Mozgov's $48 million in guaranteed money in exchange for D’Angelo Russell, the Knicks have 4 rotation centers. Now, whatever you make of Russell’s particular potential as a player, the principle is one the Knicks should have kept in mind.
The league's new salary cap starved environment will once more make expiring deals and space-making moves a mainstay of NBA transactions. This is an effective, opportunistic way for teams at the bottom to collect assets on their path toward respectability. With this in mind, the Hardaway deal makes even less sense from a process point of view given that the Knicks knew their intention was to trade Carmelo Anthony come hell or high water.
The team signed Hardaway on a 3+1 deal, the duration of which the Knicks realistically will be a mostly non-competitive team. If Hardaway develops well and recoups his value on the deal, he will make the Knicks miss out on the top of the lottery. If he underperforms, his money is a waste on the books that instead could have been exchanged for picks or young players.
It bears repeating: The Knicks have 4 rotation centers. They are all likely to steal development time from Willy Hernangomez and keep Porzingis from growing into what many believe to be his most suited position.
There is almost no chance that the Knicks are able to trade Joakim Noah. But if he shows any signs of life at all and a trade exists, the Knicks must not hesitate. In all likelihood they are stuck with his contract for this year (and potentially the duration). The Knicks should resist the temptation to either stretch Noah or give up assets to dump him. While having so much salary tied up in the backup center position is far from ideal bookkeeping, the Knicks need to be patient with an eye to Porzingis’ coming prime years.
Kanter is a similar case, particularly given the likelihood that he exercises his 18 million dollar player option for 2018-19. Kanter provides some utility as a bench scorer and could provide balance to scoring-starved outfits but the best the Knicks could hope for would be a likely salary swap, maybe enabling a slight decrease in guaranteed salary owed or a player with skills less duplicative with the Knicks roster.
Kyle O’Quinn is perhaps a better all-around player than either of Noah or Kanter at this point, even if he is extremely inconsistent. His contract only pays $4 million a year and he might be an appealing trade asset for competitive teams seeking cheap backup big help.
Hardaway’s horrific contract is already a sunk cost, but there could be value to find in the player joining the team. The Knicks must learn from their mistakes of the past and not allow THJ to be a gunner without conscience. They have to work him into the offense, build him a role, and hold him to his defensive duties to earn playing time. Word from training camp is that he has already developed a nice chemistry with young Frank Ntilikina, whose role as a playmaker might well be the key to unlocking Hardaway’s more efficient tendencies.
Frank’s performance will be of particular interest to the Knicks chances going forward and could be further vindication for the European scouts in the Knicks organization. Talk in camp was all praise, as it always is this time of year, but it’s been especially reassuring to hear how good his jumper looks. Comparisons to a “young Kyrie Irving” are probably hyperbolic nonsense but if the French Prince proves ready to start from game 1 the Knicks will already have had great success this season. In his preseason debut, Frank was everything as advertised on the defensive end, hounding D’Angelo Russell and making calculated gambles to stymie opposing ball movement. It was glorious. On offense Frank was deferential to a fault and as expected struggled to get to the basket and finish.
Perhaps the most important aspect of the 2017-18 season will concern Kristaps Porzingis. After a tumultuous year where Phil threatened to trade him, fired his favourite coach and reports of conflict with Hornacek, Porzingis infamously skipped his exit meeting. In everyone’s best interest, the healing must begin between Porzingis and the Knicks organization. Kristaps will be the go-to-guy from day 1 of the Knicks season his development will be the key to the entire year. If he can replicate the growth he showed with the Latvian National Team and play in over 70 games, the season will be a success.
Key areas that Porzingis needs to improve on are his incessant fouling, weak post play, endurance and screen setting. In addition, he still struggles chasing around quicker players but this figures to remain an issue as long as he is playing the 4. The Ryan Anderson types of the world are ever more in vogue, and they make Kristaps pay dearly.
For all that, Kristaps will almost certainly be an All-Star this season having only narrowly missed out last year. His performance in the Eurobasket was breathtaking and is a good reminder that there is real substance to the hype with this young player. If used correctly, KP is a mismatch on every offensive possession capable of scoring from anywhere on the court.
Beyond development for their key players and the management of their future cap space, the draft ultimately will be the driving force of this season for the Knicks. Until further notice, the Knicks have their 1st round picks and will be in a position to use them.
Knicks lines were set before the Carmelo Anthony trade at 30.5, which should plummet now that the 10-time All-Star is with OKC. The Knicks could realistically win below 25 games this year, which will put them right in the range to be in the top 5 in the lottery. There are probable franchise level players in that range and drafting one to play with Porzingis is the only realistic way the Knicks can emerge from their current bottom feeder status as something of a contender.
They may have gotten there haphazardly, but the Knicks are on track for some kind of lasting success in the future if (and it’s a big if) they can demonstrate a level of patience that has been so lacking in the past. Knicks fans, as well as the front office, will do well to remember this as the L’s pile up throughout the year.
For the Knicks, down is the only way up.