By John Schmeelk
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It appears the Knicks and Joakim Noah are at an impasse. Despite having an extremely generous contract, Noah seems unhappy about his playing time. Multiple reports from ESPN and Yahoo are indicating the Knicks are trying to figure out a way to move on from Noah, but it is hard to see how that will be possible. Their best option is to simply swallow hard and let the contract run out after the 2019-20 season.
This is a mistake the Knicks cannot erase. They must take the pain.
According to multiple reports from both ESPN and Yahoo, the situation came to a head at the practice following the Knicks’ loss to the Golden State Warriors last week when Noah and Hornacek engaged in a heated verbal exchange. Noah played only five minutes against Golden State despite Kristaps Porzingis and Kyle O’Quinn both being hurt. He wasn’t happy and hasn’t been with the team since.
Noah has one of the most overinflated contracts in the league relative to what he can do on the floor at this point of his career. He has two years and just under 39 million dollars left on his contract after this season and will turn 33 next month. He is one of the most toxic assets in the league, and unless the Knicks move him for an equally toxic asset (like Luol Deng or Timofey Mozgov), they would have to attach assets to him in a trade to move him off their books.
In other words, the odds of finding any trade that makes a modicum of sense for the Knicks is slim to none. It is part of Phil Jackson’s legacy that is still hurting the franchise. It is also noteworthy to remember that Noah wouldn’t be a Knick at all if not for the ill-considered Derrick Rose trade that moved Robin Lopez off the roster. Most people called that trade “risk-free” given the one year left on Rose’s deal. The current situation with Noah can be linked back to that terrible mistake.
But what else can the Knicks do now if they can’t trade Noah? Buying him out doesn’t make much sense. Those same reports indicate Noah is not willing to sacrifice any significant guaranteed money in a buyout, which means that move would do nothing to save anything on their salary cap. If he is so disruptive, then getting him away from the team may have an intrinsic value, but odds are Noah will calm down and be a relatively good soldier.
Despite the fact that Noah has only played in seven games this season, he still has potential value as an expiring contract during the 2020 season in a potential trade in which the Knicks would need to match a large-salaried player they are trying to acquire. Expiring contracts may soon become valuable again with the salary cap no longer increasing. Buying Noah out would eliminate that chance, albeit slim, that he could be useful in a trade down the road.
Others have suggested using the stretch provision on him, which would be an even bigger mistake. If the Knicks “stretch” Noah’s deal, he would still be owed the same amount of money but instead it would be spread out over five seasons instead of two. That means rather than owing him $18.5 million next season and just $19.3 million in 2019-20, they would be charged $7.6 million a year on their cap through the 2022-23 season.
Stretching him now would only accomplish freeing up more space this season, when the Knicks will be unlikely to have enough cap space to add a significant player anyway. The free agent class this summer is also rather weak, with few players deserving of a big offer. It might make more sense to stretch him in the summer of 2019, when the $12 million they would save could net them enough cap space to sign a transformational player close to a max deal. The exact money available would depend on Porzingis’ contract and whether the Knicks could unload other veterans. That is a bridge, however, the Knicks will not have to cross until they get there. No need to decide anything now.
Barring the previous scenario next summer, the only prudent choice is to hold onto Noah and let his contract expire in the summer of 2020. Right now, there isn’t one player on the Knicks roster with a guaranteed deal in the 2020-21 season. Porzingis could be in the middle of a mega second contract by then, Tim Hardaway Jr. could have exercised his player option, and the team could still control Frank Ntilikina or other young players. They would also have their 2018, 2019 and 2020 first-round picks under contract. Noah’s expiring deal could provide the opportunity to add a significant piece to a young core that should be on the rise.
The Knicks’ window to seriously compete in the Eastern Conference playoffs starts in the 2019-20 season. The rest of this year and next is for development and incremental improvement to make the team attractive to free agents in the summers of 2019 and 2020. Stretching Noah now would hurt the team’s ability to improve itself in those future seasons when they have a realistic chance of winning in exchange for a small salary-cap improvement now. It doesn’t make any sense.
Letting Noah sit at the end of the bench as the team pays him a king’s ransom might drive the Knicks’ front office and ownership a little nuts, but it is the right thing to do. It requires patience and prudence, two things the team has shown very little of over the years. They need to now.
• One note on what Porzingis said Monday about wanting the team to improve at the trade deadline. He should want the team to make a trade to help make the playoffs. He is a player, and his job is to win as many games as possible. It is not his responsibility to plan for the future. That’s why players do not run franchises. The Knicks’ front office needs to do the right thing and prepare for the future rather than do anything hasty to make a foolhardy run to the playoffs in 2018. Porzingis will understand if the franchise presents its long-term strategy to him.
• I’m still trying to compute the Blake Griffin trade. Value went both ways, and clearly the Pistons are making a stand to try to win now with Andre Drummond, Reggie Jackson and Blake Griffin. They are now capped out. Griffin’s injury history is a concern. The Clippers got back two draft picks (but the first-round selection is lottery protected) and a couple of good two-way players. The trade could go either way for both franchises.
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