Four off the floor: Key decisions for the summer Decision#2 — Which free agents should the Knicks target this summer?
What the Knicks are able or not able to do in the off-season depends on two things: the makeup of the next CBA, and the fate of nearly half their roster. Anthony Carter, Roger Mason, Shelden Williams, Shawne Williams, Jared Jeffries, and Derek Brown are all unrestricted free agents. Most believe Mason has seen his last days in the orange and blue, while it’s thought that both Ronnie Turiaf’s $4.5 million player option, along with Bill Walker’s $916K team option, will both be exercised.
After that, it’s anyone’s guess. Anthony Carter’s playoff grit may be enough to convince D’Antoni to keep him as the last point guard. The brothers Williams, meanwhile, may be content to seek more money than the Knicks will likely be able to offer. There’s also the issue of Andy Rautins’ near $800,000 salary for next year, which many believe will eventually be bought out to free up more cap room.
With what little money they’ll have), the Knicks have two principal holes to plug: a natural point guard to back up Chauncey Billups, and a big who can rebound, defend the paint, and take pressure off of Stoudemire on both ends of the floor.
Mike Kurylo: There are only two roads that lead the Knicks to the Finals in the next few years. The first is to secure a third star that will mesh with Amar’e and ‘Melo. In theory this star would add something the team needs (rebounding, defense, point guard) and not overlap what New York already has (volume scoring). The second path to the NBA elite is to get some great parts to complement the Knicks current All Star duo. In other words the rest of the roster should be guys that can defend, rebound, pass, and knock down the three at a high level.
Since the Knicks don’t have the cap space to get such a player this year (and Billups + Fields + 17th pick isn’t enough to trade for a disgruntled star), it seems as if the latter route is the one the Nix will have to traverse for now. While assembling their cast, New York can’t afford to acquire uni-dimensional players that only address one of the three areas I mentioned above. Looking through the free agents of 2011, I was only able to find two players that would fill multiple needs. Although the Knicks don’t primarily need a shooting guard, Mickael Pietrus plays solid defense and can knock down the three. At $5M per year, he’s a reasonable pick-up. The other is Louis Amundson, who should be cheaper and could provide defense and rebounding.
Even though neither of these players are franchise changing NBA starters, they both should be reasonably cheap & provide some of the production the Knicks sorely lack. Additionally they’re the type of player that won’t lose their value and could be added in a multi-player deal. However neither really addresses New York’s most critical needs at point guard and center.
Jim Cavan: Obviously a lot depends on who the Knicks draft, as well as what comes of the summer’s hoped-for collective bargaining agreement. For simplicity’s sake, let’s assume two things: that the Knicks take a point guard in the draft (Jimmer Fredette, Darius Morris, and Boston College’s Reggie Jackson are all distinct possibilities); and Jerome Jordan — the 7-foot center the Knicks acquired in last year’s draft and who spent the past season in the Adriatic League – doesn’t come to camp ready for heavy rotation minutes. What players out there on this summer’s free agent market might be worth a short-term deal? Let’s take a look:
Nenad Kristic (Unrestricted): A throw in to the Kendrick Perkins / Jeff Green trade, it’s not clear how Krstic fits into the Celtics’ plans going forward. If Boston decides to go after a defensive-minded center in the off-season, Krstic might be had for around last year’s salary of $5.8 million. If the MLE remains, Krstic might be worth the risk. He’s not the greatest defender, but he’s a solid rebounder, good passer, and is fairly deft on the block, with a decent 15-18 foot jumper that can draw his man out far enough to leave Stoudemire open to exploit the open seams.
Nazr Mohammed (Unrestricted): Another flawed but still serviceable center, Mohammed’s $6.8 million salary comes off OKC’s books this year. While his offensive game leaves much to be desired, he did average 14 and 10 per 36 minutes this year, on top of being a decent low post defender and shot blocker. During his career Mohammed has played for nine different teams, so taking one more detour to Manhattan – he wore the orange blue for parts of the ’03-’04 and ’04-’05 seasons – would be par for the course for the journeyman center.
Kurt Thomas (Unrestricted): At 39, Thomas will likely be the oldest player in the NBA next season. A Knick fan favorite during his seven year tenure here, Thomas could probably be convinced to give one more year to the city he called home the longest. Playing for the Bulls this year, Thomas averaged seven points and nine rebounds per 36. While modest numbers on the surface, it can’t be denied that his defensive presence, leadership, and workaday demeanor could serve the Bockers well, particularly on a cheap, one year deal.
Jamaal Magloire (Unrestricted): Playing for a Heat team whose one glaring weakness was the total lack of offensive reliability down low, the fact that Magloire averaged just nine minutes a game within a center quartet featuring Zydrunas Ilgauskus, a 38-year-old Juwan Howard, and Joel Anthony, is more than a little disconcerting. Still, his 13.9 rebounds per 36 marked a career high. Magloire will be 33 at the start of training camp next year, still young enough to contribute good minutes, and is another possible short term and relatively cheap (he made $1.2 million last year) option for the Knicks.
Hamed Haddadi (Restricted, $2 million qualifying offer): Despite limited minutes, the third year center from Iran put up an impressive 16 points and 15 rebounds per 36, along with a PER of just under 20. The pride of the Iranian national team, the 7’2” Haddadi could probably come cheap (he made $1.6 million last year). I’ll admit I haven’t seen too much in the way of highlight reels aside from this gem, but from what I saw at last year’s FIBA World Championships, he has a fairly polished offensive game, good basketball IQ, and is aggressive on the boards. Obviously there’s the issue of the $2 million qualifying offer the Grizzlies have put on the table, but depending on how far up Marc Gasol’s price tag gets driven, Memphis might be content to let Haddadi walk.
Now let’s consider another scenario. Let’s say the Knicks draft a Kenneth Faried, Lucas Nogueira, one of the Morris twins, etc. Or let’s say Jerome Jordan proves to be NBA-ready. At that point, the Knicks could find themselves shopping for a cheap backup point guard. Unfortunately, here the options are much more limited:
Sebastian Telfair (Unrestricted): Sure, he’s been a bust. Sure, even at last year’s $2.7 million sallary, the case can be made that he’s overpaid and overvalued. However, during a stretch of games where both Luke Ridnour and Jonny Flynn were out with injuries, Telfair played surprisingly well. He’ll never be a reliable shooter, and his decision making can be suspect. But he’s still only 25, and might not be a bad option for a third point guard, assuming Anthony Carter isn’t invited back. And who knows, maybe Telfair’s coming home story turns out to be a little more feel-good than his Vaseline-eating cousin’s.
Goran Dragic (Restricted, $2.1 million team option): Depending on where the Rockets end up in the lottery, they may very well find themselves in a position to draft a point guard. If the Rockets decide to drop his option, Dragic might be a nice pickup as a backup for the Knicks. Despite struggling after being traded from Phoenix to Houston in February, he’s still a good ball-handler, solid three point shooter, and could be a nice fit in SSOL. He doesn’t have the greatest court vision, but his off-the-bench spark could provide for a nice one-two punch alongside Toney Douglas.
Max Fisher-Cohen: In regard to big men, we should be looking at guys with legitimate size and athleticism. But we should not be dedicating any kind of substantial resources to whomever we get. Minimum contracts. That means players like DJ Mbenga, Sean Williams, or Mozgov in the case that Denver just wants to dump his salary (ah, would I love the irony of that). And when I say athleticism, that means athleticism. I don’t want to see an earthbound player like Nazr Mohamed on this team, nor do I care to give up the substantial assets that a player like Tyson Chandler might demand.
Why, you might ask? Because the Knicks need to play fast, and they need to save their paltry assets in the hopes that Howard, Williams, or Paul becomes available. This center, in conjunction with Ronny Turiaf, will come off the bench. He will only play when we need a big to defend one of the very few offensively dangerous big men that exist in this league: Dwight Howard, Andrew Bynum, Zach Randolph (welcome aboard, old friend), and Nené. Look around the league: I challenge you to find another big whose interior play you find legitimately threatening on offense. In regard to the lumbering centers like Marc Gasol, and Roy Hibbert, I look forward to seeing them on the floor because our Knicks are going to be moving so fast that they may just forget which basket they are supposed to be defending.
The Suns under D’Antoni had a history of embarrassing slow centers with their speed, forcing them to the bench. We can do it to. The key to this strategy though is playing a frontline that opposing big men just have no chance against. We had this with Chandler at power forward and Stoudemire at center, which not by coincidence was by far our best lineup this season.
So, here’s my advice to you, Donnie Walsh, or you, Isiah Thomas, if you are our new GM:
Option 1 — Josh Smith: I fully expect Atlanta to be swept in embarrassing fashion by the Bulls, and it’s a player on their roster that I think the Knicks need to target: Josh Smith. Smith took a big step backwards this year after a banner year in 09/10; his shooting efficiency, blocks and steals all dropped. Atlanta has been floundering in mediocrity for several years now, and after peaking last year with 53 wins, they dropped down to 44 this year and were lucky to escape with the fifth seed. I believe it’s this summer that they recognize that their current core is just not going to get it done, and as you’d likely have to bribe a team to take Joe Johnson, and Al Horford is really damn good, Smith might be the guy who ends up on the block. I think he could have great success in New York for a number of reasons. First of all, he plays on the team with the fourth slowest pace in the league. His abilities to run the floor, dribble, and finish at the rim are all made less valuable by the Hawks’ slow pace. Furthermore, Smith is an excellent rebounder; his rebound percentage this year (15%), is higher than that of any other Knick (yes, even better than our rebounding specialist, Shelden Williams).
Look at it as a contingency plan in the scenario that Paul/Williams/Howard fall through, in which case Billups plus whomever we draft might be enough to land Smith. His contract isn’t such a great deal, so I don’t see teams lining up for him (maybe I’m being a homer).
Option 2 — Joe Johnson: A second possibility is taking on Joe Johnson’s contract (Billups, Turiaf, and an MLE player allow us to match), which might be worth it, not because I think Johnson is good — he’s wildly overpaid and his contract will only look worse as the years pile up — but because it would allow us to retain Fields and our pick for a second deal. Because let’s face it, we’re going to have to commit to a team through 2016 (when Amaré and Carmelo expire) by the summer of 2012 at the latest, and even waiting for the summer costs us big time in that we would have to renounce Douglas and Fields, and trade our pick in order to have maximum cap room. That means Johnson’s deal is unlikely to make a difference in terms of FA acquisitions. Johnson is a good defender, holding SGs to a PER of 11.6 and SFs to a PER of 12.9 this season, he knows and has had success with D’Antoni, and he can even play point guard in a bind. I also imagine that as a third option rather than a first option, his shooting efficiency will improve.
Option 3 — Wilson Chandler: Chandler has struggled for Denver and is due for a paycheck. The Nuggets are also very deep at his position. If they are willing to not rip us off on a sign and trade (i.e. our 1st rounder and expiring contracts) he would be worth bringing back. He is not nearly the rebounder that Smith is, but has had good success guarding bigger players and has the speed and perimeter shooting to make those big slow-footed guys wish for a breather.
Option 4 — Andrei Kirilenko: Kirilenko is one of those guys whose talents have been overshadowed by his immense contract. In the early 2000s, he was a dominating defensive force and was truly deserving of the big bucks, but injuries have slowed him down. However, he is still a very solid all around player. He is one of only nine players this season to average over one block and one steal per game. He is also a good passer, and a similar perimeter shooter and rebounder to Chandler. Due to his age (29), injury problems (he’s missed about 14 games per season on his career), and the fact that he’s been so overpaid, it’s likely that many teams will look past him, driving down his market price. I wouldn’t be surprised if he is available at the mid-level exception (if it still exists) or even less.
Last thing: Many people are in favor of avoiding long term contracts in the hopes of landing a big name in 2012. The new CBA will shed a lot of light on how much cash we could have available, but right now it seems nearly impossible that we have the dollars for a maximum contract. Because of that, I just don’t think it’s worth avoiding longer term contracts. If you sign fair deals, you can move guys later.
Beyond his work for KnickerBlogger, Jim is a contributor to the New York Times Off the Dribble NBA blog, ESPN.com, and The Classical. He is currently working on a biography of Robert Silverman, titled "Clownin' and Astoundin.'" Follow him on Twitter @JPCavan.