Arguably, the New York Knicks’ much maligned salary cap situation frustrates a Knick devotee more than the club’s on-court performance. That fan has been promised the world – and another max-player – next season. Considering commitments of time and currency into following a team, can Phil Jackson’s assemblage be competitive this year?
The bulk of the Knick roster holds expiring contracts. In status quo, the Knicks will shed nine players worth $50.8 million prior to next year’s free agency period. The six remaining players with guaranteed contracts – Carmelo Anthony, Jose Calderon, Tim Hardaway Jr., J.R Smith, Pablo Prigioni and Shane Larkin – have a collective annual tab of $40 million. James Dolan’s willingness to part with his all-mighty dollar leaves room for two – potentially three – max-level players.
But what of this season? Assuming Phil Jackson has transformed Knicks’ management to adequate levels of competency, the obvious factor in any transaction this offseason would involve avoiding taking on further salaries. Even if they tried it would be difficult.
The salary-bloated organization owes approximately $91 million to its present-day roster. It would appear that having a free-wielding NBA spending spree can actually be a detriment. Sure, Dolan accedes to forfeit tens of millions in luxury tax to exceed the $76.8 million threshold. Salary cap rules, however, punish that excess.
As illustrated in the Related Article above, exceeding the apron tax – set at $80.8 million – limits acquisition of new, presumably better, players in considerable ways. With fewer cap exceptions, the Knicks are unlikely to improve by signing free agents to one or two-year contracts in the $1m to $5 million range. The team is also unable to receive a player in a sign-and-trade, a significant appeal for potential free agents. In any trade, the Knicks will also not be able to take on the customary 125% of outgoing salary in a trade, limiting their trade options.
Still, should the Knicks acquire a notable player to improve in this offseason, the trade route is the only option. A team offloading such a player is typically in rebuilding mode. To facilitate rebuilding, the established NBA convention is to trade away assets in lieu of players with expiring contracts. The idea, of course, is to acquire draft picks or salary room in the upcoming season in order to completely retool the roster. This deliberate corrosion of talent, better known as tanking, also improves the team’s own position in the upcoming draft.
The Knicks themselves are hardly ever in rebuilding mode. Its current roster has enough expiring deals to qualify as a tanking enabler. The sole motivation to take on salary and forego next season’s anticipated cap space would be to target a player able to catapult the team up the standings for years to come. The team would also have to make a trade fit around one or both of their most attractive expirings – Stoudemire ($23.4M) and Bargnani ($11.5M) – with Shumpert and Dalembert expirings as fillers along with their 2015 first-round draft pick.
Around half of the league is, or should be, in rebuilding mode. In the Eastern conference, Atlanta, Boston, Detroit, (now) Indiana, Miami, Milwaukee, Orlando and Philadelphia should see the upcoming season as a lost cause. In the Western counterpart, Denver, the Lakers, Minnesota, New Orleans, Phoenix, Sacramento and Utah should do the same.
The majority of these teams fall into one of four categories:
(1) The team is already below the maximum cap or will get there by 2015. The 76ers or Magic will not benefit from a salary-dumping trade;
(2) The team will not part with their core young talent. The Kings or Suns cannot make any Knick trade numbers balance without including Cousins or Dragic;
(3) The team would like to receive legitimate talent in return. The Wolves made Kevin Love available on condition that they receive a young, talented starter in return. Bargnani doesn’t fit the bill.
(4) The Knicks would not be willing to take on a drudge of mediocre talent with excess multi-year salaries. Phil Jackson is hanging up the phone on the Nuggets or Jazz.
Outside these categories, the Knicks are looking only at one possible trade partner: the Celtics. As one of the worst teams in the 2013-2014 season, the Celtics did not improve its roster for the upcoming campaign. Despite its futility, its current payroll is the fourth highest in the league, further burdened with the luxury tax. The Boston franchise, which seems not to have a particular direction or strategy at this time, is sitting on Gerald Wallace’s albatross contract that demands unloading. It also has a major asset in Rajan Rondo that would fit the Knicks need at point guard.
Rondo would be an ideal addition for New York. In a city replete with guard talent, its professional team has not starred a traditional point guard in 20 years when Mark Jackson commanded MSG. Rondo, who also has an expiring contract, is unlikely to re-up with the Celtics due to their bleak immediate prospects. In trading him, and potentially unloading Wallace’s $20M salary, the Celtics can retain some assets and cap relief.
In return for Rondo and Wallace, the Knicks can offer Stoudemire, Tim Hardaway Jr.’s favorable deal, and the Knicks 2015 draft pick – which likely will be in the lottery. Going for an all-out blockbuster, the Celtics can also take on Bargnani’s expiring while relinquishing the $18M Jeff Green – a functional player trapped in NBA mediocrity. All parties appear to benefit.
The Celtics add cheap talent and draft picks, while shedding enough salaries in 2015 to halve its current payroll, bottoming out even faster. The additional $40 million added by the Knicks is not as significant as negotiating a multiyear extension with Rondo. If Phil Jackson can extend Rondo in the $15M range for four years, the Knicks’ new Melo-feeder will be worth the added financial obligations for an extra year.
Should the Celtics prove to be an unwilling trade partner or should the Knicks fail to come to reasonable terms on a Rondo extension, no hopes of improving the team will materialize this offseason. Then, with their sights firmly set on the 2015 free agency, perhaps NYK fans should sit out this season as well.