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Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Kevin’s Off-season Plan

I’ll be the third person to officially lay out on an off-season plan of attack for the Knicks. Presumably, you’ve already read Dave’s take, and Chad Ford recently put together his “summer blueprint”. I don’t have Insider, so I haven’t read all of that one, but if the free part I linked is any indication, it’s as insipid as Ford’s “blueprints” traditionally are.

I can’t copy Ford’s stuff and don’t care nearly enough to re-type it, but, to summarize, Ford complains that Isiah Thomas has locked the Knicks into long-term mediocrity with his moves and left them with no chance in the free-agent market. That’s true, of course, but no more so than it was true when Thomas took over the team. With Houston’s mammoth deal and a few others on the books, the Knicks weren’t getting under the cap in the foreseeable future anyway, so all Thomas really did was spend more of Cablevision’s money. Raise your hand if you care about Cablevision’s bottom line. I didn’t think so.

If there is an argument to be made, it would center on Thomas dealing youngsters like Milos Vujanic and Maciej Lampe, as well as some picks, but it would be a relatively weak one. Vujanic and Lampe can’t hold a candle to Stephon Marbury and Mike Sweetney at their respective positions, and the Knicks’ picks wouldn’t have had a huge impact either. New York can get players of similar ability, if not potential, in free agency.

Brendan at the These Days blog (which I found thanks to its link to KnickerBlogger) has a slightly different Knicks rant that I can get behind:

I understand that to rebuild the Knicks is a 5 year job, minimum. As a fan, I’d much rather watch that than any more of this high-paid dreck. Isaiah Thomas, for the most part, deserves credit for the way he’s been able to make trades with the mess Scott Layden left him- but he’s still executing an interest-annihilating and utterly dreadful strategy handed down from on high. The result is, even when I read something really interesting like Kevin Pelton on Knick power forwards which teaches me something that I didn’t know, like how good Mike Sweetney was, all I can think is ‘dang, now I’ll be really annoyed when he’s tossed in on some deal for a guy like…Malik Rose’. And so it goes, at the Garden.

In a broader context, are the Knicks in a good position? Of course not. But that’s not Thomas’ fault; he inherited a mess, and if he has to sweep some junk into a corner so the house at least looks presentable enough for guests, well, I don’t think that’s a huge mistake.

Assuming that Thomas doesn’t dump Sweetney for a journeyman — and please, if that is going to happen, let Sweetney come to Seattle for Jerome James! — I actually think there is a way the Knicks can make some slight modifications to remain competitive in the East without sacrificing their youth.

I outlined some of what I’d look at in my position-by-position analyses, but let’s start with this. Entering the summer, my ideal Knicks rotation would look like this:

PG Marbury	  Williams
SG Houston Williams
SF T. Thomas Johnson/Ariza
PF Sweetney K. Thomas
C Mohammed K. Thomas

Houston is now the only starter on the wrong side of 30, Thomas the only backup that old. It’s a decent start. Giving minutes that went to Dikembe Mutombo and Othella Harrington to Sweetney should alone be worth a couple of wins. Trying to put a round number to that, by the win-based system I’ve introduced, giving Sweetney Harrington and Mutombo’s minutes and replacing Sweetney’s minutes with a replacement-level player improves the Knicks by one win, right on the top. Amazingly, replacing Shandon Anderson with Dermarr Johnson projects as worth about a win and a half over the course of the season. A healthy Allan Houston (fingers crossed) adds another win or two, as compared to Anderson and Anfernee Hardaway. So, barring major injury, it’s not unreasonable to think the Knicks might improve next season.

Even though Ford points out the Knicks won’t be luring Kobe Bryant or Rasheed Wallace to New York any time soon, that hardly means they’re finished in free agency. The name most bandied about at the moment is Chicago’s Jamal Crawford, but, even though Crawford’s a Seattle native, I’m not a big fan, certainly not for the Knicks. Crawford’s a low-efficiency, high-possessions tweener who isn’t very good on defense; barring a Houston injury, he does nothing for the Knicks, really. I’d rather give those minutes to Frank Williams, who at least brings some complementary skills relative \to what the Knicks already have.

Unfortunately, with their mid-level exception, the Knicks will have a hard time picking up someone who’s better than their two weakest starters (Thomas and Mohammed). The best they can probably hope to do is upgrade their reserve core, making a logical target for me a backup small forward who can also play some shooting guard and step in if Houston gets hurt.

Looking around, you’ve got guys who will likely have any offer matched by their current team (Darius Miles, who’s an interesting prospect after putting up off-the-charts numbers in Portland) or don’t fit the Knicks’ needs (Rodney White).

The best fit I could come up with was Toronto’s Morris Peterson. Peterson isn’t really young, as he’ll turn 27 over the summer, but he’s in the prime of his career, he’s a good outside shooter (which my vision of the Knicks wouldn’t really have on the bench) and a quality defender who shut down opposing small forwards last year.

Peterson is a restricted free agent himself, but the Raptors aren’t in great financial shape and might have to choose between signing a point guard and re-signing Peterson. He could be had for a pretty reasonable deal — maybe three years, $10-$12 million? — and would be a huge upgrade on Anderson playing a similar role.

Lo and behold, this might not be a completely implausible thought; Newsday mentioned Peterson in a recent free-agent roundup.

Now that we’re through free agency, we’ll have to look at the trade market. The first move I’d make is with the Sonics. The Knicks have been linked to James for two years now, and a deal that would make sense for both sides is Dikembe Mutombo and Cezary Trybanski (for cap purposes) for James. Mutombo is probably the more valuable player, but not really wanted in New York from what I read about him while researching my centers breakdown. The Knicks basically take a chance that James can make good on his promise, and it’s not really a risk for either side since both players’ contracts end next year and neither is penciled in as a key player next year.

After making those moves, I go fishing for a bigger deal with the Thomases and/or Mohammed as the lures, trying to upgrade either small forward or center. I’m not sure I could find any takers or make anything make sense, but it’s worth a look. Kurt Thomas wouldn’t really be a big loss; we could fill in his minutes with James (or Mutombo) and possibly a low-level-type free agent power forward (Vin Baker? Michael Doleac? There’s not a whole lot else out there).

Beyond that, I look at some buyouts (Hardaway, Norris, Anderson) and sign some cheap, underrated guys: Richie Frahm, Jaime Lloreda, Zendon Hamilton, keep Andre Barrett around as my third point guard. Good times.

Depending on who, if anyone, I can trade for, I project this team to win somewhere between 40-45 wins. Unless the bottom really falls out, it’s a playoff squad, with the potential to get as high as around the fourth or fifth seed (depending on how Miami fares). At the same time, it’s a reasonably young squad. These aren’t the Baby Bulls or anything, but virtually all the contributors are young enough that they’ll still be productive in two-three years. Again, depending on the trade, I haven’t done any further damage to the salary-cap situation, so the long-term sacrifice is minimal. And if Sweetney turns out to be as good as I think he might be ? well, maybe life isn’t so bleak at the Garden after all.

With KnickerBlogger’s return on the horizon, just a couple of days away, that wraps it up for me unless the Knicks do something exciting over the weekend, and, presumably, for all of us guest bloggers. I hope the readers out there have enjoyed this as much as I have — it really was a fun exercise looking in detail at a team I’d followed only casually beforehand, and I’ll be rooting for the Knicks the rest of this summer and into the season. I mentioned to KB recently that I wished I had a team blog, and he retorted he wished he worked for a team, so I suppose the grass is simply greener on the other side. It was certainly nice to spend a couple of weeks on this side of the fence, and I’d like to wrap up by thanking KB for the opportunity.

Kevin Pelton writes “Page 23″ for Hoopsworld.com on a semi-regular basis. He can be reached at kpelton@hoopsworld.com.

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