For all of the Knicks’ moves in increasing an already-expensive payroll, this team is still a total mystery. New York is an on-the-fly construction project that, in the big picture, has had very little time to work together and learn.
Until we get some answers about this group on both sides of the floor, it’s hard to picture New York’s core competing with Miami and Brooklyn, if the Nets manage to acquire Dwight Howard. For one, the Knicks — who have added point guard Jason Kidd and center Marcus Camby while retaining forward Steve Novak, shooting guard J.R. Smith and (presumably) point guard Jeremy Lin — are not done buying. They’ll try to get something for center Dan Gadzuric’s non-guaranteed deal, and they still have a form of Bird Rights on free agent Jared Jeffries, a valuable fourth big man behind center Tyson Chandler, Camby and power forward Amar’e Stoudemire (and perhaps Novak, if you’d like to classify him as a “big”). And we won’t see New York’s best wing defender, guard Iman Shumpert, until at least January, as he recovers from a torn ACL.
That’s the puzzling thing about this team, especially without Shumpert: The Knicks look bad, defensively, on paper. But they looked just as bad last season, with minus defenders (Carmelo Anthony and Stoudemire) at both forward spots, a bunch of guys splitting time at shooting guard and an untested second-year player in Lin manning the point. Despite all of that, New York ranked fifth in points allowed per possession and spent the entire season as one of the league’s stingiest defenses. Chandler was at the heart of that, talking to everyone and sliding all over the place to plug holes before they fully opened. The Defensive Player of the Year was so good that the Knicks managed to allow points only at a league-average rate even with Anthony and Stoudemire on the floor together.
It was the offense, bottom-10 almost all season despite all of the glittery names, that failed the Knicks. There were semi-productive streaks, but even those came with caveats. Linsanity was wonderful, but the Knicks scored only at a league-average rate and won mostly with defense in that stretch. They surged again late in the season when a back injury to Stoudemire forced them to shift a suddenly invigorated (on defense) Anthony to power forward.
New York found something with Anthony at the four spot. His effort on defense rose to seldom-seen levels, and he just looked more comfortable banging with Carlos Boozer than he usually does chasing wings around the perimeter and the baseline. It’s something New York should go back to more often next season, which makes its lack of depth on the wing and in the backcourt more problematic than it would be if there was any evidence that the combination of Stoudemire, Chandler and Anthony can work well together.
Smith will be back after agreeing to a two-year contract on Monday, but he is capable of guarding only the smallest of small forwards. He was more attentive than usual on defense during his brief time in New York last season, but he has a longer track record of hurting his team by watching the ball and gambling. Kidd can defend both wing positions in theory, but he’s 39 and slowed visibly last season; there is only so much his brain, and its connection with his genius feet, can accomplish against Dwyane Wade or Paul Pierce. Novak and Anthony can form a smallish forward combination, but the Knicks mostly have to hide Novak against non-threatening power forwards on defense when facing top wing talent.
Shumpert will solve a lot of these problems when he returns, but he’ll still be a second-year player working his way back into game shape after a rookie season in which he barely cracked 40 percent from the floor and put up a woeful 10.8 Player Efficiency Rating.
Camby is 38 and limited, but he will be a huge help on the glass as Chandler’s backup. The Knicks were an average rebounding team on both sides of the floor last season, and they fell to below average when Chandler sat. Camby is an annual candidate to lead the league in rebounding rate. He also can still protect the rim on defense, even if he can’t touch Chandler’s ability to guard above the foul line or make multiple hard cuts on the same defensive possession. Camby is a needed addition, but if the Knicks bring back Jeffries as well, they will be a little crowded up front and thin everywhere else.
This is an awkward roster with a lot of questions to answer. Was last year’s solid defensive performance a bit of a fluke, aided by the league’s lockout-induced cold shooting? And if the defense slips toward the league average, can New York find any groove at all on offense with Lin, Anthony, Stoudemire and Chandler all sharing the floor? Or will that groove come via separating the stars more, using Anthony at power forward and Stoudemire more with second units? Camby’s presence could complicate that possibility because Stoudemire has thrived, at least offensively, as a center who can pick-and-roll as much as he’d like without interference in the lane.
The four core guys couldn’t find a rhythm last year, but the same lockout caveats apply. Lin and the three frontcourt starters barely had any time to mesh, and that’s before even factoring in a midseason coaching change from Mike D’Antoni to Mike Woodson.
One certainty is that this team will be enormously expensive for three consecutive seasons, which doesn’t seem to be of any concern to owner James Dolan. That may be in part because the Knicks have almost zero salary on the books for 2015-16, which would give them the chance to pay a giant tax bill for three straight seasons and still avoid the extra-harsh repeater penalties levied on teams that pay the tax four times in any five-season span.
Maybe the repeater penalty is the only spending deterrent in the new CBA that scares the Knicks and the Lakers, who are going to pay a gargantuan tax bill next season after agreeing to a sign-and-trade for point guard Steve Nash. Or maybe it’s just a coincidence that deals for Anthony, Chandler and Stoudemire all expire after 2014-15, and Dolan will be prepared to break the bank again after that, consequences be damned.
And there are consequences to New York’s being on the hook already for something like $76 million this season, $77 million in 2013-14 and as much as $85 million or so in 2014-15, depending on how much Kidd’s and Camby’s contracts are guaranteed that season. These figures, by the way, account only for Smith’s $2.8 million deal for next season (he also has a player option for 2013-14) and assume that the Knicks will match Houston’s $28.8 million offer sheet for Lin when league business resumes on Wednesday. The Knicks don’t really have a choice on Lin at this point because Kidd is the only nominal point guard set to be on the roster. New York traded Toney Douglas, a bricktastic point guard facsimile, to Houston in Monday’s sign-and-trade for Camby, and its payroll commitments even without Lin’s contract are big enough to take the full mid-level exception out of its arsenal.
Under the new CBA, teams that use the full $5 million mid-level exception to attract an outside free agent cannot have their payroll exceed the so-called “apron” set $4 million over the luxury tax (about $74.3 million this season) at any point that season. Teams can use the mini mid-level, worth about $3 million per season, and spend as much as they’d like. The Knicks will be limited to that smaller offer for the next three seasons, an exception that they will use to sign Kidd this summer.
The loss of the full mid-level will cost New York a free agent here or there over the next three years. The money difference matters to talented veterans; the Knicks and Lakers have already had to jump through complex sign-and-trade hoops to pay veteran free agents (Camby and Nash) something approaching what those players believe they are worth. And in a crucial little quirk, those very transactions — sign-and-trades — will be unavailable to teams with payrolls over that tax apron starting next season. So the Knicks and Lakers are getting theirs now.
(As an aside, I’ve read references to New York’s still having the biannual exception, worth $2 million, available to sign yet another outside free agent this summer. That is not accurate. Teams that use the mini mid-level and/or go over the apron don’t get the biannual, and the new CBA prohibits monkeying with the timing by using the biannual and then doing other deals that take teams over the apron. The Knicks are basically down to veteran minimum deals, though they also have Gadzuric’s contract to work one last sign-and-trade for a cheap free agent.)
What will the Knicks get for the big spending next season? The safe bet is on some regression defensively and some improvement offensively. But in a conference with one super-team in Miami and another on the verge in a neighboring borough — not to mention Chicago and Boston — it’s hard to see that being enough to contend.