By John Schmeelk
» More Columns
The Knicks have a well-documented problem with their roster that was only exacerbated by the Carmelo Anthony trade at the end of September: They have too many big men.
With the addition of Enes Kanter, they now have five players who are either centers or should be playing the position. There simply aren’t enough minutes to give Kanter, Willy Hernangomez, Joakim Noah, Kristaps Porzingis and Kyle O’Quinn.
The solution for the short-term will be to play Porzingis at power forward, which is fine since he is already adjusting to being the No. 1 option on offense. Eventually, once he gets strong enough, Porzingis is going to be a center. It gives him such a huge advantage offensively when playing the five, as long as he isn’t a completely inept rebounder, it’s where he would help the team the most. The transition should start sooner than later, but the Knicks’ current roster isn’t going to allow that.
The question then is whether the Knicks can succeed long term with Porzingis playing next to Kanter or Hernangomez. Offensively, it could work, but defense is the problem. Both Hernangomez and Kanter are good scorers in the low block but struggle defensively. Neither move well enough to guard the pick-and-roll, nor do either block shots at the rim. Both are still young, with Hernagomez just 23 years old and Kanter 25.
Kanter’s contract plays a big role in all of this. He can opt out of his deal next summer, or opt in for $16 million. The NBA salary cap is not growing like it used to, and not many teams are projected to have cap space next summer. With less money but the same amount of players available, it is a fair question if Kanter will find a better long-term contract next summer. What he will decide it still a mystery.
The Knicks need to figure out quickly whether or not Kanter can fit with Porzingis long term. He needs to start and play next to Porzingis and get plenty of touches on offense. In the half court, dumping it into him in the post can even be one of the team’s first options. He is that talented a scorer one-on-one.
If the Knicks decide Kanter is a long-term fit — which would only be the case if his weight loss of nearly 40 pounds helps him enough defensively — they can debate whether to re-sign him in the offseason and make him part of the rebuild. In this scenario, the team would then look to move Hernangomez for either a draft pick or a young player who would fit at small forward long term with Porzingis, Ntilikina, and Tim Hardaway Jr.
If they decide he can’t play next to Porzingis long term, the Knicks can look to move him at the trade deadline. If they do feature Kanter, he could be an 18-point, 10-rebound type of player and might be able to fetch something of value from a team in desperate need of a competent center. Some teams still value those numbers even though many teams no longer see much value in low-post scoring in the modern NBA. If Kanter opts out, the Knicks could also entertain sign-and-trade offers next summer.
Kanter was the best asset the Knicks got in the Anthony trade, and they must make the most of it. The team would be foolish to just let him walk away and have nothing to show for it. That’s preferred to re-signing him long term if he doesn’t fit, but it would still be disappointing. By featuring him prominently early in the season, the team can learn what he is and boost his value simultaneously.
With Hernangomez on a long-term, low-cost rookie contract, they can wait a little longer before thrusting him into the spotlight. Waiting until January or February to play him 30 minutes a games will not hinder his progress. Kanter is probably the better player right now thanks to his better athleticism and scoring prowess, but Hernangomez passes and rebounds better. Hernangomez might develop enough as a scorer and defender to surpass Kanter, something else they need to figure out this season.
Even with Kanter featured as a starter, Hernangomez needs to get 20 to 25 minutes off the Knicks’ bench. O’Quinn and Noah cannot encroach on his playing time. They are not the future. He needs playing time in the NBA to continue to improve. It would be interesting to see how well his passing in Europe could translate to the pros if he had the ball in his hands more with the second team.
Kanter and Hernangomez both need to play a lot, even if it means the team struggles defensively and loses games. The team needs to figure out if either can be a long-term complement to Porzingis. Kanter, due to his contract, is the priority, but Hernangomez is no less important.
The Knicks need to make believe it’s the ’90s again and feature their center early and often to figure out what they have.
For everything Knicks, Giants, and the world of sports, follow John on Twitter at @Schmeelk