We might not know for sure whether the Knicks had a good offseason until well into 2014, but that’s no reason not to evaluate how they’ve done this summer.
It’s almost two months into the NBA offseason and things are quiet. What’s been an otherwise solid offseason for the NY Originals has been swallowed up by massive moves from Brooklyn, a long, sweltering heat wave and, I like to think, my marriage and subsequent honeymoon. All that’s over now (except the marriage, so far I’ve been good) so now seems as not-really-that-good-of-a-time as any to take a look at what the Knicks have done since being eliminated by the Pacers in the Eastern Conference semifinals. Oh, and grading. Let’s do some grading.
Taking Care of Their Own (4 Credits)
The Knicks had quite a few rotation players from last season become free agents this offseason. For capped out teams like the Knicks, retaining their own free agents is hugely important, picking and choosing the right ones to keep even more so. With that in mind, the Knicks are bringing back three of their four rotation players who hit the market this summer and decided to let the right guy go.
Thanks to the intricacies of the salary cap, the Knicks were able to give JR Smith a three-year deal (the last year is a player option) worth between $5.5 and $6.5 million per year (it’s a weird contract that paid Smith $9 million up front - look out video hoes (hos?), tattoo artists planning vacations and Jordan dealers running low on exclusives). JR might have issues but the reigning sixth man of the year is a better option than the alternative, which was basically nothing. This signing would look a lot better if Smith hadn’t had knee surgery just days after signing the contract (he should be back sometime in November). The Knicks say they knew about the injury before signing JR to the deal but this is the Knicks so who knows. All I can say is it seems like Frank Isola thinks something is up. On the bright side, the knee explains at least a bit of whatever the hell was going on with his play against Indiana.
The Knicks also gave Pablo Prigioni half their mid-level exception, bringing back the player formerly known as the oldest rookie in modern NBA history for three years at about $1.6 million per (the third year is non-guaranteed). There’s no question that having Prigioni around makes the Knicks better. On the whole, the Knicks scored 108.6 and gave up 103.5 points per 100 possessions last season. With Prigioni in the lineup they scored 108.8 and gave up 100.9. Oh, and they won thirteen straight after inserting him into the starting lineup on March 18. Prigioni is a nice, useful player, much more so than his 3.5 point and 3.0 assist per game averages. Bringing him back was an obvious move.
The Knicks decision to split their midlevel exception between Prigioni and a certain hometown hero (who we’ll discuss in a second) meant that they couldn’t bring back Chris Copeland, the unheralded journeyman with the awkward-yet-effective post moves and sharp shooting from three. Copeland signed a two-year $6 million contract with the Pacers where he might fit in, either by picking up a defensive point of emphasis or two or having his teammates cover up for him. Copeland is definitely a work in progress and he might improve in Indiana but I have a feeling we won’t be seeing much of him in the future. He also had knee surgery last week and will be out 6-8 weeks. WHAT DO THE KNICKS DO TO PEOPLE’S KNEES?!?
Last but not least, the Knicks finally got around to signing Kenyon Martin to a one-year deal for the veteran’s minimum at the end of July. Martin played very well for the Knicks over the course of eighteen regular season and twelve playoff games. His 10.8 points and 7.9 rebounds per in the regular season were a huge contribution and his primal screaming after help-side blocks and powerful alleys was fantastic. Staying healthy for a full season will be a challenge for the almost-36 year old but there’s no doubt he’s an important piece for the Knicks.
Oh, the Knicks let James White go. James White was fun sometimes and depressing sometimes. He achieved the rare distinction of spot-starting throughout the season yet still never being a part of the rotation. I hope he has a pleasurable experience someplace next year.
The Knicks brought back the best three of their four real free agents (Sorry Flight). Prigioni by himself was more important than Copeland, who got double what Prigioni got anyway. What more could they do?
Trades (3 Credits)
Just one controversial move for the Knicks here, trading Marcus Camby, Steve Novak, Quentin Richardson, two future second rounders and a first rounder for Andrea Bargnani. From a basketball standpoint, this makes some sense. Bargnani is the “stretch four” the Knicks have been wanting for years (just ask Rasheed Wallace and Josh Harrellson. Hell, Amar’e even tried to nominate himself for the role two years ago). And the players they gave up don’t amount to much of anything: Camby never got his legs, it’s certain now that Novak couldn’t do anything when defenses bore down and Q-Rich was re-signed just for the purpose of making the money right (has anyone ever gotten money for doing less than he just got? Q-Rich just got $1.4 million for two “nuts on your forehead” and one fancy high-five routine with Iman Shumpert down the stretch last year. How can I hire his agent?)
But of course it isn’t that simple. Bargnani has played just 66 games over the last two seasons and shot just 30.2% from three during that time. Not so stretchy (he earned that rep by shooting 41% and 37% the two years prior to that.) The Knicks are hoping that regaining his health, becoming a third-, fourth- or fifth-banana and being freed from the yoke of bustitude will return Bargnani to form. If it doesn’t, Bargnani is just a tall overpaid guy who can’t rebound or defend. And the Knicks already have at least one of those.
Which is a nice segway into what’s wrong with this trade: imagine if some team had given the Knicks three draft picks in a deal for Amar’e Stoudemire? How hard would you laugh? You’d say “didn’t Team X realize that the Knicks would have given him away for nothing?” That’s not altogether different from what the Knicks did, although Amar’e makes about twice as much money as Bargnani and has less than two full knees. AGAIN WITH THE KNEES!
The saving grace here is that trading Novak saved the Knicks $3.75 million of their 2015-16 cap figure. The summer of 2015 figures to be a big one for the Knicks - the contracts of Chandler, Stoudemire and now Bargnani all expire following the 20014-15 (Melo will likely have been extended by then) and the Knicks are almost certain to have the cap room for a max free agent, even after they re-sign Melo. No sense keeping Novak around for that.
Trade Grade: B
Bargnani is an upgrade over Novak and has the potential to give the Knicks some of the floor spacing they missed last season, even if Mayor Bloomberg is going to have to pass a law on his way out of office that prohibits Woody from playing him and STAT together (you know that technocrat bastard has seen the advanced defensive stats and knows what could happen). As a rule, I don’t make it my business to worry about Jim Dolan wasting his money - way over the cap is way over the cap as far as I’m concerned. Still, I have to believe this deal could have gotten done without giving up a first round pick. The Knicks always find a way to throw one asset too many into a deal. Cut that out!
OPP (3 Credits)
Only one move here so far, bringing Ron Artest/Metta World Peace/Ron Artest home to New York. Artest (as he will always be known here), amnestied by the Lakers, got the other half of the Knicks’ mid-level exception. Artest’s best days are behind him but he’ll still bring toughness, defense and somewhat-adequate three-point shooting to the Garden (he shot 34% from three last season). Most importantly, he’ll free up Melo to play the four on offense and while he covers the toughest forward every night. I think he’ll be the team’s starting small forward.
I can’t in good faith give a team that’s spent its way into cap hell any kind of A grade, but the Knicks made a very sound decision by bringing Ron Artest to the Garden.
The Draft (3 Credits)
The Knicks took Tim Hardaway Jr. with the 24th pick in the draft. Hardaway is a shooting guard in the traditional sense (and who might be able to play a little SF). He’s a smooth shooter with nice size at 6-6. He averaged 14.7 points and 4.7 boards on a really solid team at Michigan last season, so it’s easy to imagine that he’d have put up more numbers on a messier college squad. Or maybe not. How does that work again? (Oh no, the dreaded unanswerable Shareef Abdur-Rahim paradox!)
The Knicks picked Hardaway before re-signing JR Smith, so he certainly fit what was a need at the time. With JR’s return and the signing of Artest, Hardaway may struggle to find playing time amid a suddenly crowded shooting guard/small forward rotation: JR, Shump, Prigioni, Felton, Melo, Ron-Ron and third-PG TBD are all going to need minutes in one or both of those spots, making minutes there hard to come by. Still, this kid ties together a lot of threads: he’s the son of notorious Knick-killer/homophobe/ESPN analyst (never forget how bad he was on TV) and he’s a Michigan alumn (just like two-thirds of all Knick fans. The other third went to Syracuse. Then there’s that one asshole sitting courtside in the Roger Mason UVA jersey.)
Draft Grade: B+
I give them a B+ because I don’t know anything about college basketball and this feels right. Hardaway seems smooth, smooth is cool. And shooting is always good to have. They could have taken a point guard or a big, certainly bigger needs but I’m going to assume they took the best player available. Always a good strategy at 24.
Dumpster Diving (2 Credits)
The Knicks have made an art of digging through the dredges of the minor leagues and foreign lands to come up with contributors the last few seasons. The ability to do this is the mark of sound organizational work (See Spurs, San Antonio) and it’s improved what would otherwise be a stagnant, capped-out roster.
Jeremy Lin, Steve Novak, Pablo Prigioni, Chris Copeland and even JR Smith and Kenyon Martin if you want to get technical, were abroad or unsigned/unattached free agents when the Knicks signed them. The Knicks have continued to go digging this offseason and have unearthed some promising young players.
First they signed CJ Leslie from North Carolina State as an undrafted free agent after he went untaken in the draft. There was a time that the high-flying, two-time All-ACC 6-9 forward was projected as a high first rounder. That time was two years ago, but a flier on Leslie is well worth the partially guaranteed contract the Knicks gave him. Even though their games aren’t similar, something about the Leslie pickup reminds me of the Knicks’ buy-low, sell-high second round selection of Trevor Ariza (forgetting for a second that “sell-high” was including him in a deal for Steve Francis).
Ariza was a former McDonald’s All-American who had a disappointing freshman year at UCLA who the Knicks took with the 43rd pick in the draft. Leslie, a freak athlete who needs a lot of skills work, has the potential to be a kind of Jason Maxiell-light, capable of giving the Knicks some explosiveness off the bench. He’s got a chance to work his way into an NBA rotation if he develops the ability to defend at an above-average level. If that happens, this signing will be quite nice. If not, no harm done.
The Knicks are also planning to bring Jeremy Tyler and Toure Murry into camp. You may recall Tyler’s name, because the 22-year old seven-footer is five years into his professional basketball career after going pro and heading off to Israel prior to his senior year of high school. That didn’t quite work out as planned and after getting taken in the second round of the draft by the Warriors in 2011 he’s bounced around quite a bit. Tyler looked hungry and aggressive in the summer league, earning a chance at a roster spot. Big men don’t grow on trees and the athletic and reasonably coordinated Tyler has a good chance of making the Knicks. That idea gets my full support. [NOTE: Tyler was signed to a partially guaranteed two-year deal yesterday]
Murry, a 6-5 shooting guard in the process of learning to play the point, looked good in summer league as well. Word is he hasn’t accepted his camp invitation because he’s got some other offers and is concerned about the Knicks’ plans to add another guard.
Tyler and Murry did this fun thing together in the summer league:
This is a pass/fail course. If you add interesting players in the hopes they pan out, you pass. The Knicks have certainly done that.
What’s Left (Incomplete)
The Knicks have
twelve thirteen players under contract for next season (counting Leslie’s partial guarantee), so they have three two roster spots available. It’s only one if they sign both Tyler and Murry, my guess is they bring in Tyler [nailed this] and drop Murry. And yes, it’s Murry, no A.
The Knicks are still in the market for a backup big man and a third point guard. I’m a little concerned they don’t have an established seven-footer to bring off the bench (especially since Tyson Chandler broke down as the season went along and often gets himself into foul trouble) but there are few teams with the luxury of a second 84-plus incher and the league gets smaller every day.
There are about a million guys the Knicks have been linked to, including Ivan Johnson (cool), Lou Amundson, Cole Aldrich (ew), Hammed Haddadi, Jerome Jordan (I don’t think he’s an NBA player), Jannero Pargo, Delonte West (where was this two years ago?), Bobby “No, not that Bobby” Brown (he’s a twentysomething American PG who’s been killing it in Europe), Beno Udrih (interesting) and god only knows who else. I think it’s pretty clear the Knicks need a third point guard and can really use another big. I leave it to them to figure out which ones.
GPA (15 Credit Hours)
That all comes out to a not-too-shabby 3.45 GPA for the Knicks. It’s almost definitely not enough to catch the nerds at the top of the class (Miami, Indiana) but it just might be sufficient to stay ahead of the guys who slacked off last semester but have been working hard all summer (Brooklyn, Chicago). Even if it’s not, it’s certainly enough to make next season a lot of fun. Just a couple more months until then.