It’s a bad time to be a great basketball team.
Let me repeat: It is a bad time to be a great basketball team.
The Knicks are chilling at 11th place (coincidentally the name of Tom Haverford’s latest Pawnee nightclub following the failure of the previous 10) in the vastly improved East with a record of 9-10, and much like the last 5 minutes of a 90s family sitcom, find themselves given an infusion of fresh hope following a period of relative torment. See what I did there? Relative torment? Hope everybody had a great Thanksgiving, I’ll be here for the duration of this article and the jokes will only get worse.
I’m not sure whether or not the Knicks are going to be a good enough basketball team to make the playoffs in the surprisingly competitive East this year, but they’ve improved in every conceivable way from last season and are laying the foundation to become a contender again with the probably-going-to-be-Richzingis as the franchise’s cornerstone. What I am sure of is that the timing of their rebuild is very fortuitous, considering the landscape of the NBA and how many years away they are from realistically contending with the league’s best teams.
I hope you all read Zach Lowe’s article on the Knicks and Taps that was published Tuesday on ESPN.com, but if you haven’t, here’s the link: This is a must-read article for Knicks fans, you can come back to my ravings later, in the meantime, click this link!
In a typically phenomenal article by Lowe, a lot of things stood out, but one part that really made me stop and think was when he pointed out that a lot of team executives had quietly decided (and I believe rightly so) that their best course of action for team-building strategy would be to wait out the Warriors.
The Dubs are playing at a historically high level. They have the best record to ever start a season, a once-in-a-universe player who may possibly have signed a dark contract with Beezlebub to make shots no mere mortal would attempt, a “Wait, let me check that again” point differential of +15.4, and a team made up of personnel that fits together like new socks and gets along so well that they have become the basktball equivalent of one of those couples that is, like, baby-elephant-adorable, and you can’t help but be disgusted by them.
But there is nothing disgusting about this Warriors team. They are basketball porn.
…Maybe that’s a bad metaphor for arguing against their being disgusting, but any pure basketball fan can’t help but watch this team in awe. It is easily one of the best three teams I have ever seen in my 25-odd years of watching basketball, alongside the 1995-96 Bulls and the 2000-01 Lakers, and it’s entirely possible that the only thing keeping me from rating them higher is nostalgia.
The Knicks have no incentive to lose this year because of the Andrea Bargnani trade which robbed them (I assume that trade was made at gunpoint) of their 1st round pick in the upcoming Son of the Sports Guy Draft. Knowing this, the Knicks made a real effort to fill out the roster and give Melo confidence that the rebuild was in motion but wouldn’t be a complete demolition. Even so, I don’t think the Knicks imagined themselves to be a playoff team before the season started, and they still may not be because of the improvement of so many teams in the East, but they have every reason to win as many games as possible and get some playoff experience for The Lord of the Zings.
Roughly a quarter of the season has been played, and I think that’s a large enough sample size to judge most teams. Maybe not completely, but like, your typical somewhat-informed neighborly judging. This has been a strange season thus far for a number of reasons, but one of the strangest things is the amount of parity in the NBA. Hell, the Undisputed Champion of Parity, the NFL, is probably jealous. Or at least they would be if they could find time between counting money and measuring television ratings.
By my estimation, the NBA has only three truly bad teams: the Nets, the Lakers, and the 76ers. There are a few other contenders in the West, like Sacramento, Denver and Portland, but so far we can’t definitively say that any of those three teams can’t be competitive against most teams in this league, which means we have 26 teams that could conceivably beat each other on any given night.
If you added that up and thought my math was off, first of all, I was an English major, so give me a break. Second, I left Golden State off the “could be beaten on any given night” list because thus far, no one has beaten them. To be fair, they have yet to play Cleveland, San Antonio or Oklahoma City, the three teams that I think are best suited to compete with them, but to every available statistical measure and test of the eye, they may very well be at a level that none of those extremely talented teams can compete with in a 7-game series.
With that being said, I return to the chorus I began this song with: This is a bad time to be a great basketball team. Knicks fans know this all too well (as do several other franchises that were successful in the same era) from their time being a great team in the 90s while Jordan’s Bulls snuffed out hope like a waiter who tells you they’re out of what you came to the restaurant for in the first place. There’s a consistent historical precedent in this league where being a great team has meant losing to a greater one. The NBA is not an underdog league, in large part due to the playoff structure which heavily favors the more talented team.
That being said, there are always windows of opportunity getting ready to open, especially in today’s NBA where short contracts are the new norm for teams as terrified of commitment as they are of the luxury tax, specifically the uber-penalty for repeat offenders, and so cannot realistically keep a team together for longer than a few years.
Golden State has been afforded a unique degree of roster flexibility because of what is by far the best bargain contract in the league, which pays Steph Curry just over $11 million this year and $12 million the next. But, as their other young players come up for contract extensions like Draymond Green and Klay Thompson did the last two summers, so does the comically underpaid reigning MVP, and this complicates their cap situation. Simply put, it’s going to be impossible to keep the band together.
Harrison Barnes and Festus Ezeli both declined contract extensions and will enter the market as restricted free agents next year. The cap is estimated to rise astronomically from $70 million to $89 million because of the NBA’s new television contract, but even that generous cushion won’t protect the Warriors from the realities of their cap situation. The Dubs are probably going to have to let one of their young assets go or trade Bogut to get out from under the last year of his contract before next season. They have plenty of options, but their bench is going to suffer one way or another. Their top 3 will remain otherworldly, but like every juggernaut before them, they will begin to age and be too pricey to maintain over time.
It’s a sobering reality in the salary cap world of sports, but the best teams are always destined to regress. Golden State isn’t going to anytime soon, but that suits the Knicks just fine. Would you really want to be Cleveland this year, with a literal going-for-broke $110 million dollar payroll and knowing in the back of your mind you may just not be good enough, even if completely healthy, against the Dubs? Would you want to be any of the teams with young-to-middle-aged superstars subject to attrition in the next summer or two of free agency? I know I wouldn’t.
The Knicks will have roughly enough cap room next summer to sign a max contract player, and many want Hassan Whiteside to be that player, despite the fact there is a center under contract for three more years after this one with an average salary of $14 million/year and that the Heat would be guaranteed to balk at a sign-and-trade involving Lopez. They could have more cap room if Afflalo or Williams opts out, or if they can trade Calderon, and I expect some wiggling to happen this summer with respect to the situation at the guard positions, but they will regardless have plenty of room to further improve the roster. And with The Latviathan now joining the well-liked Melo to play 41 games a year at basketball’s Mecca, under the direction of the Zen Master to boot, I imagine there are players looking at the Knicks a lot more closely as a place to sign in the next year or two.
The what-Mario-fixes dream is Kevin Durant, as it is for a lot of franchises, but that won’t be an option this summer. You can etch that in stone. He will sign a 1-year deal in Oklahoma City with a 2nd-year player option to delay signing a multi-year deal until the cap rises once more at a historical rate for the 2017-2018 season, much like LeBron has shaped his last two contracts, so the NBA can stop worrying about the “summer of Durant.” Everyone already knows Durant is going to sign the 1-year contract, but people need things to write about so it’s fun to theorize that maybe Durant might explore free agency this summer. He very well might, just to take in the ego-satisfying experience of free agency, but Durant is signing the 1-year contract if his agent is worth what a VCR is.
Despite the improbability of signing Whiteside or Durant, the Knicks have plenty of options to upgrade the roster this summer even without a 1st round pick. I would take a long look at Demar DeRozan and Mike Conley as options at guard, and you have to at least see what Al Horford would think about a move to NY. This isn’t even to mention the myriad of possibilities for simply improving roster continuity with a couple lower-risk signings like Evan Fournier or George Hill. The important thing here is to note that it’s not a big deal if the Knicks aren’t contending next year, because it is in their best interest to wait out the Warriors, and in their own conference, the Cavaliers, who are set to hemorrhage a lot of their roster over the next two years as LeBron begins the cruel career stage of aging.
The Knicks’ future is bright because of the Kristapocalpyse, but like any religious journey, they’ve got to slog through a lot of tedious shit to get to enlightenment.