Though Knicks Head Coach Mike D’Antoni insists that the suddenly new-look Knicks will make the playoffs this season, the Knicks’ made a serious roster overhaul on Friday with an eye on winning in the playoffs in the 2010-2011 season, when a large crop of free agent NBA star talent will be available for signing.
Within two hours, the Knicks completed two major deals, trading guard Jamal Crawford to the Golden State Warriors for forward Al Harrington, and moving forward Zach Randolph to the Los Angeles Clippers for guard Cuttino Mobley and forward Tim Thomas, who will be making his second stint with the Knicks.
So, why were the Knicks, who were enjoying a winning record (6-5), something very rare for them in recent years, so eager to part with 38 percent of their scoring? The answer is simple. It’s not so much the players that the Knicks traded away and traded for on Friday, but the much larger trade that those players being dealt represents –- the trade of giving up any potential (but likely limited) success this year and the next, for the hope of being serious market players prior to the 2010-11 season and building a champion that season and perhaps, beyond.
Randolph, the Knicks’ leading scorer, averaging 20.5 points per game, was due to make $17,333,333 in 2010-11, and Crawford, the Knicks’ second leading scorer with 19.6 points per game, would have earned $10,080,000 that same season. In total, that’s a salary cap savings of $27,413,333 -- more than enough to bring in at least one player from among available superstars LeBron James, Dwayne Wade, Chris Bosh, Dirk Nowitski, or Amare Stoudamire. The first three of that quintet each have a player option of $17,149,243 in 2010-11; Nowitski has a player option of $21,513,524 that year; and Stoudamire’s contract expires after the 2009-10 season.
Though they will probably contribute well for the remainder of this season and next year, there’s a good chance that the three newest Knicks may serve as nothing more than roster placeholders until the Knicks’ lineup is again revamped between now and prior to the 2010-2011, when it’s very possible that Harrington, Mobley, and Thomas could all again be playing elsewhere.
On the other hand, as much as Randolph and Crawford provided offensively, they lacked what guys like the hard-nosed Mobley can provide defensively. Should Harrington, Mobley, or Thomas exceed expectations, it’s possible that the Knicks could build around any or all of those three in addition to their younger core, including guards Chris Duhon and Nate Robinson, and forwards Wilson Chandler, David Lee, and Danilo Gallinari.
Whether or not Harrington, Mobley, and Thomas remain beyond next season though, the Knicks’ primary goal will remain the same –- bring in James and at least one quality sidekick to play alongside him (much like the Michael Jordan-Scottie Pippen duo that the Chicago Bulls used to ride to six championships during their 1990’s dynasty).
The Knicks will be about $46 million under the projected $64 million 2010-11 salary cap, and luring James to the World’s Most Famous Arena would be something that would seemingly fit James very well. One reason is that James certainly doesn’t have a history of shying away from big challenges nor of being the go-to guy on a grand stage. In that sense, New York would offer those things better than any other NBA city. Secondly, James has publicly indicated that he’d like to be the first athlete ever to earn $1 billion. The endorsement potential toward that end is likewise better in New York for James than anywhere else.
Still, the moves that Knicks General Manager Donnie Walsh engineered on Friday are not without risk. What if James opts to stay in Cleveland or decides to go elsewhere outside of New York, and what if none of their backup plans of Wade, Bosh, or others pan out? In those cases, would the Knicks have been better off trying to either add better pieces than what they received for Randolph and Crawford, or trying to build around Randolph and Crawford with other moves over the next few years?
And, of course there’s the Stephon Marbury distraction. When told by D’Antoni that with Crawford gone, 30-35 minutes were available for Marbury to play on Friday night in Milwaukee, Marbury declined, and did not play in either the Knicks’ loss to the Bucks or the following night in the Knicks’ win over Washington at home, citing that he didn’t want to play knowing he’s not part of the Knicks’ plans beyond this season. After that, Marbury may not be in the Knicks’ plans beyond even the coming week. However, because of Marbury’s high salary, the Knicks and Marbury remain at a stalemate until either a buyout agreement can be reached or until Marbury completes the final season of his current contract in April, while remaining on the inactive list.
Despite those concerns, it appears at first glance that Walsh has done the right thing. Since their successful playoff teams in the 1990’s, the Knicks have suffered through too many bad seasons with no direction or goal beyond trying to simply make the seventh or eighth seed in the Eastern conference playoffs, knowing they’d likely be done after one playoff round. At least now, the Knicks finally have something they lacked for too many years -– a real plan beyond just the short-term.
It’s possible that Friday’s moves could only sink the Knicks’ future further into irrelevance than what their recent past has been, but they at least they demonstrated that Walsh has the ability to see into the future, a deficiency of Walsh’s predecessor’s, Knick GM’s Isaiah Thomas and Scott Layden.
Perhaps Walsh sees the Knicks in 2010-11 and beyond through the green prizm of one of their division rivals. Walsh and the rest of the NBA world saw the Celtics go from 24 wins two seasons ago to an NBA title the following year, by adding the right pieces.
Walsh has succeeded in doing with his team’s salary cap in under one year what Thomas (not Tim!) and Layden failed to do over several years. As a result, the Knicks are finally in the right financial position to not only make James the Knicks’ answer to Kevin Garnett, but to make other potential key pieces the Knicks’ versions of Paul Pierce and Ray Allen, as well.
Time will tell, but the clock is ticking, and now that Walsh has pulled the trigger on dealing Randolph and Crawford, he must now deliver the Knicks’ future.