Here is a timeline of things the Knicks have done, and things that have happened to them, over the past four years
• New York stripped its roster and dealt away future assets in a naked and rational attempt to sign LeBron James during the summer of 2010.
• LeBron James signed with Miami. The Knicks responded by acquiring Amar’e Stoudemire in a sign-and-trade, agreeing to pay him the league’s maximum salary over five seasons, fully guaranteed.
• The Stoudemire-centric Knicks got off to a solid and exciting start, though certainly not a spectacular one. James Dolan, the team’s owner, wanted a second star. New York then engaged in prolonged trade talks with Denver revolving around Carmelo Anthony, an impending free agent who wished to be a Knick. New York consummated the trade, sending Denver two quality players on rookie contracts, a bevy of first- and second-round picks (one of which may now go to Orlando via the Dwight Howard mega-trade), and other goodies.
The Knicks pulled off this trade even though they would likely have been able to sign Anthony in free agency after the 2011 lockout. In their defense, this was not guaranteed — not even close. The cap math would have been tight under the pre-lockout system, perhaps forcing New York to shed a cheap asset in order to sign Anthony outright. And no one knew what the new system would look like; Anthony himself made it clear he preferred to switch teams before the lockout, so that he could lock in a max-level extension before the salary rules changed. Brooklyn also wanted Anthony, presenting a nightmare scenario in which Anthony signed with the crosstown rival sporting (eventually) a shiny new arena in a hip borough.
• The Knicks acquired Chauncey Billups in the same trade. Billups suffered an injury early in Boston’s first-round sweep of the Knicks in 2011, a series that was quite competitive over its first two games, thanks in part to Anthony’s monster scoring. The Knicks split center minutes in that series among Stoudemire, Ronny Turiaf, and Jared Jeffries, who infamously fumbled a pass out of bounds in the closing seconds of Game 2. They would need a better big man to compete with Miami, Chicago, and Boston going forward.
• Four days after the sweep, the Knicks picked up Billups’s $14.2 million option for 2011-12. They could have saved nearly $11 million by exercising a buyout clause in Billups’s contract.
• When league business resumed, the Knicks used their one-time-only amnesty provision on Billups to free up enough cap space to sign Tyson Chandler to a four-year, $47 million contract. Buying out Billups would not on its own have left New York enough room to sign Chandler, but it would have put them in range to get there by offloading another couple of low-salary players — salary dumps that may well have cost picks. But the Billups-Chandler sequence was not what one might call artful cap work. The Knicks have been over the cap, and generally over the luxury tax, essentially since that moment.
• Then some crazy stuff happened with Jeremy Lin, Mike D’Antoni’s mustache, a Houston offer sheet the Knicks attempted to duck by literally skulking around Las Vegas in the summer of 2012, Stoudemire’s endless knee surgeries, and some found money in J.R. Smith. The Knicks were a very good team last season, and could have provided a more serious challenge for the Pacers in the conference semifinals had Chandler and Anthony been healthy.
• In the summer of 2013, the Knicks re-signed Smith to a three-year, $18 million contract despite: his complete collapse in the postseason, amid rumors of partying; a knee issue that required surgery; and a spotty record of off-court behavior that reared its head again when the league suspended him for the first five games of this season after finding he had used marijuana (THE HORROR!). Smith had the Knicks over a barrel, since as a tax team, they had limited resources with which to sign away a comparable free agent from another team. Things would have been different had the Knicks been able to use their amnesty provision on Stoudemire, freeing up crucial cap/tax flexibility. Alas.
• They did have enough resources, in the form of one first-round pick, two second-round picks, and three semi-expendable players, to acquire one expensive player from another team: Andrea Bargnani, whom the Raptors were prepared to give away for nothing. Bargnani is not good at professional basketball.
• The Knicks, plum out of financial flexibility and badly needing a backup big man, cut Jeremy Tyler and Ike Diogu at the end of training camp and gave their final roster spot to Chris Smith. Chris is J.R.’s brother, and he is not an NBA-caliber player.
You know how this ends: The Knicks are 1-3, hopelessly taxed out, and announced today that Chandler is out at least four weeks after suffering a “small, non-displaced fracture of his right fibula” in New York’s awful home loss to the Bobcats Tuesday night. The team said Chandler might miss up to six weeks, and nobody would be shocked if his absence persisted longer. He will likely miss around 20 games — one-quarter of the season.
New York is now in serious danger of missing the playoffs, and I genuinely worry for everyone working at MSG. The place is on edge. No team has started the season amid more rotational chaos. Coach Mike Woodson has done a wonderful job since replacing Mike D’Antoni, but he is weirdly torn between the reality that New York has done very well with Carmelo Anthony at power forward and his own desire to play two traditional big men at once. That has led to a starting job for Bargnani, who has predictably struggled. He has shot well enough, and shown potential to stretch the floor around Anthony post-ups and pick-and-rolls centered on Chandler’s explosive lobability. But he hasn’t generated any free throws, he’s committed a ton of turnovers (including traveling violations and moving screens galore), and he’s rebounding at levels well below his own sad norms. And that’s saying something, considering Bargnani’s rebounding rates — both his defensive rebounding rate and his overall rebounding rate — rank him among the two or three worst rebounding big men in the history of the league.
It’s early, but the Knicks are minus-38 in Bargnani’s 84 minutes of floor time and plus-30 in the 108 minutes during which he has been on the bench, per NBA.com. That’s not all on Bargnani, obviously. He has played a ton of minutes with Anthony, who is stuck in his own hellish shooting slump as the Knicks, the league’s most prolific 3-point shooting team last season, figure out how to space the floor with less overall shooting around. And New York has miscast Bargnani as a backup center on smaller bench-heavy units. That won’t work.
They’ve had to miscast him that way because both Stoudemire and Kenyon Martin are on minutes limits so strict that Woodson wants them to alternate games — a rule he lifted last night after Chandler’s injury created an early in-game crisis. Martin is aging, and Stoudemire has looked borderline unplayable for two seasons. He shot well last year, and is a creative scorer, but he gave any gains back with stiff, unintuitive defense — and things have been worse in limited time this season.
Going big has also meant foregoing, to some extent, the dual point guard lineups that helped turn the Knicks into a pass-happy, 3-point-bombing machine last season. On the one hand, Woodson’s change is understandable. New York ranked just 17th in points allowed per possession last season, and size issues contributed to that shaky defense in several ways. And one of those two alleged point guards was very often Jason Kidd, who over the last two or three years of his career was no longer really a point guard. He almost created a position of his own — a bigger wing who stood around the perimeter, quarterbacked things, tossed very smart passes all over the floor, shot 3s, and guarded wings on the other end. But New York was also successful, and wildly so on offense, with the Pablo Prigioni–Raymond Felton pairing, and they presumably nabbed Beno Udrih on the minimum to add some depth to that arrangement. Udrih has appeared in only two of New York’s four games this season, and for just 14 total minutes.
In any case: Woodson was bound to have a longer-than-usual adjustment period this season, given all the new parts around (Metta World Peace, Udrih, Bargnani, etc.), and the funky, multi-positional nature of the incumbent players. The Eastern Conference is so bad after the top four teams that New York could afford such growing pains.
They cannot afford to lose Chandler for a long period, and 20-25 games is long enough to worry about New York’s postseason chances. The front line is, as Tom Ziller put it today, a tire fire. They may have little choice but to waive Chris Smith (or Toure Murry, if nepotism must reign) in order to sign another big man. Lou Amundson, Marcus Camby, and Chris Johnson have all been cut recently, and there are always other similarly uninspiring names on the waiver wire. Jason Collins is an inspiring name, and he can play post defense, box out, and help a team’s overall rebounding. New York could in theory trade for another team’s expendable big man, but Iman Shumpert is really the only tradable asset on hand. New York owes both its 2014 and 2016 first-round picks via trades, meaning it cannot trade any first-round pick before the 2018 pick.
There are expendable big men out there, and you can bet any team carrying one will be making some predatory calls today: Orlando (Jason Maxiell); Milwaukee (Ekpe Udoh, whom the Bucks like); Washington (Jan Vesely and Kevin Seraphin, though the latter is playing and the former is useless); Oklahoma City (Kendrick Perkins); Boston (Kris Humphries, though finding a palatable matching salary from New York is very hard, just as it would be in any Perkins trade); someone from among Sacramento’s crowded front line; and others.
But again: Any such trade is very difficult, given New York’s salary situation and asset-poor status. Chandler has long been the only thing propping up what would otherwise be a miserable defensive team, and his ability to suck defenders into the lane on the pick-and-roll is a boon for New York’s outside shooting. Ditto for his offensive rebounding, including those fun “Tyson tip-outs” that seem to always lead to open 3s.
The Knicks have some things going for them, mainly the “blah” nature of the Eastern Conference. Detroit and Atlanta look solid early, but Washington is 0-3, Milwaukee is banged up, and Cleveland and Toronto represent wild cards. These teams aren’t going to run away and hide from New York, whose schedule over the next 20-plus games might not be as difficult as it looked a week ago, given the struggles of Denver, New Orleans, and Washington. Toss in a few games against Boston, Orlando, and Charlotte, and New York might be able to avoid drowning. And the schedule is light on back-to-backs until the far end of Chandler’s four-to-six-week recovery frame, key for a team with two big men who, until last night, weren’t even cleared to participate in consecutive games. Getting Smith back from suspension Sunday against the (gulp) Spurs will help loosen the Knicks’ spacing a bit. And late last season Martin performed very well with New York’s core players, providing more rim protection than expected along with the always-expected brutal fouls.
Losing a big man could also force Woodson to lean more on smaller lineups, and given the three point guards and four rangy wings on hand — including two wings big enough to slide to power forward in World Peace and Anthony — he has plenty of options with which to do so.
But there’s also a chance Chandler proves the keystone to the arch. New York just has no one who does what he does, and he was back doing it in peak form before last night’s injury. The Knicks should still make the playoffs, but there’s a chance they will be fighting from behind over the last half of the season. Any dreams of the no. 4 seed, and home-court advantage against one of the Chicago-Miami-Indiana-Brooklyn quartet, are now dead.
And then there’s the jump-shooting elephant in the room: Anthony will be a free agent after the season, and there are rumblings it’s not a lock he stays, especially if New York struggles with a bare cupboard going forward — and with the Lakers, and a bunch of other suitors, with money to burn. Only the Knicks can offer him a five-year, $130 million max-level deal; rivals could offer only a four-year, $96 million deal. That’s a big home-court edge, and the Knicks (for now) are all-in on keeping Melo. The downside of bringing Anthony back at that cost: It would make it very hard for the Knicks to lure a second star in free agency during the summer of 2015, when contracts linked to Stoudemire, Chandler, and Bargnani fly off the books.
I’ve written before that the Knicks should more seriously consider alternatives besides hitching their wagon to Melo and expensive above-averageness for the next half-decade. A bad season this year could force them to do so. Let’s see how they hold up.