After tumultuous year, Knicks face offseason filled with questions
Know this about the Knicks' 2011-12 season, which ended with their loss to Miami in Game 5 on Wednesday: They gave us plenty to talk about.
In lieu of the organization's third championship (that's 39 consecutive years and counting without one, for the record), the entertainment value was at an all-time high even if it included some unwelcome lows. A team may never have sparked this many storylines in one season -- let alone one shortened by the lockout.
There was Tyson Chandler's arrival and Chauncey Billups' departure. An 8-15 start. Jeremy Lin saving the day (10 wins in the next 13 games) and Linsanity spreading the globe. Carmelo Anthony as villain, then as beloved son. The power forward formerly known as Amar'e Stoudemire. Coach Mike D'Antoni taking his seven-seconds-or-less ball and going home. Mike Woodson's strong finish.
But now that it's all over, it's time to discuss the most pressing questions facing the Knicks as they head into the offseason.
Woodson looks to have the inside track on keeping the job long term. Woodson denied a report in Monday's New York
Woodson has no shortage of supporters within the organization, and his standing appears solid despite the Knicks' poor showing in the first round of the playoffs. After D'Antoni resigned on March 14, the Knicks went 18-6 under Woodson. His successful use of Anthony while Stoudemire was sidelined with back problems is helping his cause, as is his season-long impact on the team's defense. New York improved dramatically on defense after Woodson was hired as an assistant last offseason to help on that end of the floor, with Defensive Player of the Year Chandler leading a unit that ranked fifth in points allowed per possession.
The season-ending injuries to guards Lin, Iman Shumpert and Baron Davis have provided built-in excuses for why the Knicks weren't more competitive against the Heat. The question now is whether Woodson is the right coach to take this group to the next level. He has sparked steady progress before, from 2004-10 in Atlanta, where the Hawks improved every year, winning 13 games in his first season and 53 in his sixth and last. Woodson lost in the first round once and the second round twice with the Hawks, for whom he went 206-286.
Before we even get into Lin's basketball impact, there's the business aspect of his presence. Just 11 days after he received his first start and turned the Knicks' season around with his phenomenal play, a Forbes.com headline read "Jeremy Lin: A One-Man, Global Economic Stimulus Package."
His cultural appeal will be there no matter which fan base he's playing for, but the folks in the MSG offices are well aware that he's a keeper for their market. After all, it was no coincidence that their television-rights dispute with Time Warner was resolved in the middle of Lin's memorable run. People wanted to see the second-year player in action, and a deal simply had to be struck.
As for the basketball minds in the building? Sources said they want Lin back, too. He's still seen as the possible solution to this whole mess, a steadying force who can help all the pieces fall into place once this group gets more time to play together.
The Knicks are positioned to keep the restricted free agent because they can use their mid-level exception of about $5 million to match any offer for him and because the so-called Gilbert Arenas rule limits rival teams from offering more than that amount in first-year salary for players with fewer than three years of experience like Lin. But unless the Knicks can persuade Lin to come back for a cheaper price, there could be a ripple effect on the rest of the roster.
The possibility that the Knicks could lose key members of their rotation.
First candidate to escape? Restricted free agent Landry Fields, a second-round steal in the 2010 draft. The 23-year-old guard is still considered a big part of the team's plans despite his decline this season. But after speaking with interested parties and CBA expert Larry Coon, it seems clear that Fields could be a goner.
If the Knicks use the non-taxpayer mid-level exception on Lin, they wouldn't be allowed to go over what's called the "apron," or $4 million above the luxury-tax threshold, which is an estimated $74 million in payroll. A mid-level deal for Lin would bring New York's 2012-13 payroll to more than $64 million for only seven players (one of whom, forward Renaldo Balkman, is no longer with the team but is owed $1.675 million next season). Even if an eighth player, shooting guard J.R. Smith, opts out of his $2.5 million contract for next season, as has been widely expected, the Knicks would still be left with little money to spend on Fields and the rest of the team before hitting $74 million.
So even though the Arenas rule and matching rights come into play with Fields like they do with Lin, Fields would be exposed in this scenario because the Knicks couldn't exceed $74 million under any circumstances. And if another team targets Fields in free agency (perhaps with a deal of his own for around $5 million annually), the Knicks would have a tough decision to make about whether to match.
Another challenge will be re-signing unrestricted free agent Steve Novak, the 28-year-old forward who averaged a career-high 8.8 points and led the NBA in three-point shooting at 47.2 percent. Novak will be looking for a raise from his veteran's minimum of $854,389 this season.
As for Smith, who averaged 12.5 points on 40.7 percent shooting as a midseason signing after a stint in China, one source close to the situation said it's far too soon to assume he won't be back. Though that would seem unlikely based on the value of a 26-year-old scorer on the free-agent market, his comfort level in New York coupled with some other teams' concerns related to his history of clashing with coaches in New Orleans (Byron Scott) and Denver (George Karl) and exhibiting questionable judgment on and off the court could favor a return to the Knicks.
Smith has a good relationship with Woodson so far. Woodson has shown a willingness to challenge him, most notably when the coach told him in mid-April to be more professional and said he wanted "his shorts pulled up." But Woodson has also "put his arm around him," one source said. If Woodson is retained, the source said, then that would be a factor in Smith's decision.
Mike Bibby, Jared Jeffries and Davis are unrestricted free agents. (Davis, 33, sustained a potentially career-ending torn ACL and MCL in Game 4 against Miami.) Big men Josh Harrellson and Jerome Jordan have deals with nonguaranteed money.
It depends on where we're sending him. Should he go to the Knicks' practice facility in Greenburgh, N.Y., where he'll then spend most of his offseason figuring out how to fit in? Yes. Will he be going to another team? Don't count on it.
Stoudemire, 29, has three years and $65 million left on his contract that -- here's the important part for a player with a long injury history -- is not insured. And now that the 10-year veteran is looking nothing like the Knicks' savior we saw in 2010-11, the chances that any team would take him are beyond remote. His scoring plummeted from 25.3 points last season to 17.3 this season (he attempted about five fewer shots per game with Anthony in tow for a full season).
The six-time All-Star had microfracture surgery on his left knee in 2005 and an arthroscopic surgery on the right knee in both 2006 and 2007. Add in the serious eye injuries suffered in 2008 and 2009, and the back problems that caused him to miss 13 games this season, and there's a serious buyer-be-beware component to his situation.
"I can't think of anyone who has less trade value," a Western Conference executive said.
The Knicks no longer have the option of waiving Stoudemire and removing him from their payroll, either, because the team already used the one-time amnesty clause on Billups before the season during its pursuit of Chandler in free agency.
"If you are going to trade him, more than likely you're going to take something worse back," said TNT analyst Steve Kerr, who was the Suns' general manager for part of Stoudemire's tenure in Phoenix. "But because of the new [CBA] rules, with the shorter contracts, it's almost impossible to take back a worse contract. I don't know if there are any out there."
In other words, don't expect a Gilbert Arenas-for-Rashard Lewis type deal for Stoudemire. Before those players were swapped in a December 2010 trade between the Wizards and Magic, their contracts were widely seen as "untradable." But even though both players were earning exorbitant annual salaries of more than $20 million, Arenas' deal lasted a year longer than Lewis' and the Wizards saw a chance for savings. The CBA rules change to which Kerr referred is the fact that contract lengths are, in essence, a year shorter under the current agreement compared to the previous one.
The internal sentiment, according to one source close to the situation, is that this group can get it done with Anthony, Stoudemire and Chandler as the core and that there's a "three-year window" to make a strong title push with them. But Kerr said any team that struggled to win even one game in the first round of the playoffs should consider all options.
"I think you have to look into trading anybody on the team," Kerr said.
Anthony has three years and $67.2 million remaining on his contract, and Kerr said he "has a ton of value" as an elite scorer in his prime. Chandler, one executive surmised, could be used in a possible deal with Orlando if the Magic wind up trading center Dwight Howard this summer. Before Howard stunningly exercised his player option in March to return to Orlando for one more season, the Knicks were among the many teams looking into landing the six-time All-Star and three-time Defensive Player of the Year. Chandler is owed $42.3 million over the next three seasons, and he could be packaged with some of the Knicks' younger players (Shumpert, to name one) to make an enticing pitch.
The Knicks also were among the teams that asked New Orleans about point guard Chris Paul before he was traded to the Clippers in December, according to sources. But even as the Knicks have done their due diligence in inquiring about stars who may be available, it remains unlikely that any of their core players will be dealt.
The small sample size of regular-season numbers say "no." But the Knicks' front office and ownership are far more focused on making it work than they are on considering any major changes, according to sources close to the situation.
First, the data: While the Knicks were 16-10 with Lin running the point in the regular season (including one game in which he played 36 minutes off the bench), they were just 8-9 when Anthony, Stoudemire and Lin all played together. The Knicks were 14-5 overall without Stoudemire, and Anthony played his best basketball during those times.
In the 13 games played under Woodson in which Stoudemire was out, Anthony led the Knicks to nine wins while averaging 30.6 points and 21.9 shots and shooting 50.5 percent. But Anthony wasn't nearly as prolific when he had to share the floor (and the touches) with Stoudemire. In the 10 games in which they played together under Woodson, Anthony averaged just 16.6 points and 15.5 shots while hitting 40.6 percent, and Stoudemire averaged 16.5 points and 10.9 shots while making 56.8 percent. Game 4 against Miami was one of the aberrations, as Anthony scored 41 points (on 15-of-29 shooting) while Stoudemire -- who returned with a heavily padded right hand after missing Game 3 because of his run-in with the infamous fire extinguisher -- had 20 points (8-of-13 shooting) and 10 rebounds.
Now, on to the possible problem: Anthony's need to play Stoudemire's position. Not only did Anthony get to be his ball-dominant self without Stoudemire, but Stoudemire's absence also allowed Anthony to create nightly mismatches by playing power forward instead of small forward. The solution, Kerr and others have said, would be to bring Stoudemire off the bench while Anthony starts at power forward and Chandler at center.
"You figure that if you've got him for three years and you're worried about his knees, then maybe you turn him into your sixth man and play him 25 minutes a night," Kerr said of Stoudemire. "You can get him, say, 12-15 minutes a night where he's without Carmelo on the floor, and you can run your offense through him. And then you play them another 10 minutes together, but maybe you do those 10 where Chandler is off the floor and Amar'e is the 'five' [center] and Melo is the 'four' [power forward]. I just think you've got to try to mix and match your lineup to get the most out of him, because the chances of trading him are so slim."