There is a lot of rejoicing going on in New York today. Yesterday, the New York Knicks scheduled a press conference to announce the hiring of Phil Jackson as their new president. Jackson will receive a five-year contract with a $12 million annual base salary. The contract will also include incentives that could pay him up to $3 million more per year. Jackson brings a championship pedigree to New York, along with his famous zen aura, but the future of the Knicks looks rather bleak in spite of the hiring.
Obviously, a team that is undergoing such a drastic change in management has to have on the court issues. The Knicks, in their current construction, have a mediocre-at-best level of talent. Carmelo Anthony is still a legitimate star player, but Andrea Bargnani was a solution to nothing, Tyson Chandler is on the downside, J.R. Smith has been a disaster, and Amar’e is a shell of his old self. Most of their solid players are all in the latter half of their careers. Their only young prospect is rookie Tim Hardaway Jr., who to their credit looks to be a promising role player going forward. What this roster has resulted in is a team that is still 13 games below .500 despite playing in a weak conference.
Jackson should have no trouble evaluating who needs to stay and who needs to go, but the biggest problem he is going to run into as president of the Knicks is the bleak nature of their salary cap in the future. The team has no choice other than to build around Anthony, but that may not be in the cards. Anthony has the option to opt-out of his current contract at the end of the season, and unless Phil Jackson can convince him to stay along for the tall task of making the Knicks relevant soon, the team could lose its best player.
It will be difficult with or without Anthony. The Knicks will be well over the salary cap next year whether or not he stays. Even if the cap rises for the 2014-15 season, the Knicks are currently projected to be more than $30 million above it if Anthony either re-signs or declines to opt out. If he bolts, they would still be in the range of $7-15 million over the cap, and still unable to sign any big time free agents. The incredible trio of Bargnani, Amar’e, and Tyson Chandler will be making almost $50 million next season. One sign of relief for Jackson and the Knicks is that all three of those contracts expire after next season, when the team could finally have cap space for the first time in quite a while.
In spite of this, the Knicks are missing the single biggest tool that a rebuilding team needs to succeed: draft picks. Their first rounder in the upcoming draft–in which they are currently a lottery team with a deep pool of prospects–was sent to Denver as part of the Carmelo Anthony trade. They currently hold a 2015 pick, because the NBA does not allow a team to go two consecutive years with a first rounder, but their 2016 pick was burning such a hole in their pocket they traded it twice. First, Denver has the option to swap picks with the Knicks, but no matter what the Knicks pick is headed to Toronto from the Bargnani trade. Draft picks are a necessity for creating depth and having cheap players that allow a team to spend on veterans. Even the Miami Heat, a prime example of a team built through free agency, have had several important players acquired through the draft or draft trades (including starting point guard Mario Chalmers).
While the Knicks have had numerous leadership changes in recent years, the one constant through all of their troubles has been their owner, James Dolan. Forcing Dolan to be patient will be the key to New York’s success. If Jackson can convince the Cablevision CEO that the Knicks will simply need to suffer for a year or two while they await cap space and a first round pick, the team may be able to work its way out of their ditch. If Dolan’s patience wears thin, as it is prone to do, the Knicks could end up making a panic trade like they did this past year with Bargnani. No matter what, the immediate future is rather bleak for the Knicks, in spite of their soon to be announced president Phil Jackson.
Commentary by Brian Moore