Happy Independence Day to all our American Knickerbuddies out there. Enjoy the festivities, and be safe. To all our non-American Knickerbuddies, happy regular old Monday.
A lot has transpired in Knicksdom over the last several weeks. The dominoes began to fall with the Derrick Rose trade a little less than two weeks ago. Rose lobbied his Bulls’ comrade, Joakim Noah, to join him in New York, and Noah turned around to convince free agent SG Courtney Lee to round out the Knicks’ starting five.
Of course, there was a lot of drama, hand-wringing, speculation, speculation about speculation, and a bit of terrible summer league play in the mix. By now, unless you’re living under a rock or very, very new to the Internet, you’re familiar with all of the gory details. I’m here to offer some perspective on the moves and the pending actions, although I suspect my take on all of it is only one of many possible takes. I’m sure a lot of you will passionately disagree with my thoughts, while others will offer their endorsement. I’m going to take each of the main transactions separately, then discuss the situation as a whole, and finally drop a few thoughts on where we go from here.
I’ve never been a huge fan of Derrick Rose. He’s always been enormously talented, even after his multiple knee injuries. Before the injuries, he was a lightning bolt of a player, an introverted Allen Iverson. After the injuries, he’s been quite good in terms of his athletic recovery, but his overall game has suffered. He hasn’t so much reinvented his game, as pushed harder and harder to get his old game back. In some ways, he looks the same on the court. You see flashes of that brilliant pre-injury MVP. If you watch his post-injury highlight videos, in fact, you’ll marvel at how many times the TV guys use the phrase, “That’s vintage Derrick Rose!” I can hear Mike Breen’s voice echoing in my head as I type this. See for yourself.
Go ahead and count the number of times “vintage Derrick Rose” appears. I’m too lazy to do it, but I’ll bet it’s more than 5. Question: If Derrick Rose is able to show his “vintage” self that often, does that mean he’s still very good?
In some ways, Rose is exactly what the Knicks need. Even in his diminished state, he’s a very good penetrator, he runs downhill to the hoop, and he’s not afraid to throw tough passes. He’s the anti-Calderon in both positive and negative ways. Calderon was notoriously slow, bad at getting to the hoop, and tentative about throwing difficult passes. He was also an efficient shooter and took good care of the ball, two things you can’t say about Rose. In effect, the Knicks have traded one sets of problems for the opposite set of problems. It’s a trade off I’m very happy to make because I think the riskier, less efficient play of Rose can be managed by talented teammates, who are all capable of making good plays on the other end of his wild forays to the hoop (see: Porzingis put-back highlights) and his wilder pass attempts (see: all decent NBA players’ skill sets).
Rose’s contract is up after the 2016-17 season, just in time for the hugest free agent bonanza of all time, and another rising salary cap. Next offseason will make this year look tame in comparison. The Knicks will be able to deal with Rose in whatever way they see fit, even holding onto him if he turns out to be the best version of himself. There’s a chance to showcase Hornacek’s system with a fast, athletic lead guard to entice a Rose replacement if there’s mutual interest. It’s a relatively low risk move for a moderate reward on the other end. Giving up Robin Lopez and his great value contract was unfortunate, but really there’s nothing too dramatic in this trade beyond some of the names.
I have to confess….I love Joakim Noah. Among the top three or four sports heroes of my youth stands Yannick Noah. The senior Noah played tennis with such a sense of joy amidst a crowd of stoic Europeans, only John McEnroe rivaled his passion on the court. He used a signature volley slam to great effect throughout the late-70s and early-80s. I would have been a Joakim fan even had he been a fringe NBAer during his career. The fact is, Joakim Noah is exactly the type of player Knicks’ fans would fall in love with were it not for his role on the rival Chicago Bulls. He’s a tough guy. He’s outwardly passionate, like his father. His game is predicated on hustle and energy. He’s a native New Yorker. Need I say more?
The main problem with Noah is his health. Joakim was DPOY three years ago and finished in the top 5 of the MVP voting. In 2013-14 Noah averaged 12.6 points, 11.3 rebounds, 5.4 assists, 1.2 steals, and 1.5 blocks per game. There have only been seven NBA seasons of that kind in history. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar averaged 11+ rebounds, 5+ assists, 1+ steals, and 1+ blocks back in the late-70s. Kevin Garnett did it three times in his Minnesota days. Bill Walton did it once, over 58 games, for Portland, and Sam Lacy did it for the Kansas City-Omaha Kings back in the day. Noah’s scoring average is one of the least impressive of that group, but the rest of the numbers pop out.
Noah is the first prime time player the Knicks have had next to Carmelo Anthony in his time with the club, who doesn’t require shots to excel. The last player of that sort was Jason Kidd, and we all remember how that turned out. Noah’s scoring has suffered over the last two injured-plagued seasons, mainly as a result of terrible shooting from the field and the line. The rest of his game has held remarkably steady, however, and if you look at the rates instead of the counting stats, he put up career highs in both rebounding and assists last year during his 29 games off the Chicago bench. The optimistic take on Noah, which I favor given my feelings about the guy, is that he can be an All NBA defender again if he stays on the court. His shooting can trend upward in the Knicks offense, and his court vision is prefect for keeping the ball on the move. You can run the offense through him at times and do some real damage in the process. Rose can push the ball and get into things early, while Noah can set things up in the half court.
The pessimistic take on the Noah deal has everything to do with the idea of decline, and the 4 years attached to his $72 million contract. The risk with Rose is that he’s washed up and won’t help the Knicks do anything in 2016-17. The risk with Noah is that he’s also washed up and he’ll drag the Knicks down over the next several years. It’s for that reason that Rose-detractors say, “Meh,” while Noah detractors say, “WTF????!!!!!!!! NOOOOOOO!!!!”
I’ll stand by my optimism with Noah, deserved or blind, and say that he’s the most important free agent signing the Knicks have ever made….either for better or for worse. He’s Amar’e redux, only the end may already be upon us. To take your mind off that frightening possibility, I give you this:
With little cap space left over to build an entire roster, the Knicks desperately needed a starting guard to put alongside Derrick Rose. It was imperative that said guard be durable, good from beyond the arc, and solid on defense. Courtney Lee was sitting there around the right price point, but other teams had interest and the Knicks backup plan seemed to be Eric Gordon, which left me having night sweats. There was no way the Knicks could spend all their free cap space on broken Eric Gordon with Derrick Rose manning the other backcourt spot. In the end, Courtney Lee took a little less money (thanks in part to Joakim Noah’s recruiting) and the Knicks got a picture perfect guard for the personnel on the club already. Many of the NBA pundits have praised the Knicks for nabbing Lee at that price, and some have compared it to the shrewd decision making that landed Robin Lopez last year. Goodbye to one excellent value contract, hello to another.
There’s not much to say about Lee, except that everyone thinks highly of him. The most common refrain you hear when his name comes up is, “How does a solid player like Lee bounce around like that every year?” The Knicks have locked him up on his reasonable deal for 4 years, which will take him into his 35-year old season. Lee is the sort of player who can legitimately start on a team with talent at the other spots, and slide into a prominent bench role if the overall talent upgrades. He’ll play 30+ minutes for you in a supporting role as a starter, or 20-25 minutes off the bench as a reserve. I’ve always liked Courtney Lee from afar. He’s the kind of “3 and D” player that Knicks fans see on other teams and wish they had at MSG. The Knicks never seem to have a guy like that for very long, but here we are today. Looking into him a bit further, I stumbled on this video that ought to make Knicks fans happy.
The Big Picture
Each of the moves I described individually can be dissected and debated on their own merit. Basketball is a team game, though, and the whole is always greater than the parts. How did the Knicks fare as a unit in rebuilding the starting lineup?
On the surface, you can talk about replacing Jose Calderon with Rose, Afflalo/Vujacic with Lee, and Lopez with Noah. In that equation, the Knicks upgraded their talent, particularly in the backcourt, and injected a different sort of personality/profile into the center spot. The team was so abysmal in the backcourt last year that almost any move was going to improve prospects. Adding Jeff Hornacek as coach necessitated a different approach from the guard position, so Phil Jackson and company killed two birds with one stone. They replaced the NBA’s worst starting guards with guys who can play with pace. Lee’s statistical profile isn’t a huge departure from Afflalo, except that he plays good defense. That alone helps the outlook. The two biggest changes we ought to expect from the new group are 1) pace on offense, and 2) aggressiveness on defense. The pace on offense will be predicated on Melo’s willingness to run, and his ability to keep the ball moving. The efficiency of that offense will remain in question until we see how well Rose and Noah shoot. On defense, the Knicks ought to look a bit more “attacking” than reacting, although Derrick Rose has never been one to create a lot of turnovers. If the team is going to be successful in upping the pace effectively on offense, they’ll have to become much better at forcing turnovers in the backcourt. It remains to be see whether or not Rose has it in him to make that happen. To that end, it’s important to sign the right backups with our remaining cap money, in order to hedge against injury and ineffectiveness.
The last “big picture” note involves the Melo/Porzingis timeline. Clearly, all of these big name moves are an effort to appease Melo in his shrinking timeline. His contract is up after three more seasons. Noah and Lee signed up for four. There’s no reason why the Knicks shouldn’t roll the dice this way, given the fact that Porzingis will only be 24-years old when the contracts expire. That’s insane when you think about it. There is an argument that building slowly and incrementally would allow the team to build a sensible, young core around Porzingis. By the time Melo leaves, Porzingis’ team would be primed to fill the power void left by the aging crop of contemporary superstars. I don’t think it’s impossible to do that anyway, but that plan is temporarily on hold in favor of some playoff basketball at MSG (maybe…hopefully). The Knicks are going for it, and I suspect the big push will come during the 2017 offseason as they look to add the final pieces to a short term championship run. For the record, I’m skeptical they have any sort of realistic shot at that whatever they do, but I admire the gusto nonethless.
The Path Ahead
There’s a lot of work to do beyond July 4th for the Knicks. The biggest need is guard depth. Presumably, the Knicks will be able to retain Lance Thomas, although nothing is guaranteed. Bringing back Langston Galloway solves some problems with bench depth, but really the Knicks need a guy who can step in as a full time starter behind Derrick Rose if/when he misses time. That guard has to be able to duplicate some of the skills Rose brings along in order to have some continuity in the system. Langston isn’t that guy. He also isn’t a great shooter, so you’re not bringing a “spacing” guy off the bench when you give him minutes. Willy Hernangomez will likely be joining his former Sevilla teammate, Kristaps Porzingis, on the team, but the club has to allocate cap money to a few other guys before that situation becomes clear. WHG’s agent is already playing footsie with Euro clubs in order to push the Knicks to pony up some money.
As things stand now, although nothing is set in stone, the roster might look like this:
There’s at least some possibility that Phil Jackson trades KOQ’s contract to someone for cap space. At $4 million, that contract looks like a huge steal for a team in need of depth at the PF position. The Knicks could hang onto him and commit to using him more next year, or they can turn his cap hold into an asset to address the backcourt. In fact, they may have to do that given the slim pickins and the big money being tossed around.
Hang onto your hats, friends. More is yet to come. In the meantime, be safe on the 4th and don’t watch the summer league. Trust me.