In what has to come as something of a surprise, the Knicks have taken the lead in the Steve Nash derby despite the Raptors’ efforts to eliminate them by agreeing to sign Landry Fields to an onerous, back-loaded contract. Fields was set to be a key chip in a potential New York and Phoenix sign-and-trade, a deal that would’ve offered Nash a salary not drastically lower than Toronto’s eight-figure annual offer.
But the Knicks still have Iman Shumpert, and the Suns are reportedly interested in Shumpert as the centerpiece of a Nash sign-and-trade package, per Marc Stein of ESPN.com and Adrian Wojarnowski of Yahoo!. The latter described the current New York-Phoenix talks as being in the “critical stages” on Wednesday. All of this is unfolding as Houston is reportedly preparing their own back-loaded offer for Jeremy Lin, a move which (along with the agreed upon back-loaded offer to Chicago’s Omer Asik) played a role in the Rockets renouncing part of their rights to Courtney Lee. Lee, in turn, will be a prime mid-priced candidate for teams in need of a shooting guard, with the Clippers and the Bulls already having expressed interest, per the Los Angeles Times and Chicago Tribune, respectively. The Bulls face massive tax issues that will essentially make any Lee contract count double, while the Clippers appear ready to offer the full mid-level exception to Jamal Crawford, a player who is 32 years old, shot 38 percent from the field last season and ranks as a minus defender — the last of which should be slightly more important for a team that ranked a porous 18th in points allowed per possession last season.
So many moving parts, so little time for Independence Day barbecue and fireworks. And we haven’t even touched on the fact that Dallas — having missed out on Deron Williams — will surely examine Nash as a possible way to fill its cap space for at least one season. (Signing him to a two-year deal would imperil the Mavericks’ chance at max-level space in 2013, when Dwight Howard and Andrew Bynum are set to become free agents.)
But back to the Knicks: If they match a competing offer sheet for Lin and acquire Nash on a deal that pays something like $8 million per year over three seasons (as reported above), then we can conclude that the new collective bargaining agreement and beefed up luxury tax provisions have very little impact on James Dolan’s thinking in New York. And acquiring Nash would not necessarily mean saying goodbye to Lin. Nash is a 30-minute-per-game player now, and as he approaches age 40 during the span of this contract, it may be a good idea to play him less frequently have another player available to shoulder part of the escalating workload at the point. Signing Nash without a reliable back-up is not a viable option, and though the Knicks could find a backup with the veteran’s minimum (Mike Bibby, Ish Smith, etc.), the drop off after Nash would be steep.
If the Knicks match on Lin and nab Nash, they would be looking at a total approaching $73 million in guaranteed salary for 2013-14 and a preposterous $81 million total in 2014-15 — with half a roster to fill in each season. The luxury tax is going to jump incrementally, but it’s not going to jump anywhere near as fast as New York would hope. In this scenario, the Knicks would be looking at a hefty tax bill every year, with the harsher rates — starting at $1.50 per dollar over the tax level — kicking in during the 2013-14 season. And they can kiss the full $5 million mid-level exception goodbye for the duration of a three-year Nash deal, assuming all three years are guaranteed, even if they pass on bringing Lin back. The new CBA prohibits teams from offering the full mid-level and spending more than $4 million past the tax line in the same calendar year. Teams can use the the mini-mid-level, worth about $3 million per season, and spend as much as they’d like, and by acquiring Nash at this price, the Knicks would be limiting the organization to the “mini” for the next three years.
In other words: Consider Nash to be New York’s only major free agent splurge so long as the Carmelo Anthony/Tyson Chandler/Amar’e Stoudemire core remains in place. All three of those players are set to become free agents after the 2014-15 season, meaning that the one thing New York has going for it is that it would not automatically spend itself into the so-called repeater tax that takes effect in 2015-16. Beginning in that season, a team that pays the tax and has done so in three of the previous four years would face a giant extra penalty — a tax starting at $2.50-per-dollar for every dollar over the tax threshold and escalating from there. New York did not pay the tax last season, so it could avoid such a penalty by staying under the tax in 2015-16, even if it pays in the three intervening years.
Still: The Knicks are clearly ready to spend a giant sum of money in order to win now. The question is: Would this roster be good enough to do it?
The simple answer is that Nash will help the half of New York’s game that failed them most last season — their offense. Despite all the star power on the roster, the Knicks ranked 19th in points per possession, mostly floundering in between random and unsustainable spurts of productivity: the golden Linsanity era and a late-season stretch in which Anthony shifted to power forward while Stoudemire was injured.
And that last stretch is a reminder of the giant questions that this capped-out roster faces, even if Nash — one of the greatest offensive players league history — makes the move to MSG. Nash is a player whose mere presence essentially guarantees above-average performance on one side of the ball, just as Dwight Howard guarantees that his team will rank above average defensively. No player has ever had equaled Nash’s combination of elite passing and shooting, and he managed to carry two Suns’ teams with precisely no other players capable in creating their own (efficient) shots to top-10 overall rankings in points per possession in the each of the last two seasons . Even better, when Nash played, both those teams scored at top-three overall rates.
Of course, the context is New York is a bit different — and full of questions. Those include:
• How do Nash and two very good pick-and-roll big men (Chandler and Stoudemire) fit with Anthony, a ball-dominant, one-on-one player?
• Is Anthony better shifting to power forward full-time? And what does that mean for Stoudemire — a bench role? Does it make sense for Stoudemire to come in as a reserve, particularly if Nash, his old running buddy with whom he has tremendous chemistry, is starting?
• Can Chandler carry this defense all by himself?
That last question depends on how the Knicks fill out the roster. They’d still have the mini mid-level to use, plus as many veteran’s minimum deals as they’d like. Shumpert was a defensive-minded player who could guard all three perimeter positions. Despite all the New York noise, Shumpert isn’t Tony Allen or Andre Iguodala on defense, and he shot 40 percent from the field on far too many three-point attempts. But he’s a solid defender — New York’s best on the perimeter — and access to a wing player capable of defending opposing point guards is crucial for a team reliant on Nash. Shumpert will grow, and he’s a unselfish player; few rookies playing with Anthony and Lin would defend with this kind of effort and manage 3.5 assists per 36 minutes.
The Knicks will miss him, and he would be the Suns’ gain. But the rest of the pieces New York can toss in to make the math work — Toney Douglas, Dan Gadzuric’s non-guaranteed deal, etc. — are basically worthless for Phoenix. Shumpert, of course, won’t be back until January at the earliest as he recovers from the ACL tear he suffered in the first game of the playoffs. Phoenix is doing Nash a favor by engaging in this sign-and-trade, and it’s fair to ask if they might be able to get better return elsewhere — perhaps even from the Raptors, which have several young big men on their roster.
The Raptors, of course, are the big losers here, since they could be stuck paying Fields far too much over the next three seasons unless they break their word to him. That kind of unpleasant move that has consequences among players and agents.