Picking a Path
A look at the options on the table for incoming Knicks President Leon Rose
In this newsletter…
First and foremost, there’s a Knicks game tonight. Feel free to cheer or cry…whichever comes naturally.
I, for one, can’t wait. As the season winds down, I’m looking forward to seeing what signs of progress the young players on this team show between now and April 15. Kevin Knox fights over a screen? Gold star! Mitch successfully navigates a short roll? Shots on the house. Frank scores 20 points in a game? “Call the paramedics, my husband has fainted.”
Hopefully Leon Rose is paying attention as well.
As I wrote yesterday, Rose’s first step as POBO will be to define what exactly he wants this Knick team to be. Depending on his answer, not every one of the kids will be along for the ride. What they do over the final 27 games will go a long way towards deciding who stays and who goes.
Along with that determination, Rose needs to chart a course for the year ahead. The good news is that he’s been granted a situation with immense flexibility. The bad news is that flexibility also means multiple pathways to screwing things up.
Today, I take a look at the three primary pathways Rose can take with the Knicks over the next (roughly) 16 months. They aren’t necessarily distinct, and there can definitely be some overlap, but as I wrote yesterday, the best thing he can do is pick a direction and trust it.
Here are his choices:
Path 1: Pick up everyone’s options and run it back
News flash: path one sucks. Let’s play Hungry Hungry Hippos!
Nearly eight months later, it’s still staggering to think about how the front office thought it best to surround the two most important core pieces on the team - neither of which spaces the floor in the slightest - with a point guard who has averaged 0.4 made threes over his career and a power forward on track to do this:
The Knicks are second to last in offensive rating and third to last in eFG% for a reason. Mike Miller could pull a magic wand out of his ass and vanquish one defender on every Knicks’ offensive possession and they still wouldn’t score at a top-ten rate.
For as much as their defensive resurgence has been heartwarming, it’s simply not tenable to navigate the league with one hand tied behind your back. The core of this team has to look different next season, if for no other reason than to open up space so the offensive development of Barrett, Robinson and the rest of the kids doesn’t stagnate any further.
Path 2: Tank like it’s 2018
They won’t do this on purpose, but if they wind up drafting LaMelo Ball and giving him 30 minutes a night to work out the kinks on a very kinky jumper, they just might get there by accident.
(Regrading that jumper, good stuff from Spencer Pearlman yesterday in Mike Vorkunov’s Athletic NBA Draft Q&A. He notes that despite Ball’s shot mechanics, he does have good touch, and a shooting coach would likely do wonders. Also, Leon Rose, if you’re reading: hire a damn shooting coach. I hear Kieth Smart is available and waiting by his phone)
I get that this is the path most smartypants NBA Twitterati would have New York take, and if I’m being honest, it’s the one that would be most refreshing to me, simply because it would show that Leon Rose isn’t operating to appease the “common” fan. Knowing that MSG ticket sales are not a part of any equation on the basketball side of things would make me sleep that much better at night.
I’m just not sure if it’s the best path. Of the three avenues to a star, this path only optimizes one of them, and it can’t be emphasized enough how different the math is now versus when Sam Hinke Processed away three seasons in Philly.
It’s also an unrealistic path, at least to achieve purposefully.
For one, it would require purging the team of the aforementioned Randle and Payton, two CAA clients who, for all their faults, have helped New York win games this year. Rose would also be compelled to spend that money elsewhere in the marketplace this summer, and with few if any salary dump situations likely to materialize, that would mean…
Well, that’s the thing…there’s no obvious answer here. They could try to overpay another Taj or two - solid veteran presences who still have enough game to help but also aren’t so good as to raise the win total and also don’t demand touches - but those guys are harder to find than you think. Vince Carter for one year, $20 million, anyone?
I still wouldn’t rule it out. If a desperate team swings and misses this summer and offers to give up a future draft pick and/or a young asset this summer for Randle, and the Knicks take on the expiring salary of a bad player in his place, a rookie point guard could lead them to ~20 wins.
Path 3: Become a Real Team
This is what Steve Mills and Scott Perry tried and failed to do this summer. They also weren’t as far off as we all joke about sometimes.
The Knicks under Miller have played at a 32-win pace, and hold a minus 4.4 net rating. If the bad teams of the NBA were grouped into three tiers, since December 6, New York is squarely in the middle one.
But as noted above, the plan - sign a few young-ish vets with theoretical upside along with solid older supporting pieces, toss in your kids, just add water, and violà, there’s your team - was poorly conceived. The pieces never fit perfectly, and if anything, the kids have regressed, not progressed, as a result.
It also doesn’t mean the idea itself wasn’t sound.
Getting better through free agency hurts your shot at a primo draft pick, but it might open up two other avenues: creating an appealing situation ahead of the summer of 2021 and providing a more stocked cupboard of trade assets. Trading for a star is that much harder with Path 2, simply because all you have to deal are middling, vaguely intriguing young pieces and future picks. It might be enough to net a star, but what is said star coming back to?
This, really, was the grossest miscalculation of the past summer. Mills and Perry were so desperate to maintain flexibility that they operated scared. No, they didn’t ink any terrible contracts, but they also didn’t secure any team-controlled desirable assets either.
And to be clear: this is never easy, and really wasn’t easy last July, when everyone had money and overpays were the norm. There wasn’t a single non-max contract signed where a player ended up making less than he’s worth. Even D’Angelo Russell, who the team did a 180 on ahead of the trade deadline, is arguably overpaid.
But Russell still netted the Warriors what instantly became the single best draft asset in the marketplace. If the Knicks play their cards right, they could have a) an actual good team that b) contains several tradable assets and c) might be appealing to a star or two next summer.
Speaking of next summer, you might be wondering: what’s the point of getting more appealing now if you won’t have cap room in 2021 anyway?
Aside from the fact that New York has almost no committed salary on the books beyond next season, if we’ve learned anything in the NBA over the last several years, it’s that when a star or stars want to come to your team, there’s always a way to make it happen. Make yourself appealing first and worry about the mechanics later.
With that said, let’s start off the second segment of the season with a very early look at some of the names I’m thinking of…
FYI: I’m only highlighting unrestricted free agents here. That means no Brandon Ingram (still think New Orleans gives him the max, despite what was implied in yesterday’s ESPN report) or Bogdan Bogdanovic.
PredictionStrike: $8.12 / share; -4%
I wrote about him yesterday, and why he’d be the perfect fit for this team. With VanVleet, it all comes down to the price tag.
There is some reason for optimism. Assuming Timmy opts into the final year of his contract down in Dallas, the only teams slated to have above $12 million in space are Phoenix, Charlotte, Miami, Detroit, Atlanta and New York. Based on roster construction, it’s tough to see the Suns or Hornets getting involved, and maybe FVV doesn’t want to play alongside someone as ball dominant as Trae Young. Who knows what Detroit wants to do. If Miami is hesitant to vanquish its cap space for 2021, the market could dry up rather quickly here.
That said, Toronto would surely want to keep VanVleet, and he does seem to love it there. It would take a substantial offer to pry him away.
One could look at the Malcolm Brogdon deal from last summer (four years, $85 million) as an absolute floor, but even that’s a misnomer. VanVleet doesn’t have any of the injury concerns Brogdon had and has already performed on the league’s grandest stage.
Is four years, $100 million crazy? That’s the question Leon Rose and company will have to ask themselves.
Some other possibilities…
PredictionStrike: $10.37 / share, -3%
James L. Edwards III of The Athletic did an entire writeup a few days ago on what Wood is likely to cost this summer. He had around $6 annually as his floor, $17.5 as his ceiling, and ultimately settles on three years, $30 million as a deal that would make both Wood and the Pistons happy.
Count me as skeptical he can be had for that cheap. Wood’s numbers in five games since the Drummond trade - 20 points, 10.8 rebounds and 2.3 assists on 53/42/79 shooting - don’t hit the market often, at least not with a guy who is still under 25 and can double as a small-ball five. He makes eminently more sense on this team than Julius Randle for all kinds of reasons.
PredictionStrike: $5.61 / share, +4%
I mention him here only because the Knicks are desperate for shooting and he’s the best shooter on the market, if not one of the very best in the entire league.
But the Wizards didn’t hold onto him at the deadline just to let him walk, and one has to think they’re willing to overpay to keep him around, especially since he’s only 27 year old.
PredictionStrike: $1.22 / share, -11%
Another candidate for an overpay because of age (28, but with less than 8000 NBA minutes on his tires) and shooting (42 percent from deep for his career, 40 percent this season).
Maybe like others before him, he’s not terribly thrilled to be aboard the Kyrie Express but also likes living in the metropolitan area.
J.J. Redick got $13 annually this summer but for only two years, as he’s seven years older than Harris. Three years, $40 million would then seem to be the starting point for any negotiation.
VanVleet, Harris, RJ, Wood and Mitch as a starting five?
That’s it for today! Be back Monday with a recap of this weekend’s action.