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Tuesday, August 11, 2009
Updated: August 12, 12:52 PM ET
Is Knicks' dream scenario still possible?
By Chad Ford
The Knicks still need to unload Eddy Curry's contract if they plan to make a big splash next summer.
When Donnie Walsh took over the Knicks in the spring of 2008, the task of rebuilding in New York was dubbed "Mission Impossible" by many of his peers.
As we get closer and closer to the summer of 2010, the undertaking seems aptly named. The salary cap is shrinking, the Knicks' top free agents are demanding huge contracts, and they are still without a solid talent base to lure top free agents next summer. So the Knicks' championship-contending restoration appears to be on shaky ground.
After all the damage done by former team president and coach Isiah Thomas, Walsh knew it would take a perfect storm of circumstances to get the Knicks back on the road to a championship.
Walsh, however, had a solid four-part plan to make it happen.
Phase 1 was to get rid of Thomas and replace him with a head coach who played an entertaining style of basketball that players in the league loved to play. Walsh was quick to move Isiah out of his coaching- and front-office roles and into an advisory role, and then hit a huge home run last summer when he outbid the Bulls for former Suns coach Mike D'Antoni.
In Phoenix, D'Antoni had been the architect of the league's most dynamic offense, and he had the reputation as a "players' coach." He had developed a great rapport with a number of the NBA's elite players through his work with Team USA.
Phase 2 was to start shedding some of the troubled players on New York's roster. The team bought out Stephon Marbury and traded Jamal Crawford, Zach Randolph and Jerome James. While Walsh would love to trade a few other players on the Knicks' roster (yes, I'm talking about you, Eddy Curry), for the most part Walsh's moves have created better chemistry for the Knicks and have helped reduce the highest payroll in the NBA.
Phase 3 has been rockier. The plan was to restock the Knicks' talent pool via the draft. Rookies have low salaries and high upside, and given the Knicks' lack of talent the team hoped it could strike gold once or twice in the draft. While it's still very early, things haven't gone according to plan so far. The Knicks' top targets the past two years have been off the draft board when they drafted.
In 2008, their two favorites -- Derrick Rose and O.J. Mayo -- were gone, so they settled for Danilo Gallinari. While Gallinari showed enormous promise in Europe, he hurt his back in the summer league and played sparingly for the Knicks in his rookie season while he tried to rehab. Meanwhile, the Knicks passed on several prospects in the '08 draft -- like Brook Lopez, Eric Gordon and Anthony Randolph -- who look like potential stars down the road.
The Knicks had to settle for Danilo Gallinari with the No. 6 pick in the 2008 NBA draft.
In 2009, Walsh and D'Antoni had their hearts set on Davidson shooting star Stephen Curry. However, the Warriors took him one place ahead of the Knicks, who settled on Arizona forward Jordan Hill. While Hill has upside, too, he's closer to Dale Davis than Amare Stoudemire.
And what about 2010? In 2005, Isiah agreed to send that first-round pick to Phoenix as part of the Marbury trade. The Suns then traded it to Utah. There are no protections left on the pick. It's gone.
Phase 4 appears to be turning into a disaster. The plan was for the Knicks to get $35 million to $40 million below the cap so they could lure a pair of young superstars in 2010. New York has been eyeing LeBron James and Chris Bosh. But Dwyane Wade would suffice.
It seemed the Knicks were off to a good start last year when they found ways to move Randolph and Crawford for contracts that expired in the summer of 2010. But circumstances (some of which are beyond the Knicks' control) seem to be quickly snuffing out the dream.
For starters, the Knicks were counting on a salary cap in the range of $62 million to $64 million for the 2010-11 season. That was a very realistic prediction in the summer of 2008 and into the spring of 2009. However, once the economic crisis hit the NBA, things fell apart.
The league announced in July that, for the first time in years, the salary cap would decrease for the 2009-10 season. And, as part of the same memo, the league warned that the cap could fall even further for 2010-11 -- between 5 percent and 10 percent. If the cap falls 5 percent, it would be at $53.6 million for 2010-11. If it falls further (and several NBA cap gurus are telling ESPN.com that a $51 million number is more realistic), the Knicks could be looking at a cap number that is $10 million to $13 million less than they predicted.
Second, New York has been unable to trade two 2010 cap killers -- Curry and Jared Jeffries. Curry is slated to make $11.3 million in 2010. Jeffries is set to make $6.9 million. Interestingly, Walsh passed on a chance to move Jeffries to the Kings for the expiring contract of Kenny Thomas at the trade deadline last February. That could really come back to haunt the Knicks.
Third, when the Knicks decided to clear maximum cap space in 2010, it would've been hard to predict that two of their young players -- David Lee and Nate Robinson -- would develop so fast under D'Antoni. Both players are restricted free agents this summer. Lee is searching for a long-term contract in excess of $10 million per year. Robinson is looking for something in the area of $5 million per year. So far, the Knicks are at a stalemate with both players. If they sign them to long-term deals, they lose virtually all cap flexibility in 2010. If they don't (or if Lee and Robinson decide to take their one-year qualifying offers) the team most likely will lose them without compensation.
Finally, a Knicks team without Lee or Robinson and without the cap room to sign multiple elite free agents no longer looks that appealing to free agents like LeBron James. There just isn't, as of yet, enough supporting talent to make the Knicks a contender if LeBron joins them. That raises the question that no one in New York wants to talk about. Yes, New York is a great market and D'Antoni is a great coach. But would LeBron really bolt the Cavs -- a championship contender -- to play on a rebuilding team like the Knicks? What does all of this mean for the future of the Knicks? It's not pretty.
They basically have three options:
Option 1: Clear More Cap Space
This option could be dubbed "Mission Impossible II."
Walsh has been working furiously this summer to move Curry and/or Jeffries for contracts that expire next summer. It's highly unlikely he can move Curry. Jeffries is a little more realistic. But if he could trade both of them, he could clear an extra $18 million in room and have around $40 million to play with next summer.
If he can make it happen, the Knicks would be back on track to be a major player for LeBron. Of course, this option comes with a few major caveats.
The first is that the Knicks would have only four players under contract going into next summer. They'd have to spend their $40 million on eight players ... not two or three. But theoretically, at least, they could give two max deals and sign the rest of the team with the $6 million to $8 million that remained.
The second caveat is that this would mean they likely would lose Lee and Robinson -- weakening the team even further.
Option 2: Lower Your Sights
If Walsh can't move Curry or Jeffries, the Knicks should be somewhere between $21 million and $23 million under the cap going into next summer if they waive both Lee and Robinson. However, they'd have just six players under contract.
That's still enough room to sign one elite player like LeBron. However, they'd have roughly just $5 million to $7 million to sign five other players. Would LeBron really come with such a weak supporting cast?
Of course, LeBron, Bosh and Dwyane Wade aren't the only free agents available. As I detailed in my sneak peek at the free-agent class of 2010, there are a lot of good players available. But would any of them come to the Knicks? Kobe Bryant and Joe Johnson are talking extensions with their clubs. Paul Pierce and Dirk Nowitzki are likely to stay put. Restricted free agents like Rajon Rondo and Rudy Gay are notoriously difficult to steal away because their home teams have the right to match any offer.
That leaves a few players like Amare Stoudemire and Carlos Boozer, who seem unhappy where they are. Both players are very good, but they can't single-handedly rebuild a team -- and given their injury history, I'm not sure you'd want them to.
Or the Knicks can try to use their cap space in trades. With the luxury-tax threshold also decreasing significantly next year, Walsh should encounter a number of desperate GMs trying to shed payroll to avoid the tax. The problem with that strategy is that it's really a crapshoot. It's hard to predict, ahead of time, what players will be available to build your team.
Option 3: Stick With What You Have
This is an unpopular option, but it may be the most realistic for the Knicks. With little chance of clearing big cap room next summer and few other good options left on the table if LeBron, Bosh and Wade say no, New York may have to be patient.
If the team can sign Lee and Robinson to reasonable contracts, money will be available to add a player or two via free agency while keeping the young core intact.
In the summer of 2011, the team will have another shot at free agency when Curry and Jeffries come off the books. A number of interesting players, including Tony Parker and Yao Ming, will be free agents. Maybe by then the Knicks' young players will start showing some promise and Walsh will have an easier sell to a veteran.
Chad Ford covers the NBA for ESPN Insider.