As each NBA team is eliminated from contention for the 2015-16 title, The Washington Post will look ahead to what they have in store for this offseason. The series continues today with the New York Knicks, who were eliminated from the playoffs Sunday.
There was no way the New York Knicks were going to be as bad this season as they were last year. With a healthy Carmelo Anthony, the addition of Kristaps Porzingis and spending close to $30 million in free agency to sign several players — most notably Robin Lopez and Arron Afflalo — improvement was inevitable.
Improvement, however, doesn’t mean the Knicks were going to be good. And, despite a solid start that created some false optimism in The Big Apple, they were not.
What couldn’t have been predicted, however, has been the drama that’s surrounded the franchise, beginning with Derek Fisher’s incident with Matt Barnes during a weekend trip to visit his girlfriend — also Barnes’s ex — in October, which he then failed to return to practice by the time it resumed Monday because of flight trouble. Missing a practice during the first 10 days of training camp because of attempting to make a 36-hour round trip from coast-to-coast understandably didn’t sit well with anyone, and was the beginning of the end for Fisher, the handpicked coach of team President Phil Jackson, in New York.
Between then and when Fisher was fired in February, however, there were reasons for optimism. Porzingis exceeded the expectations of every reasonable person, showing potential as a difference-maker at both ends and flashing upside higher than anyone besides Karl Anthony-Towns from the 2015 NBA draft — high praise, given that class is already shaping up to be one of the best of the past 10 years, if not longer. Anthony has also had one of his best all-around seasons, including averaging a career-high 4.2 assists.
Since Fisher was fired, though, things have soured. His replacement, longtime Jackson ally Kurt Rambis, has been nothing short of a disaster, and Porzingis has tailed off under the new coach. Depending on whom you ask, it’s either a case of Porzingis hitting the rookie wall or being stifled by Rambis’s insistence he play closer to the basket. More recently, Rambis has taken fire for not playing rookie guard Jerian Grant far more than he is, while also angering Afflalo by benching him for Sasha Vujacic recently.
Meanwhile, Jackson is apparently on spring break.
Add it all up, and the Knicks — as they seemingly always do — are headed for a drama-filled summer, one that could prove to be pivotal for Anthony and Jackson, in particular.
2016 draft picks
First round: None
Second round: None
2016-17 salary cap space (with projected $90 million cap)
$19.8 million ($55.4 million committed to six players; $12.6 million in player options for Arron Afflalo and Derrick Williams; four roster charges for $2.2 million). Doesn’t include non-guaranteed salary for Tony Wroten.
2016 free agents
SG Langston Galloway, SG Sasha Vujacic, SF Cleanthony Early, PF Lance Thomas, PF Lou Amundson, C Kevin Seraphin
Five questions to answer
1. Who will be the coach?
As stated above, the Kurt Rambis Era hasn’t exactly gone swimmingly for the Knicks — not all that surprising, given we’re talking about a coach who went 32-132 in two seasons in Minnesota. Still, it’s clear that Rambis has a strong ally in Jackson, who is doing everything he can to try and keep Rambis in the job moving forward. That even includes floating the idea of being a co-coach with Rambis next season, a truly insane idea.
Let’s say, though, that wiser heads prevail, and Rambis isn’t the coach next year. Who will it be? There appear to be only two candidates available, besides Rambis, who would fit Jackson’s philosophy of being familiar and comfortable with the triangle offense: former Denver Nuggets coach Brain Shaw, and current Golden State Warriors assistant coach Luke Walton.
Walton is a candidate who few, if any, could argue with, given what he’s done with the Warriors this season. But what if he chooses to go to the Los Angeles Lakers, or even just stay in his current job? Shaw was a hot assistant before his Denver stint, but had a disastrous run there. If it’s a choice between Rambis and Shaw, and Jackson won’t look outside of his circle, does Knicks owner James Dolan allow that? Is Jackson willing at all to go outside of his circle to hire a proven coach? If he’s not, and tries to, say, keep Rambis, will Dolan fire Jackson? Any outcome besides Walton taking the job could have wide-reaching ramifications here.
2. Where will Carmelo Anthony be playing next season?
There are things that Anthony could’ve done different during his time in New York — specifically, he could’ve been willing to wait for free agency to come to the team in 2011, which would’ve allowed the Knicks to keep the many assets they traded away to get him from the Denver Nuggets. But, on the whole, Anthony has taken to being a star in New York about as well as an athlete can.
After five years in New York, though, could his time with the Knicks be coming to a close? It certainly seems possible. Anthony holds all the cards in this situation, given his no-trade clause. But if Cleveland starts shopping Kevin Love, and Anthony gets a chance to play with LeBron James — one of his best friends — and have a shot to win a title, is he really going to say no to that? Or would he turn down the Clippers going after him to pair with another close pal in Chris Paul?
Yes, Anthony has enjoyed being a star in New York. But he’s clearly grown tired of losing, and with the explosion in cap space this summer, teams will be interested in making a run at him. And, from the Knicks’ perspective, rebuilding the team around Kristaps Porzingis and draft picks makes lots of sense. If the Knicks can’t get some significant upgrades in free agency, moving on from the Carmelo Anthony Era in The Big Apple is something both sides would be wise to consider.
3. What will they accomplish in free agency?
Speaking of free agency, this is a pivotal summer for the Knicks. They are currently expected to have a little under $20 million in cap space — a number that could grow to about $35 million if Afflalo and Williams opt-out of their contracts, and if the Knicks use the stretch provision to remove Jose Calderon from the roster.
But what will that money buy them? Last summer, the Knicks had big dreams in free agency, but the most notable addition was Lopez — a solid starting center, but certainly not someone who moves the needle. Plus, the eventual long-term position for Porzingis needs to be center, anyway.
Will this year be any different? The Knicks will obviously chase all the big names on the market, from Kevin Durant to Al Horford to Mike Conley. If the big fish pass them by, though, and the Knicks end up with another crop of free agents this summer of the Afflalo, Williams and Sasha Vujacic variety? It won’t look great for the Knicks.
4. What kind of jump can Porzingis make in Year 2?
He’s tailed off a bit as the season has worn on, but there’s little doubt that Porzingis presents a unique opportunity for the Knicks — a chance to truly build around a young talent for the first time since the franchise drafted Patrick Ewing more than 30 years ago. (As an aside: if that doesn’t perfectly sum up the dysfunction with the Knicks, then nothing does).
Porzingis presents the salivating possibility of not only being a 7-foot-3 center that can shoot all the way out to the three-point line, but one that possesses good defensive instincts and is an excellent shot blocker. Plus, on top of all of that, he has the personality to become a megastar in New York, and the desire to be one to go with it.
So what does Porzingis need to do? Get stronger, for one, so he can handle the rigors of an 82-game NBA season. Getting stronger will also help improve his post game, which could use some work. But if Porzingis can make a significant jump in his second year after a very impressive first season, the Knicks could finally have the player capable of turning this franchise around on their hands.
5. Can they find a way to play defense?
Let’s just start this section off with this visualization: the current starting back court for the Knicks is Calderon and Vujacic. This is the runaway winner for the NBA’s worst defensive back court, and probably is the winner of the same title over the past five seasons, if not longer.
Calderon seems to be a prime candidate to be waived using the stretch provision, as noted previously, while Vujacic should be gone as a free agent this summer (though given the love of the triangle at the top of the organization, it is unclear if that will actually happen). But even if they come back, the Knicks need to upgrade defensively at both spots.
Langston Galloway is a solid defender, assuming he can be retained as a restricted free agent, and rookie Jerian Grant is capable of being a solid one, as well, if the Knicks would give him a chance to play more than the spare minutes he’s getting now. But if this team wants to take a jump from being well out of the playoff picture to in it next season, they’ll need to make some substantial upgrades in that area this summer. That is particularly true if they retain Anthony, given he’s not exactly the best defender at small forward — and which is where he’ll be playing if he’s on the Knicks next season.
More in our NBA Postmortem series: