As N.B.A. Faces Change, Knicks Will Face Limits
By HOWARD BECK
Published: June 6, 2011
There may be 40 million ways to spend $40 million on an N.B.A. roster. To appreciate the challenge facing Donnie Walsh’s successor, start by considering that heady sum, and two recent spending plans.
When Walsh became the Knicks’ president in 2008, the franchise had about $40 million a year tied up in Stephon Marbury, Eddy Curry and Jamal Crawford.
When the next Knicks president is hired, he will inherit a roster with about $40 million a year tied up in Amar’e Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony.
In N.B.A. math, the job just got a thousand times easier. Easier, but not without its own stark challenges.
As Walsh noted last week in announcing his decision to step down, “we have the stars” required to be respectable. “They will do what they do, and we’re lucky to have them,” he said. But, he noted, “You need more than that” to contend for championships.
The proof is in the playoffs, where each conference finalist had invaluable supporting players: Joakim Noah and Luol Deng in Chicago, Serge Ibaka and Thabo Sefolosha in Oklahoma City, Tyson Chandler and Shawn Marion in Dallas, Udonis Haslem and Mike Miller in Miami.
They are not stars, but they are indispensable in a title chase — the players who “fill in the blanks,” as Walsh said — setting hard screens, pouncing on loose balls, hitting timely jumpers, guarding top scorers, challenging shots in the paint. The great teams have such players in abundance. The Knicks have a dearth of them.
“That’s the job now,” Walsh said.
This is where that $40 million becomes a daunting figure. The N.B.A.’s salary cap this season was $58.5 million, and every indication is that it will decrease in the next collective bargaining agreement. It might not be as low as the $45 million that the owners want, but it is probably heading in that direction.
A $50 million cap would leave the Knicks with less than $7 million in cap room in 2012, when they will have $43 million committed to just four players: Stoudemire, Anthony, Toney Douglas and Renaldo Balkman. Even if the cap remained closer to $58 million, the Knicks would have only $15 million to spend, and nine roster spots to fill (current rules require 13 players).
If N.B.A. owners win their battle to roll back current contracts, then the math changes. The $40 million committed to Anthony and Stoudemire could theoretically be reduced to a more manageable $30 million, or $25 million. But that is far from a given. The players union would sooner cancel the season than give back hundreds of millions in signed contracts.
The owners also want a hard salary cap — i.e., an absolute payroll ceiling with no cap “exceptions” — to replace the soft-cap model.
Now consider the Knicks’ extensive list of needs: a defensive-minded center, a starting-caliber shooting guard, a point guard to replace the aging Chauncey Billups (whose contract expires in 2012) and a power forward to spell Stoudemire, at the very least. The draft will be of little help; the Knicks have no first-round picks in 2012 and 2014, and they will be drafting low when they do have a pick.
This is not a caretaker job despite the presence of two All-Star forwards.
Walsh made the bold moves — gutting the payroll, signing Stoudemire and accumulating the assets that were parlayed into Anthony. The next general manager will benefit from Walsh’s work. But he will also be handicapped by a lack of midrange talent, draft picks and payroll flexibility.
The next general manager will have to be creative, clever and savvy when it comes to manipulating the new salary-cap structure, whatever form it takes.
In Miami last summer, LeBron James, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade accepted below-maximum salaries to make room for Miller and Haslem — who also took below-market deals to join the Heat. The Knicks do not have that luxury, because Stoudemire and Anthony are already locked in long term (the N.B.A. does not allow renegotiations).
Will top-tier role players take less money to join Anthony and Stoudemire in New York? That remains to be seen, but the list of players who have taken discounted contracts in the last 10 years is very short.
Miami has been able to overcome its lack of depth because Wade and James are also elite defenders and selfless playmakers. Stoudemire and Anthony are not.
The new collective bargaining agreement, which will be in place for next season, could also undermine one of the Knicks’ greatest assets: James L. Dolan’s bank account. For all of his documented faults, Dolan, the Madison Square Garden chairman, has been a free-spending owner. The Knicks have been among the leaders in payroll and luxury-tax payments for more than a decade. But generosity would be irrelevant in a hard-cap system.
This entire discussion must, of course, be couched in asterisks and ifs. No one can predict what the new system will look like. But it will be different, perhaps drastically so. And it will make the challenge for the next Knicks general manager almost as daunting as the one Walsh had three years ago.
“I think I did the first step,” Walsh said. “But there are more steps to go.”