By John Schmeelk
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I took a lot of heat for my story on Monday, as many people were upset that I was willing to “accept” a “mediocre” season. They were upset that I would “settle” for coming up short from the Knicks’ ultimate goal of playing the Heat and challenging for a championship.
There seems to be a strange consensus from a segment of fans out there who believe that this Knicks team is trapped where they are, and are in need of serious rebuilding. The premise of the Knicks being unable to improve is faulty, in my opinion, but the bigger point is that a rebuild now is both foolish and impractical.
The Knicks started last season with a three-year plan, and for that very reason their salary allocations are way above the salary cap for the next two seasons. Amar’e Stoudemire, Tyson Chandler and Carmelo Anthony alone put the Knicks right at the salary cap. Stoudemire is untradeable because of his injuries. Anthony isn’t the perfect player and he did struggle shooting in the playoffs, but he brought his team just as far as other top stars in the league not named LeBron James did. He’s not going anywhere, either.
The only one of the big three who could potentially be moved is Chandler. But after this playoff performance his value is low, and the Knicks are unlikely to get anyone to replace him who can provide a similar presence in the middle on defense. The odds that he is moved are extremely small as well.
The first glimpse of flexibility for the Knicks will be after next season, when Anthony has an opt-out in his contract and nearly every single contract on the roster has only one year remaining except for Steve Novak, Ray Felton (player option) and Iman Shumpert (qualifying offer). Anthony might opt out and then look for a long-term extension. If he does, the Knicks would have to make a very tough decision regarding Anthony and this group. They will have to decide whether or not Anthony is a player who they think can bring the Knicks to the next level.
POLL: WHICH KNICKS NEED TO GO?
Whether Anthony exercises his option or not, it is two offseasons from now that the Knicks will have some real turnover. That will be the year for real change if the Knicks don’t feel that this group is championship caliber. Everyone is off the books except for Novak and Felton, who has a playoff option. Even Shumpert is a free agent, though the Knicks will hold his Bird rights and will be able to re-sign him if they want to. That’s when the rebuild, or the serious retooling, is going to happen. The slate will be nearly clean, and the Knicks will either be able to build a completely new team around Anthony or start new without him — depending on whether he opts out the season prior.
That’s what makes next season so important for the Knicks, and therefore, this offseason as well. There are actually small ways for the team to get better. The internal ways are simple: a healthy and improving Shumpert for an entire season, a healthier Stoudemire (not expected, but possible) who could help the team more, an improved Mike Woodson — who should have learned a lot of lessons from the playoffs — and natural improvement that comes with better chemistry when a group is together for a second season. As for personnel, with the Knicks’ cap situation their first priority needs to be bringing back their own free agents.
J.R. Smith is unlikely to get a better deal than the Knicks’ four-year, $22-24 million offer. Despite his erratic play, that’s actually a pretty fair deal for a guy who averaged 18 points a game and improved during the season (until the playoffs). The three other priorities are Kenyon Martin, Pablo Prigioni and Chris Copeland, who could all get better offers elsewhere. The Knicks would be wise to bring them all back if they can, though they will have to make some tough decisions if they have to lose some or all of their mid-level exception to bring them back.
For fans who want the Knicks to let some of these players go, it’s essential to understand one important fact: The money that they don’t spend on them can’t be spent elsewhere. It’s a total loss. It isn’t a matter of getting someone else instead of Smith. It is returning Smith or no one. It’s more or less the same for the other three, though their contract situations are a little different since the Knicks do not own their Bird rights.
Depending on how much it costs to return those three, the Knicks will have a chance to add someone with a mini-mid-level exception of about $3 million (re-signing Martin, Prigioni and Copeland could eat into that). The Heat were able to get Ray Allen with that money last year. It could be a significant veteran trying to join a contending team. And yes, a team that finished in the final eight with 54 wins and the second seed does count as a contending team. Depending on what happens with the other free agents, the Knicks could add a point guard, wing player or big man.
The Knicks can also improve with their first-round pick. The actual player who the Knicks select can help the team, but I also think it’s likely that the Knicks deal the pick or a player for someone who can contribute right away. It’s also possible that they package the pick with one of their lower-salaried player like Novak and take a higher-salaried player off of somebody else’s hands. Don’t expect any sign-and-trades because the Knicks will more than likely be over the salary apron, making it impossible to participate in those due to the new CBA.
The only option for the Knicks this offseason is to tweak and improve. A tear down or rebuild isn’t possible. This team won 54 games last year. They should be able to do the same next season, and if their stars play better in the postseason — which would be hard not to do considering their track record — they could face the Heat with a chance to go win a title.
That’s where the Knicks are, like it or not. Big changes are not coming now. They are two years away. They do have to get better, but that will be incremental, not dramatic. The Knicks are Melo’s team, and right now, that’s a good thing.
You can follow me on Twitter @Schmeelk for everything Knicks, Giants and New York sports.
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