By John Schmeelk
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Player after player has left the NBA free agent marketplace, seemingly signing everywhere except with the Knicks. Fans are frustrated as they see another season of losing on the horizon. It’s understandable given the torture the Knicks have put their fans through over the past decade and a half, but it is time for everyone to embrace the tank. Signing no one is the best thing the Knicks can do.
Phil Jackson’s utter incompetence in trying to put a winning roster together left the Knicks with a few promising young players in Kristaps Porzingis, Willy Hernangomez and Frank Ntilikina to build around. Perhaps Damyean Dotson and Ron Baker can turn into useful pieces. Jackson also left the Knicks with all their first-round picks moving forward.
The Knicks are not in the same position the 76ers were in when they began their “process” after the 2013 season. New York is not going to have to commit to a half-decade of losing the way Philly did. Jackson’s ineptitude already got the Knicks part of the way there. If they lose enough this season, it might only have to be for one more year.
If the Knicks can add one more top player from next year’s draft — incoming Missouri forward Michael Porter Jr. or Slovenian shooting guard Luka Doncic — they’d have a good young core that has a chance to become something real. If Porzingis, Hernangomez and Ntilikina develop this year, given the chance to carry the load, the team can begin to work toward winning in 2018-19 by adding a top draft pick and then hitting the free agent market. It might not happen right away, but the path would at least be laid out in front of them. If they fail, the Knicks can re-evaluate where they stand next offseason.
The Knicks should continue to go about the business of free agency the way they have so far. They shouldn’t give out any contracts longer than one or two seasons. They shouldn’t add anyone too productive that would push them into the 30-win range. Shelvin Mack would be a good addition at point guard. The Knicks should then pluck young players from the Summer League rosters to fill the back of their bench and G-League roster in Westchester.
The Knicks need to value flexibility. By not spending all their salary-cap space, it will be easier to make a future trade by accepting a salary dump from another team. It also gives general manager Steve Mills a chance to hire a new front-office executive who can execute the Knicks’ rebuild the way he sees fit. Once that hire is made, the Knicks are going to have to deal with the mess Jackson left behind.
Carmelo Anthony is going to be nearly impossible to trade no matter who is running the Knicks. The teams he would accept a trade to would want to send bad contracts back to New York that would hinder its rebuilding efforts (Iman Shumpert, Ryan Anderson). A third team would have to be involved, but finding something that would net the Knicks a real future asset seems improbable.
More than likely, Anthony will either start out the season on the team or he will agree to surrender a substantial amount of money to get a buyout so he can join a contender. The Knicks would be wise to ask Anthony to forego the fifth-year option on his contract next season in exchange for setting him free. If Anthony is not agreeable, the Knicks could try to revisit trades up until the trade deadline before approaching Anthony with another buyout.
While Anthony’s contract and deterioration on defense make him hard to trade, he would still help the Knicks win too many games, and they would not get a high enough draft pick to find a true difference maker. If the tank is to work, Anthony should not be on the roster this season. If Anthony wants to play on a winner that badly, both sides should be able to figure something out.
If the Knicks are patient, they should be able to get something for Courtney Lee, whether a lottery-protected draft pick or future asset of some kind. Lee is still a useful player, and the Knicks shouldn’t just give him away.
Unless the Knicks hire the best hypnotist in the world, they will not be able to get anyone to take Joakim Noah’s contract. The only way that albatross comes off the books is by the Knicks allowing it to expire. Using the stretch provision should be off the table for both Noah and Anthony. The Knicks can pay the piper on bad contracts now, but should try to position themselves as well as possible two or three years down the road.
This is not a foolproof plan. With so many bad teams in the East, the Knicks might win too many games to get the pick they need. You can’t force young players not to play hard or well. Also, the Knicks might just have a lot of bad luck at the lottery drawing. Building through the draft also is no guarantee of success. Porzingis might never blossom into a true star, and Ntilikina might not turn into a starting point guard. But the Knicks have been trying it the other way for 15 years, and it has gotten them past the first round of the playoffs once. It’s time for something different.
This strategy gives them the best chance to develop an honest-to-goodness core of a team that can lead to long-term success. Eventually, when the young players show enough, free agency can be used to supplement them. It might not work, but it gives the Knicks the best odds, while at the same time the most flexibility to go in a different direction if it becomes prudent.
The Knicks have been losing a lot of games and playing a lot of bad basketball for a decade and a half. One more season of losing isn’t going to move the needle. The Garden will still be packed with tourists and owner James Dolan will make plenty of money. No one will abandon the team, especially if there is a real plan in place. You can rebuild in New York. That’s how the Yankees got where they are today.
No one likes losing, but for the Knicks, the more they lose this year, the better.
For everything Knicks, Giants, and the world of sports, follow John on Twitter at @Schmeelk