February 22, 2011

Melo-to-MSG: What’s Next in the Knicks’ Quest?

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After living for months in shades of the inevitable, the Melo-to-MSG deal finally went down on Monday evening, bringing small forward Carmelo Anthony to the Knicks, a cadre of young, high-ceiling players to the Nuggets and some much needed rest for dozens of NBA execs and media members.

The Melo price tag? In the end, exactly what Knicks fans and management could have predicted it would ultimately be: Wilson Chandler, Danilo Gallinari, three draft picks and cash. In addition, the Knicks sent along reserve center Timofey Mozgov and swapped point guards (Raymond Felton for Chauncey Billups) with Denver.

In a separate deal, the Knicks also sent Eddy Curry and Anthony Randolph to the Minnesota Timberwolves for small forward Corey Brewer.

In a recent ESPN.com article, Knicks coach Mike D’Antoni summed-up the current state of his club.

“We think we moved the rock ahead a little bit, but let’s do not get carried away and think now we’re challenging Miami, Boston and all these teams. We’re just not there yet,” he said.

While Madison Square Garden will be in a certifiable frenzy when the Knicks take the court on Wednesday against the Milwaukee Bucks, the coach is right: The Knicks are just not there yet. D’Antoni and Knicks President Donnie Walsh know building a championship team in New York takes more than two prized forwards and a bunch of role players.

So what will it take for the Knicks to get “there?” Considering the state of the current roster and the limited number of draft picks New York has in the next two years, free agency is the only foreseeable vehicle through which the Knicks brass could bring in a third high-profile, elite player.

Before the Carmelo deal was decided upon — in fact, months before negotiations even began in earnest — Chris Paul had been linked to MSG in what would be the Eastern Conference’s second set of “Super Friends.” The three all-stars are all good pals — so much so, in fact, that at Carmelo’s wedding to television personality LaLa Vasquez in July, Paul made a now-infamous toast to forming a new Big Three in the Big Apple.

The addition of Chris Paul via his free agency in the summer of 2012 makes obvious sense. Paul is a legitimate all-star, and perhaps the best point guard in all of basketball. Paul, however, would of course come only in a max-salary deal.

While no one — not even the parties involved — have any true idea of what the new NBA collective bargaining agreement may look like, most analysts agree that one likely change would be the institution of a hard salary cap. Instead of the league’s current “soft” cap (which imposes taxes and fees on teams who surpass the cap, while allowing for a number of roster exceptions), a “hard” cap would have little to no wiggle room. While some may argue that big blockbusters like Melo-to-MSG are good for the league, such advocates would find no such sympathizers in small-market team owners (like Cleveland’s Dan Gilbert) who will be sitting at the CBA negotiating table.

In short, Carmelo teaming up with Amar’e gives the league’s owners that much more motivation to push for a hard cap.

The Knicks signing Paul or fellow all-star free agent-to-be point guard Derron Williams in 18 months is an obvious goal of the franchise, and would turn the club from a playoff team into a championship team. Yet, a hard cap would make such a signing practically (if not completely) impossible. So, if Donnie can’t play “fantasy GM,” what signings would make sense for the club?

The Knicks foremost need is at center. The addition of Anthony does nothing to improve the team’s miserable defense up-front, and the loss of Mozgov leaves the depth at the five to only Ronny Turiaf, a career reserve player. This off-season, New York could target a complementary player like DeAndre Jordan of the Clippers, who is set to become an unrestricted free agent. Jordan’s limited offensive skill-set (only seven points per game) will keep his pre-tag relatively low, yet his game would fit in well with the Knicks. He has experience playing in a fast-paced system and starting alongside a star big man, and has very quietly become one of the league’s better inside defenders and rebounders. Or, the Knicks could push the price-tag a bit more and get more production with a player like Tyson Chandler, who will also be an unrestricted free agent.

The perfect target, however, would be Memphis’ Marc Gasol. While Gasol will only be a restricted free agent (meaning his current team will have the option of matching any offer), the front-office down in the River City is going to have to ante-up to re-sign point guard Mike Conley and high-scoring power forward Zach Randolph (remember him Knicks fans?) this off-season. A strong New York offer for Gasol could leave the cash-strapped Memphis with no option but to let their young center walk.

Gasol’s style of play is perfect for D’Antoni’s Knicks. Only 26, Gasol’s numbers are impressive: 12 points, seven rebounds, and nearly two blocks per game for the Spanish 7-footer (7-foot-1, to be exact). He moves down the court with the speed, agility, and ball-handling of a player half his size.

For those Knicks fans gung-ho for a new point guard, Conley and Houston’s Aaron Brooks, who are both set to become restricted free agents, could be targets for a team like the Knicks, who could out-bid a small-market club.

Regardless of whatever moves New York makes next, to quote Amar’e, “the Knicks are back.”

Original Author: Holden Steinhauer