Where do the New York Knicks go from here?
By JARED DUBIN
The sky is falling.
Well, not really, but if you based your entire view of the universe on the reaction of Knicks fans in the immediate aftermath of their falling from second to fourth in the NBA Draft Lottery, you'd be forgiven for thinking the foreboding cumulonimbus clouds were about to swallow all of us down here on the Earth's surface.
The Knicks, though, still have plenty of options, and a bunch of them are actually pretty appealing. No, really ...1. Trade up
This is technically an option, but the Knicks likely lack the type of assets it would take to move up to Nos. 1, 2 or 3. It takes only a cursory glance at the team's roster and draft pick situation to see why:
- The Nuggets or Raptors will receive New York's 2016 first-round pick due to the Carmelo Anthony and Andrea Bargnani trades, while the Knicks own only one second-round pick between now and 2019
- They can extend qualifying offers to Alexey Shved, Travis Wear and Quincy Acy
- They own the rights to Thanasis Antetokounmpo
- The only players under contract for next season are Carmelo Anthony, Jose Calderon, Tim Hardaway, Jr., and Cleanthony Early, while Langston Galloway has a partial guarantee
Anthony has a no-trade clause and would almost certainly not be dangled as trade-up bait, anyway. Calderon doesn't seem likely to entice the Timberwolves, Lakers or 76ers to move down. Hardaway's value plummeted this season as he struggled with his shot and ... questionable defense. Early's injury issues limited him to just 647 minutes as a rookie, and he showed very few flashes of becoming a future rotation-level contributor, mostly looking lost during much of his time on the floor.
Again, not a realistic option.2. Draft Jahlil Okafor
This scenario hinges on little more than a hope and a prayer that three teams decide to pass on a player that was widely considered the best prospect in the draft for much of the college season. Players like Karl-Anthony Towns and D'Angelo Russell were also being talked about as top prospects, but it was only toward the middle of conference play that Towns began to ascend past Okafor on many draft boards. While Towns seems all but guaranteed to be off the board before the Knicks are on the clock, there have already been scenarios floated where Okafor potentially drops. It's not all that likely, but it's certainlty possible.
Okafor is as polished an offensive prospect as has entered the draft in a very long time. His low post footwork, in particular, is unparalleled for a player his age. Not only is he extremely nimble for a 6'11, 270-pound man, he also possesses great balance, works with the right combination of patience and urgency, and can do damage with his back to the basket or while facing up. Okafor's great hands and soft touch allowed him to finish at a remarkable rate around the basket as a freshman at Duke, and he also often demonstrated excellent court vision when passing out of double teams (which he drew extremely often), occasionally firing cross court bullets with one hand. He even flashed — well, flashed might be being kind — range out to 15 feet or so with his jumper.
All of that makes him an excellent fit for the triangle offense, which places an emphasis on low post play and ideally works with big men that can face up their man off the dribble and make back door passes to cutters as well. That Okafor often makes his home on the right block — Carmelo's favorite home, as seen in the screenshot above — does present a bit of an issue, but the idealized version of the triangle would see both players rotate through that spot and others on any given possession.
Assuming Knicks coach Derek Fisher can get Anthony to buy in — a daunting challenge, perhaps — it could work.
The concerns about Okafor come on the defensive end, where his fleet feet didn't carry over at the collegiate level. He often flailed away against pick-and-rolls during the season, choosing rather haphazardly between corraling the ball-handler and sticking with his own man. Some of the issues were exacerbated by uncharacteristically poor on-ball defense from Duke's guards through much of the season, but Okafor did not do all that much to ameliorate the problems when given the opportunity.
Down the stretch of the season, though, the Blue Devils simply had Okafor hang back in the paint on defense much more often, and the team experienced a greater degree of success. Duke's defense ticked up quite a bit in the run to the NCAA title, and Okafor played a sizable role in that jump. That many NBA centers — most notably Roy Hibbert and Joakim Noah — have found defensive success hanging back in the paint could be a good sign for Okafor's defensive development if he develops the requisite awareness as he adjusts to the pro game.
Surely, though, the Timberwolves, Lakers and 76ers know all this, too, and that's why he seems unlikely to fall out of the top three.3. Draft D'Angelo Russell
Here's where things could get interesting. Towns and Okafor form a bit of a consensus top two, but after that, things are much more up in the air. If the two big men come off the board with the first two picks, the Sixers could go in any number of different directions with the third overall pick.
Russell makes a lot of sense for them as a dynamite pick-and-roll player with a strong jumper, but Sam Hinkie has not showed much (read: ANY) concern for fit when making draft picks the last two years. He's simply going to take whoever he feels is the best player available.
If it were me making the pick, that would be Russell. Much like Stephen Curry (note: I am NOT saying Russell is or will be as good as Curry, just noting a similarity in their approach), nearly everything Russell wants to accomplish on the offensive end is set up with the threat of his pull-up jumper. He'll unleash it from damn near anywhere on the court, for good and for ill. He's a terrific "bad shot maker," but he often puts himself in the position of taking bad shots in the first place by making poor decisions about whether to shoot, pass or continue with his dribble.
Still, Russell has showed an ability to get to nearly any spot he wanted on the floor, has great size (6'5, 190 pounds), and a knack for seeing passing lanes that no rational person would believe existed before the pass arrives at its intended target.
Many have doubted Russell's fit in the triangle because of his strength as a pick-and-roll ball-handler (not to mention Carmelo's expressed concerns about potentially playing with a rookie point guard given the strength of the position in the NBA), but the Knicks didn't exactly run a pure version of the triangle offense in season one of the Phil Jackson Experiment. Fisher actually incorporated significantly more pick-and-roll action late in the year, so New York's offense might not be such a bad fit for Russell's transition to the pros.
The Knicks' is one of the few systems where the point guard doesn't bear sole responsibility for initiating the offense, which would also would allow Russell to do more work off the ball, leveraging his outside shot to create more space for himself and his teammates. That Russell is also left-side dominant is another plus — he could feast off weak-side kick-outs coming from Anthony on the right block. Just look at the sea of red on the left hand side in his chart below. That's beautiful stuff.
Much like Okafor, the questions about Russell come on the defensive side of the court. Also like Okafor, Russell has the potential to be a good defender if he gains the requisite awareness. With almost a 6'10 wingspan, he's got great size and length to guard either backcourt spot, and he did manage to snare 1.6 steals per game at Ohio State. If he puts in the work and locks in his concentration on that end of the floor, he could become a plus defender with time.4. Draft Emmanuel Mudiay
Not nearly as much is known about Mudiay as Russell — simply because he didn't play college basketball in the U.S. — but they are often compared to each other as the draft's top point guards. Mudiay was a top prospect in high school before heading to China for one year, but an injury limited him to just 12 games while overseas.
Mudiay's size (6'5, 200 pounds) and athleticism often engender comparisons to John Wall and Russell Westbrook, but Mudiay doesn't appear to be quite that level of athlete on tape. He's explosive, but not nearly as incendiary as either of those players. Still, he has great quickness, especially with his first step off the dribble, and he displays top-notch court vision when turning the corner out of a pick-and-roll. In cut-ups, highlights and game tape, it's evident that Mudiay is always on the lookout for shooters dotting the three-point arc, especially in the corners.
The way Mudiay attacks in the half court reminds of Monta Ellis in that he's ALWAYS looking to get all the way to the rim. PAGING MR. JACKSON, PAGING MR. JACKSON! #Penetration
Some corrected thoughts:1)like 3pt shooters, check it out, but to play for 3pt shot is an error. Penetration, first principal of offense.— Phil Jackson (@PhilJackson11) May 24, 2015
Ellis, of course, can also stop on a dime, and pull up for a shot or a dish, whereas Mudiay seems to be a far more willing passer, while also making the correct shoot-pass-drive decision more often. That Mudiay tends to get a bit wild with his passes and/or dribble himself into trouble, that isn't exactly surprising from a 19-year-old point guard.
Mudiay is VERY strong, and he uses all 200 of those pounds on his body to absorb and finish through contact when he does get to the rim, with either hand. He also flashed a little bit of a (somewhat raw, but effective) post game, making for an intriguing fit with the Knicks if he lands there, given the offense's emphasis on post play.
Unlike Russell, though, Mudiay is not a strong shooter. His shot doesn't appear to be broken, but it's definitely not pretty. His jumper sometimes looks like it's coming off the inside of his palm rather than the tip of his finger, and when shooting under pressure off the dribble, he lacks great balance, sometimes unnecessarily fading to the side.
Mudiay didn't get the chance to defend many NBA-caliber players in China, but his size, length, strength and quickness are all tools that point to him being able to have success on that end. He averaged 2.1 steals per game in China and there were a few times where he jumped a passing lane and was already there before the ball got even halfway to its intended target. Much like Russell, if he stops taking plays off and locks in with his focus, Mudiay can become a plus defender.5. Draft Justise Winslow
Winslow is a strong offensive player, but unlike the non-Towns guys ahead of him on most boards, he makes his bones with his defense. Winslow is 6'6 and has the length, quickness, agility and strength to guard any perimeter player he comes up against — and probably even some interior players, as well. He was the biggest reason for Duke's defensive uptick late in the season, as once he got fully healthy, they transformed into another team entirely.
Winslow is also the type of defender Fisher can stick on the opponent's best perimeter scorer on a nightly basis and task him with simply making their life difficult, and while he'll have his struggles early on as most rookies do, it won't be long before it's his opponent that's the one struggling. He also managed 1.3 steals and 0.9 blocks per game (in 29.1 minutes a night) at Duke — solid athletic indicators that point to his strong defense continuing when he reaches the pros. Also, the fact that he averaged 6.5 rebounds a game bodes well if he's asked to shift up a position and occasionally work as a small-ball power forward.
In New York, Winslow would presumably slot in next to 'Melo at one of the wing slots, hopefully with Anthony in his rightful position as a small-ball four. Drafting the Duke freshman would be a good indication that the Knicks agree that Carmelo should play the power forward slot, a welcome development considering that's where he and the team have fared best since he landed in New York. Playing Anthony and Winslow together could allow for creative cross-matching, or it could simply allow the former to primarily play post defense, where he's been much more successful than when guarding in open space.
On offense, Winslow showed a similar left-side dominance to Russell — not surprising given that they are both left-handed — he knocked down 50 percent of his threes from the left wing, and 58 percent from the left corner. He also finished extremely well around the rim, and managed to get to the free-throw line 4.0 times per game despite being the third offensive option on his team for much of the season.
He's a very nice open court player, and his defense often fuels his transition offense. Watching him go coast to coast after a steal is delightful. He's crazy strong, and he plays angry as all get out. The best part of his game might just be that he never, ever gives up on a play, on either end. That, or his general jack-of-all-trades-ness.
Winslow doesn't seem likely to develop into a 20-point-per-game scorer, but he can probably give you 15 or so (maybe more if his jumper develops), with six or seven rebounds, and a couple assists, and is potentially an All-Defense-caliber player on the other end. He'd be a great fit.6. Draft Willie Cauley-Stein
Cauley-Stein is basically the inverse of Okafor. There hasn't been as polished a big man defender to come along as WCS in a good, long while. His 1.7 blocks and 1.2 steals a night undersell his defensive ability by a long shot. It is not a stretch to say that he can guard all five positions on the court.
This video doesn't even begin to capture it, because it's from last season. He only got better this year.
Watch him switch onto Notre Dame's Jerian Grant on a pick-and-roll, then completely smother every possible driving lane Grant has before forcing him into a step-back three, which Cauley-Stein then blocks.
Or watch him later in the same game, sprinting end to end with Grant, again cutting off the driving lane, not fouling and forcing another step-back jumper that ended the game.
This man is 7 feet and half an inch, weighs 242 pounds, and he moves like freaking Tony Allen. It's outrageous.
Considering Phil Jackson has expressed interest in acquiring a space-eating defensive big man who can clean up perimeter messes (see: Calderon, Jose; Hardaway, Tim; Anthony, Carmelo; etc.), Cauley-Stein makes a boatload of sense.
But when it comes to the offensive side of the ball, there are some justified concerns. Even as a junior this season, Cauley-Stein didn't show much beyond a pick-and-roll dive game. He occasionally got some post-ups, but he didn't look all that comfortable with them, and his game beyond setting screens and rolling to the rim lacks refinement. That's not to say he won't ever get better or develop into more, but most people look for a foundational offensive player in a top-five pick.
Me? I'd be just fine grabbing a player who can anchor the defense for the next decade, and WCS can do that. Anything he gives you on the other end is a bonus, and with his ability to set screens and stretch the floor vertically, Tyson Chandler-style, you're already ahead of the game.7. Draft Kristaps Porzingis or Mario Hezonja
It seems more than a bit unfair to lump these two together considering they're pretty different players, but I'm doing it because I think the reaction from the fan base would be the same. Fair or not (it's not), seeing one of these guys come off the board at No. 4 after the Andrea Bargnani disaster and the Frederic Weis abomination would not make The Garden faitful very happy. Simply put, the Knicks cannot afford to miss in whatever they chose to do, and rolling the dice on a Euro is a risk that James Dolan is unlikely to take. (Then again, #Bargs.)
If we're talking about their actual skills, I happen to like Hezonja more than Porzingis based on the film I was able to find of each, which seems to be the opposite of how they're slotted on draft boards. Hezonja just has a really quick, smooth release on his jumper and seems like he could pull up from pretty much anywhere and hit bottom. If his name was Martin Herman and he went to North Carolina or something, Knicks fans would probably fall all over themselves if Jackson picked him. But it's not, and they won't.8. Trade Down
This has been brought up a whole lot as an option for the Knicks, but it should be noted that no team has traded down from a top-five pick since 2008, when Memphis acquired the draft rights to No. 3 pick O. J. Mayo, along with Marko Jarić, Antoine Walker, and Greg Buckner, from Minnesota in exchange for the draft rights to No. 5 pick Kevin Love, along with Mike Miller, Brian Cardinal, and Jason Collins. Obviously Love wound up being a significantly better player than Mayo, but the move-down return outside of that was not exactly huge.
Before that, we go back to 2006, when the Bulls sent No. 2 pick LaMarcus Aldridge to the Blazers for No. 4 Tyrus Thomas and Victor Khryapa. Here, Aldridge wound up being much better than Thomas (to put it lightly), and all Chicago got for the trouble of moving down to No. 4 was Khryapa.
Further, no team has traded down and out of the top five while still receiving a first-round pick since 2005, when the Blazers (again) sent the No. 3 overall pick (Deron Williams) to the Jazz for No. 6 (Martell Webster), No. 27 (Linas Kleiza) and a lottery-protected future pick (Joel Freeland). That's a nicer return than the two deals above, but teams seem to have gotten a bit smarter about giving away multiple assets to move up just a few spots in the decade since then.
Theoretically, a trade down seems an enticing way to pick up additional assets (while still landing one of the players above, or perhaps someone a little further down the board like Myles Turner, Stanley Johnson or Trey Lyles), but it just isn't all that common. It especially doesn't often happen as a way to pick up a young veteran that is locked in a friendly long-term deal in addition to a pick. There are, of course, exceptions, but most of the time (like in the 1996 deal where the Bucks and Wolves swapped Stephon Marbury and Ray Allen, or the 1998 trade where the Raptors and Warriors flipped Antawn Jamison for Vince Carter) it's just cash, and failing that, it's for a bit player, especially if you're only moving a few spots.9. Trade Out for Veteran Help
Phil Jackson stated a while back that the Knicks would be more likely to trade out of their pick entirely the farther they fell down the board, and when they landed at No. 4 on lottery night, they fell only one spot short of the farthest they could possibly go. Still, it would be a decidedly poor use of assets to deal their pick for a veteran, no matter where in his career path Carmelo Anthony resides.
Various people have floated the idea that the Knicks could somehow trade the pick — and the pick alone — for someone like DeMarcus Cousins, who may or may not be unhappy in Sacramento, depending what day it is and whose report you're reading.
Allow me to stop that train in its tracks.
Just last year, it took three first-round picks (two of which were No. 1 overall picks, including one of the best prospects in years) for the Cavaliers to land Kevin Love, and Love was due to hit free agency in a year's time. Cousins is younger, healthier, and locked up for longer and on a cheaper deal than Love was last year. His reputation might not be exactly where Love's was at the time, but it's close. Plus, he was just named Second Team All-NBA, as Love was after the 2013–14 season.
It would take a trove of additional assets beyond the No. 4 pick to land someone of that caliber — additional assets that, as discussed above, the Knicks simply do not have. The likelihood of a team biting at Calderon, Hardaway, Early, Antetokounmpo and/or a 2018 first-round pick for a surefire all-star locked in on a long-term deal is very, very slim.
Given that anyone Jackson could acquire with only New York's 2015 pick and its other assets is likely to be a sub-star level player (at best), it it makes very little financial sense to make such a deal given the team's salary cap situation.
The Knicks will FINALLY have cap space this summer for the first time since 2010. If they stay at pick No. 4, they'll have somewhere between $26.8 and $27.5 million in space, per calculations done by ESPN New York's Ian Begley. That's enough space to pay a player the maximum salary and have enough left over for an additional low-level signing or two. Or — considering it seems likely that the true max-level players like Marc Gasol and LaMarcus Aldridge will stay with their current teams (or in Aldridge's case, head to a team with a better chance to win than the Knicks) — it's enough for two or three second-tier signings of players that could help them build the quality depth the club sorely lacked last season.
In addition to those signings, Jackson would have a top-five pick locked in on a rookie scale contract for at least four years, with the right to control him for as many as nine years on a below market deal if he hits on the pick, and signs him to a designated player extension. Given the rate the cap is going to jump over the next few years, this would represent a MASSIVE bargain. Rookie-scale deals for stars are already the best bang for the buck contracts in the league. With the cap set to explode, this will become even more important, especially for the next couple seasons before the players and owners have a chance to renegotiate the CBA.
By dealing the pick away for a veteran, not only do you lose out on a potential star player for pennies on the dollar, but you also eat into this summer's cap space, and make it far more difficult to sign a star or other second-tier players. Not only that, but the incoming veteran will likely need to be re-signed again before the rookie's contract would be up (given the nature of contracts under the current CBA, it is essentially a guarantee), and given that he's a veteran, he's going to cost significantly more than what the draft pick would be paid on his rookie scale deal.
Given the choice between making two free agent signings (potentially one at the max) and having the No. 4 pick on a cost-controlled deal, or acquiring a sub-star veteran via trade and making one lower-level signing, it seems rather obvious that the former is the better play.
In the end, absent a no-brainer deal to move up or down in the draft, the Knicks are going to have to remain flexible, and react (smartly) to what the teams ahead of them do. There is no reason for panic; if Jackson & Co. stay the course, they can get a cornerstone player and retain flexibility to add additional pieces in the seasons to come before Anthony is no longer viable as the team's No. 1 option.
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