By John Schmeelk
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The Knicks head into free agency with three huge needs: Center, shooting guard and backup point guard. Assuming they manage to re-sign Langston Galloway and Lance Thomas, they’ll also need some more depth on the bench. With only $32 million to spend (less if they sign last year’s second-round pick, Willy Hernangomez and maintain cap holds on other players), the Knicks will have to be very careful how they spend their money.
With Robin Lopez now in Chicago, the Knicks need a new starting center who can play 25 to 30 minutes per game. Like Lopez, their priority should be finding a big man who doesn’t require the ball to be effective and has strengths on defense and on the boards. Kristaps Porzingis provides some level of rim protection, but it was when both he and Robin Lopez were on the court together that the team played good enough defense to make the playoffs. Porzingis isn’t physical enough to be a full-time center just yet.
Centers this season can be put into a couple of different categories. First, you have the guys who will get close to max contracts.
Al Horford, though technically a power forward at 6-foot-10, will likely find close to the max somewhere and would eat up almost all the Knicks’ cap space. Cross him off the list.
As a restricted free agent, Andre Drummond will get a max deal from the Pistons or someone else. Detroit will match any contract. He isn’t leaving.
Hassan Whiteside will be in the max area as well and earn more than $20 million per season. I would bet he gets maxed out by someone.
Out of this group, Whiteside is the only real option for the Knicks since he is young and has upside, and he would leave some money left to sign a shooting guard. But even if the Knicks have anywhere from $6 to $9 million left after signing a center, it won’t be enough to address both pressing backcourt needs.
That leads to the next group of veterans, which starts with Joakim Noah. He looks to be lining up near an $ 18-million- to $20-million-per-year type of deal, which I wrote Tuesday would be a huge mistake for the Knicks. Dwight Howard wants the max but is more likely to fall into this group at around $20 million to $22 million. If he is willing to be a rim protector and finisher near the basket, he could be worth that much. Unfortunately, he wants to be a featured post player and the centerpiece of an offense. He also has thin skin, is on the wrong side of 30 and would likely struggle in a high-pressured New York atmosphere. Pass.
It will be interesting to see what veteran Al Jefferson makes this offseason coming off a down offensive year, but he doesn’t play enough defense to be useful to the Knicks regardless of the cost.
Then you have a pair of young players who will make a lot more money than people think. Bismack Biyombo and Festus Ezeli are young rim-protecting defenders with limited offensive games but good athleticism. Someone will pay both upwards of $15 million per year for the upside of their natural ability. There’s a chance those players round out their offensive game, but they might not, either. This would be a risky move for the Knicks, but at least one with some potential to get younger players with upside. The cost, though, might end up being too prohibitive.
Ian Mahinmi, Timofey Mozgov and Zaza Pachulia might fit into the Knicks sweet spot in terms of skill and value. They are physical, do the dirty work and are the exact type of players you want as an enforcer type next to Kristaps Porzingis. Despite his advanced age, I would value Pachulia over Mahinmi and Mozgov since you could likely sign him for a shorter term deal. It could be a nice fit to bide time until Porzingis is ready to move to center full time.
The last veteran out there is Pau Gasol. He is still a good player, and if he is willing to sign for a discount, he would be very helpful offensively. But he doesn’t give the defense or rim protection you want, and he is more likely to sign with a team closer to winning a title than the Knicks.
Roy Hibbert is available, but he hasn’t been an effective player for some time. Nene doesn’t fit the Knicks’ needs. Mo Speights and Donatas Motiejunas are offensive players and don’t do enough defensively. Miles Plumlee is restricted, and any contract you offer him can be matched by Milwaukee.
If the Knicks can get a Mahinmi, Mozgov or Pachulia starting at between 8-12 million per year, it should leave room to get a good, young starting shooting guard and leave a few bucks for a backup point guard. Finding a solid backup for Rose is important given his injury history and potential minute limitations.
In other words, it is going to be very hard to replace Lopez. The Knicks are either going to have to settle for an inferior player or pay a similar player far more than they had committed to Lopez. The options aren’t great but the Knicks will have to make the best of them. They made this bed, and now they have to lie in it.
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