Here's a look at what's in store for the Knicks this offseason after their second-round loss to the Pacers.
• What’s the biggest priority for New York this offseason?
Building out a more dynamic offense while improving the team's capacity for stout defensive stretches.
The likelihood of making these Knicks into a top-10 defense is small at this stage, as even a peak-form Tyson Chandler won't be able to compensate for the liabilities across the rotation. More plausible is a Knicks team that could score more readily while managing modest defensive improvement -- reasonable gains for this bunch, albeit ones that would still leave this core of players well short of the championship standard.
This was an important and impressive season for the Knicks, but from here on out every addition becomes more difficult for a taxpaying team that lacks financial flexibility. New York still has the pieces under contract to be a good team for the next few seasons, but most of its offseason agenda will need to be accomplished with marginal player movement. That makes New York's big-picture goals rather difficult. But there's still plenty of room for this team to improve on what it already does well -- or did well, before the offense ran aground in the postseason.
Forward Carmelo Anthony is a talented player worth building around, and flanking him are a cast of useful passers and capable shooters. The Knicks had enough to create something more adaptable than the blunt-force offense they attempted throughout the postseason, and there should be enough to accomplish that much next season still. It will take some ingenuity from coach Mike Woodson and a greater willingness to pass out of pressure from Anthony, but there are several crucial elements in place for the Knicks to muster a more buoyant scoring approach than the one that set in during these playoffs.
• How can the Knicks improve this offseason? Through free agency? The draft? Trade?
That's the tougher question. Assuming J.R. Smith rejects his $2.9 million player option to pursue a more lucrative deal, the Knicks will have roughly $75 million in salary on the books for next season and $78 million the season after. This isn't a team that really has that many cards to play in free agency -- the $3 million mini mid-level exception is available but the full mid-level exception of $5 million is not -- and may well struggle to retain its own free agents.
Once Smith hits the open market, it's possible he could price himself out of what the Knicks are allowed to offer. In holding Smith's Early Bird rights, the Knicks can offer the Sixth Man Award winner a starting salary of only about $5.3 million -- a nice raise from his $2.8 million salary this season but perhaps less than what another team would be willing to spend for the 27-year-old shooting guard. An Early Bird contract must be at least two years in length.
Meanwhile, big man Kenyon Martin showed enough to earn outside offers as a free agent. Guard Pablo Prigioni is reportedly considering leaving the NBA and returning to Europe, while rookie forward Chris Copeland (who is likely to be a restricted free agent, assuming the Knicks tender him a qualifying offer) could well be plucked away by a team in need of a shooting big man.
At worst, the Knicks could lose those four rotation players while Rasheed Wallace retires, Kurt Thomas departs, Jason Kidd ages further and Marcus Camby remains useless. The roster situation is somewhat miserable from that perspective, as many of the bargain signings that redeemed the Knicks' season seem likely to move on.
New York will have the 24th pick in the draft, though finding a useful rotation player at that stage can be dicey territory. Any player selected that late will come with blatant red flags and developmental concerns; that doesn't mean that general manager Glen Grunwald can't find a prospect capable of contributing in the short term, but the odds are against him.
The chance of a productive trade isn't much higher. Anthony, Chandler and guards Raymond Felton and Iman Shumpert would have real market value, but those four double as the players most important to the Knicks' immediate viability. Amar'e Stoudemire, meanwhile, will make a crippling $21.7 million next season and $23.4 million in 2014-15 -- salary marks so high (and so completely uninsured) that no team would dare acquire him. Camby ($4.4 million), Kidd ($3.1 million) and Steve Novak ($3.8 million) are either too old or too limited for a team to justify obtaining them while giving up anything substantial in return, and league rules likely will prohibit the Knicks from participating in a sign-and-trade deal because of their high payroll.
New York did well to cobble together a working rotation from all kinds of discounted contributors this season, but that challenge begins anew this summer. It was a hell of a feat to pull off once, but Grunwald will need to be similarly resourceful if the Knicks' roster is to maintain, much less improve.
• Which of New York's individual needs is most glaring?
There are two primary candidates here: a two-way big man or a wing shot creator. Both are almost assuredly out of New York's price range, unless Smith managed to slump his way out of a richer contract by shooting 29 percent in his final eight postseason games. That's certainly plausible, though I'd suspect some team will still roll the dice on the tide-turning streak shooter. Smith could conceivably return to New York at a discount, though it's unlikely given that he's been playing a season and change on a bargain salary. (Smith did say, though, that he doesn't want to play anywhere else.) Almost as unlikely is the chance of securing a replacement microwave scorer in a free-agent class light on such players.
As far as big men go, the Knicks are in a tough spot. None of their frontcourt players can help account for a particular weakness without exacerbating another. Anthony's brilliant offensive play is offset by his shortcomings as a help defender; an occasionally useful offensive player in Stoudemire is an abject disaster on defense; a helpful shooter in Copeland can only survive defensively in certain matchups; Martin's situational defense is coupled with several offensive limitations; and no one is sure what Camby, 39, might be capable of providing. It's a tough spot to be in, but a wholly understandable one; effective two-way big men just aren't readily available. In that, New York's need is no different from that of many other teams, save for the fact that the Knicks brought this problem upon themselves by committing a ridiculous chunk of the salary cap to three players -- Anthony, Stoudemire and Chandler -- who didn't show any capability of playing alongside one another.