When the season started, Derrick Rose thought of the New York Knicks as a “super team” on par with the Warriors or Cavaliers. As late as Christmas week, the Knicks were sitting squarely in the middle of the Eastern Conference playoff picture. While not an accomplishment worthy of “super team” status, it was a sign of progress for a franchise who had missed the postseason for three years running.
A loss to the Celtics on Christmas day kicked off a six-game losing streak that saw all that progress crumble and New York once again found themselves on the outside looking in at the playoffs. As a matter of fact, the Knicks never won as many as two games in a row after that point.
To figure out where it all went wrong, you have to start at the tail end of the 2016 league year. On the day before the 2016 NBA Draft, New York swung a huge trade that saw them acquire Rose and Justin Holiday for Robin Lopez, Jose Calderon and Jerian Grant. The move was the start of a big summer of spending that was designed to end a playoff drought and make the Knicks contenders again.
Following the trade for Rose, New York signed Joakim Noah and Courtney Lee and re-signed Lance Thomas to four-year deals for a total of over $148 million. Phil Jackson was committed to putting veterans around Carmelo Anthony and prized second year player Kristaps Porzingis. New York also signed Brandon Jennings to a one-year deal to fill out the rotation and to back up Rose.
On top of all the new players, the Knicks added Jeff Hornacek to coach the team. After a tumultuous ending to the Derek Fisher era, the Knicks wanted stability and Hornacek had some previous success pushing Phoenix close to a much unexpected playoff berth. Unfortunately, despite some platitudes to the contrary when Hornacek was introduced, Jackson had no designs on his team giving up the Triangle Offense. We didn’t know it at the time, but this would hamper things down the line.
Few of these big moves worked out as intended. Starting with the highest profile addition in Rose, everything just seemed a bit off. Rose is a ball dominant point guard, which doesn’t fit the triangle, nor fit alongside Anthony. In addition, Rose needs shots to be effective and every shot he took was one that Porzingis didn’t get to take. While Rose was mostly healthy for large chunks of the season, and put up solid numbers, the fit was never quite right.
Noah, the next highest paid newcomer, played in just 46 games and didn’t look particularly healthy during most of them. He was finally shut down for good in early February and only “re-activated” late in the season to begin serving a 20-game suspension for taking a banned substance. Noah not being healthy enough to play came as a surprise to seemingly only Jackson. He had missed considerable time over several seasons prior to this one and generally seemed to be thought to be breaking down. Handing him over $72 million over four years looked questionable at the time and is now one of the least tradable contracts in the NBA.
Lee was solid enough, as he produced in line with his career norms. As a player who is best suited to be a team’s fifth or sixth best player, he’s appropriately paid. The challenge is his value to a rebuilding Knicks team is superfluous. Rebuilding teams don’t need veterans, who are best fit on contenders, blocking the path to playing time of young players.
Thomas was the last big signing and he’s also fairly paid for his role as a “3&D” player. He missed a large chunk of the season due to injury, but seemed generally healthy for the second half of the year. Jennings didn’t even complete the season in New York, as he and the team agreed it was best to move on shortly after the deadline.
Interestingly enough, it was the Knicks' lower profile moves that worked out best. Holiday, who was a throw-in in the Rose trade, had a career-year and showed signs of being a potential bench shooter. But it was a handful of first year players who produced the most excitement.
New York also finished the year with six rookies on the roster, all of whom flashed varying levels of potential throughout the year. Prime among these are Willy Hernangomez and Mindaugas Kuzminskas. Both European imports went through typical growing pains, but both should be rotation pieces moving forward. Ron Baker and Chasson Randle both showed enough to be in the mix for backup point guard minutes. And Maurice N’dour and Marshall Plumlee each need another year of D-League seasoning, but are good deep bench options.
This summer, intrigue runs high for the Knicks. Starting with the coaching staff and scheme, Jackson has stated that Hornacek will run the Triangle Offense next season, despite the coaches not being experts in the system. This puts enormous pressure on Hornacek to run a system that he doesn’t really know, nor is he comfortable with.
But what system the Knicks will run is fairly low on the totem pole of concerns. The biggest question, one that will loom over all else until decided, is: what is to become of Carmelo Anthony? Anthony has played six and a half years in New York now and is still a productive, albeit aging player. He’s not someone you build a contender around any longer, but he still has value. That value just doesn’t seem to be seen by Jackson, who has not so subtly suggested that Anthony should waive his no-trade clause and move on elsewhere several time. With recent reporting that Anthony is willing to consider doing so, and his reported split from wife La La (who pushed him to stay in New York), it seems like a parting of the ways is inevitable.
Of the Knicks' free agents, Rose is the biggest question mark. He carries a cap hold of over $30 million and keeping him on the books eliminates any chance for New York to have cap space. Obviously, the Knicks have a decision to make and both sides have expressed interest in a return engagement. The big question will be money and years, as Rose was mostly healthy, but did finish the season on the shelf due to injury once again. If Rose is willing to take a one-year deal, or two years with limited guaranteed money in year two, it would make sense for New York to bring him back. If not, they need to move on to younger, cheaper and healthier options.
Baker is set to be a restricted free agent and the Knicks are almost certain to extend him a qualifying offer to retain match rights. Holiday could price himself out fairly quickly and Jackson favorite Sasha Vujacic is a minimum player and nothing more.
New York will have another high lottery pick and can add another talented young player next to Porzingis. While Porzingis was nicked up throughout the year, he showed considerable improvement in every phase of his game. He’s a true superstar in waiting and someone the Knicks need to focus building everything around as they move forward.
As Jackson has been out as a coach for a while, and with no one else running the Triangle, it is hard to peg perfect fits as additons. J.J. Redick is a long-rumored target and would fit with his shooting ability. Same with Nick Young, who had a bounce-back season for the Lakers. Omri Casspi would make some sense as a bigger wing who can shoot.
It is hardly a banner crop of gettable free agent point guards, leading some to believe that helps Rose towards a return to New York. But if the team wanted to invest heavily in a veteran, George Hill or Jeff Teague are both bigger point guards that could fit the Triangle Offense well. Shaun Livingston could be an underrated target and he’s a long-time favorite of Jackson. And keep an eye on Michael Carter-Williams, as he fits the mold of the big guards Jackson has always favored.
No matter what the Knicks do, the plan has to be to put pieces around Porzingis. With Anthony likely on his way out, nothing matters more than the development of their new franchise centerpiece. With some intriguing young players already around him, smart, cost-effective veteran additions would give the team a nice balance. It might not mean an immediate return to the playoffs, but it could pay off long term. And a bit of a long view would be a nice change from the recent attempts at fast forwarding the rebuild in the Big Apple.
Guaranteed Contracts (8): Carmelo Anthony, Willy Hernangomez, Mindaugas Kuzminskas, Courtney Lee, Joakim Noah, Kyle O’Quinn, Kristaps Porzingis, Lance Thomas
Partial/Non-Guaranteed Contracts (3): Maurice N’dour, Marshall Plumlee, Chasson Randle
Potential Free Agents (4): Ron Baker (RFA), Justin Holiday (UFA), Derrick Rose (UFA), Sasha Vujacic (UFA),
“Dead” Money on Cap (0): None
First Round Draft Pick(s) (pre-Lottery): Pick #7
Maximum Cap Space: $22,273,680
Projected Cap Space: $19,267,655