It is often said that a franchise can sell its fans one of two commodities: Winning or Hope. Having given up on winning, the Knicks redoubled their efforts to peddle hope. Despite being mired in their worst season ever, the powers that be gathered a Willis Reed-sized dollop of chutzpah, and sent letters to season ticket holders outlining their commitment to fielding a competitive team. Signed by both Isaih Thomas and Larry Brown, the message sang a seemingly harmonious rendition of: Tomorrow, tomorrow, the sun will come out tomorrow?
But is there gold at the end of the rainbow? While I realize prognosticating on how the Knicks can improve for next season may be subscribing to the same short-sighted philosophy that drove them into their current quagmire, I believe there are some simple moves that would improve the team without selling the future for the present. Heading into the off-season the Knicks have three holes to shore up ? Perimeter Stopper, Back-up Point Guard, and Interior Defense ? with three resources to do it ? Free Agency, Trades, and the Draft.
I exclude Trades from the analysis, because it takes two to tango, so any proposal is at best a rumor and at worst a fantasy. Also, we will see trades are not necessary to fill these needs. The free-agent market has its own problems as a team can only buy what is being sold, and this year the pickings are particularly slim. The draft is also expected to be marginal, but just because there is no superstar ability, does not mean there is not a density of contributing talent.
When filling the perimeter stopper role, ironically of all the available players, the most qualified athlete was not only traded away from the Knicks, but was stuck on the bench in the first place: Trevor Ariza. No other free agent fits the job description, much less would be available for the mid-level exception. The closest imposter would be the decrepit James Posey, a slowing Bonzi Wells, or the too expensive Caron Butler. So, to fill this need, the Knicks should turn to the draft. Equipped with the projected 21st and 29th picks overall, the drafts of recent years have proven that elite level defensive players are available at these slots: Trevor Ariza (43rd), Tayshaun Prince (23rd), Josh Howard (29th), and Gerald Wallace (25th), Bobby Simmons (41st), while both Ben Wallace and Bruce Bowen were undrafted.
The Knicks other two needs, Back-Up Point Guard and Interior Defense, do not necessitate a trip to the market, but instead a raid of their own cupboards, as they can both be filled in-house. The Knicks already serious roster issues have been further aggravated by mismanagement of their own players. Whether management does not appreciate star talent (Marbury), under-utilize production (Sweetney), bury budding talent (Frye, Lee, Butler, Ariza), or overplay inferior aging veterans (Taylor, M. Rose), the Knicks have run a Stern Business School clinic on how not to handle human resources. I offer these suggestions knowing full well that the chances are slim of the Knicks suddenly turning an about face and proving competent at handling players.
With Marbury and Francis starting in a dual-penetrating backcourt, much like Chris Paul and Speedy Claxton in NOK, the back-up point guard spot should be filled by Jamal Crawford. A team no less successful than the Phoenix Suns demonstrate that when going small and quick, the other team must compensate by substituting out their larger players to keep pace. Playing Crawford twenty minutes a night as a combo guard is a better fit for his skill set of smooth ball-handling and shot creation. Besides, Crawford has demonstrated an affinity for the reserve role this year, enough to merit early season nomination for the Sixth Man Award.
Moreover, consider the production of back-up point guards of many playoff teams and its clear that teams have succeeded with much less production than Crawford offers: Lindsey Hunter, Gary Payton, Jacque Vaughan, and Chucky Atkins, just to name a few.
As for Interior Defense, the answer is addition by subtraction: Replace Curry in the starting line-up with Butler. As an adept rebounder and shot-blocker and a capable if unspectacular offensive player, Butler is certainly worthy of a starting center spot. Pairing him with Channing Frye at power forward would be a strong defensive pairing. Since Curry isn?t a flashy, high-energy guard, it?s often lost that he would be best used as a Sixth Man. His skill set of high per-minute scoring, shot creation, and porous defense, makes him better suited for a reserve role, feasting on the league?s second units and back-up centers. Continuing to start him worsens the high turnover rate and lackadaisical effort that is plateuing his career.
So with the roster?s needs filled through the draft and proper roster management, who should the Knicks focus their mid-level exception on? The answer isn?t obvious, since no player out there can fill a need of theirs, and because, well, the players out there aren?t that good in the first place. I would grab the best available player and pull a Nuggets by trading them to a contender at the trade deadline. Anyone from the following would fit that bill: Lorenzen Wright, Bobby Jackson, Bonzi Wells, Vladimir Radmanovic, or Nazr Mohammed.
The rotation would be thus set: Marbury and Francis, with Crawford as the third guard; Woods, Frye, and Butler, in the frontcourt with Curry and Lee in reserve; then J. Rose coming in as a point-3; Robinson and Draft Picks filling out the end of the bench; and Q-Rich the NBA?s most expensive 12th man. Now, where does this leave room for Malik Rose, Mo Taylor, and Jerome James? It doesn?t. Perhaps Thomas should adapt a New York City tradition of getting rid of old junk: Flea-market anyone? I?d trade any one of those players for a decent armoire on any Sunday afternoon.
Why not trade these albatrosses you ask? Because the only general manager foolish enough to buy a bridge in Brooklyn already works for us.
With these relatively modest moves, the Knicks can employ a very solid rotation. While lacking any All-NBA talent, the roster is also bereft of any open sores, which is more than can be said of many playoff teams. Besides a second consecutive total tank job by their head coach, there is no reason to believe that the talent the Knicks field won?t be able to compete for an Eastern Conference playoff spot in 2006-07, as even our worst enemies admit we are not as bad as our record this season. Tomorrow, indeed, may have a brighter future than one would expect.