“In New York, concrete jungle where dreams are made of, oh
There’s nothing you can’t do, now you’re in New York
These streets will make you feel brand new
Big lights will inspire you, let’s hear it for New York.”
– Alicia Keys, Empire State of Mind
At least for this playoffs season, the big lights of New York neither inspired the Knicks nor made them feel particularly new. Judging from the beating administered by the aging Celtics, the Knicks rebuilding plan still has much work left. Still, Knick fan should feel good about where the season ended. This time last year, the Knicks were nothing more than a collection of used NBA parts including Al Harrington, Tracy McGrady, and Eddy Curry. Today, they have 2 legitimate NBA All-Stars in Carmelo Anthony and Amare Stoudemire, as well as imminent cap flexibility. The question is: where do the Knickerbockers go from here? We have some thoughts on the roadmap for the Knicks to get to the next level:
1. Fire Mike D’Antoni and hire a defensive minded coach.
No effort to pivot into a championship team can occur without first moving beyond the Mike D’Antoni era. As has been chronicled earlier, it’s doubtful that D’Antoni was ever in Donnie Walsh‘s long term plans, but rather was a means to an end (which was simply: maximizing existing assets to parlay them into 1 or more superstars). The Knicks will have a difficult time proceeding beyond a 3 or 4 seed in the East with D’Antoni at the helm. At the end of the day, defense wins championships, and someone needs to crack the whip on Melo and Amare. Possible candidates that fit the bill may include ex-Knick coach Jeff Van Gundy or recently available coach Rick Adelman. Mark Jackson, a former Knick point guard and early contender for the role that ultimately went to D’Antoni may also fall under consideration here.
2. Re-sign Mr. Big Shot.
There are many reasons NOT to bring Chauncey Billups back. He is an aging point guard whose body seems to be gradually breaking down. He doesn’t figure in the long term plans of a team which probably won’t hit its stride for another 2-3 years. Plus, he’s got that weird peach fuzz mustache going on.
All that being said, Mr. Big Shot wants to return, and if the Knicks are smart, they will re-sign him. Billups and Melo had proven success in Denver and more importantly, Chauncey seemed to be the one guy that had Melo’s ear. Billups provides a player coach on the floor to get Melo to buy into the head coach’s game plan for years to come (this is crucial since we don’t anticipate Billups being around beyond 2012), and a guy who can keep Anthony in check in the locker room. Additionally, in the short term, he gives the Knicks another clutch player to rely on in late game situations.
3. Use the mid-level to sign a long, defensive-oriented two guard who can spread the offense.
Even with a new defensive minded head coach, Knick fans can only hope and pray that Melo and Amare increase their intensity when guarding opposing players. Here’s some news for you — they may get better, but it is unlikely you’ll ever see the consistency you want. All is not lost however. The Knicks need a 2 guard who can flank Billups and provide a night in/night out high level of defensive intensity. There are several swing players who may seem to fit the bill in the upcoming unrestricted free agent class of 2011: Shane Battier, Tayshaun Prince, and Anthony Parker are all available and should be available for the MLE (or less).
Acquiring a player of this caliber also allows them to strengthen their bench by moving Landry Fields back to 6th man.
4. Sign a shot blocking center to allow Amare to play his natural position.
One of Amare’s issues during his tenure under Mike D’Antoni is that he has been frequently asked to assume the center position in D’Antoni’s run-and-gun offense. The current answer for the Knicks: undersized Ronny Turiaf. While Turiaf may be the most enthusiastic player in the NBA, that combined with clean dreads doesn’t alone make him qualified to be the starting center of the Knicks. The new, defense-first Knicks need a presence down low that will serve notice to any guard or forward who dares come in the lane. This player does not need to be offensively skilled at all (and in fact, it is preferable that they prefer to camp out under the basket all day waiting for rebounds and blocks). The free agent crop of 2011 has slim pickings for a player of this caliber, with names like Nazr Mohammed, Theo Ratliff, and Joel Pryzbilla heading the list, so it will be up to the wizardry of Donnie Walsh to find a center who can clog the middle (and do it at what probably will be the veteran’s minimum).
5. Do NOT do anything that will result in lost cap flexibility going into the 2012 free agent market.
Let’s face it, the Knicks with Melo and Amare as their only two superstars have about as much chance of competing with the Lebron-led Heat as Lala has of making a meaningful entertainment career in New York (except for perhaps a recurring role on Charm School with Ricki Lake). Donnie Walsh isn’t done. They need another piece.
As it stands today, the only contracts the Knicks have 2012-13 commitments for are Carmelo Anthony, Amare Stoudemire and Toney Douglas. This would put their cap number in 2012 around $42M (with Amare and Melo totaling roughly $40M). This would leave roughly $16M in cap space available for 2012 (assuming the overall salary cap stays constant around $58M).
The Knicks should not do anything (even if it means compromising on items #3 and #4 above) to affect this cap status. Why? 2012 is the well-documented year that it is likely both Deron Williams and Chris Paul will be free agents. Either player seems to have the disposition to fit well with the Knicks circle of star power and would provide New York with a triumvirate that will finally be competitive for an NBA ring. And in the end, in the bright lights of the Big Apple, that is all that matters.