Heading into the offseason, we figured the New York Knicks would rise or fall next year on the merits of their top-three earners — Carmelo Anthony, Amar'e Stoudemire and Tyson Chandler — because, for the most part, they just didn't have many external avenues through which to improve their roster. With that frontcourt trio combining to make more than $54 million this year and the salary cap set at $58.044 million, if the Knicks wanted to add talent, they were going to have to do two things: get comfortable paying the luxury tax (slated to come in at around $70.3 million this season) and get creative with some sign-and-trades. Two moves announced Monday and early Tuesday suggest that Knicks general manager Glen Grunwald is pretty cool with the latter and has the OK to go ahead with the former.
First, as Yahoo! Sports NBA columnist Adrian Wojnarowski reported, the Knicks agreed to a sign-and-trade with the Houston Rockets that will send three players — combo guard Toney Douglas, second-year forward Josh Harrellson and project center Jerome Jordan — plus cash considerations and 2014 and '15 second-round picks to Houston in exchange for center Marcus Camby, who will receive a three-year, $13.2 million contract to return to Madison Square Garden.
What the trade means for the Rockets depends on your perspective. Woj tweeted following his initial report that Houston continues to try to engage the Orlando Magic in talks for Dwight Howard, accumulating cheap young talent and future draft picks while maintaining cap flexibility in the hope they can make it worth Magic GM Rob Hennigan's while to ship his disgruntled center to Texas, then re-gruntle Howard enough once he gets there to re-sign him long term. To the eyes of NBA.com's Fran Blinebury, though, the Camby move — combined with the decisions to trade Samuel Dalembert for the right to rise a couple of spots in the draft, to let Goran Dragic walk, to send Kyle Lowry to the Toronto Raptors for a future lottery pick and to withdraw their qualifying offer to Courtney Lee — looks an awful lot like Rockets GM Daryl Morey has finally decided to start tanking in search of greener, higher-lottery pastures and a shot at drafting a homegrown star of his own after so many fruitless attempts at trading for someone else's.
As our own Kelly Dwyer wrote in his analysis of the Lowry trade, "It could be a train wreck, or it could be the start of something huge in Houston." Which one remains to be seen (though it's feeling more like the former). For the Knicks, though, importing Camby and re-signing Smith seem to signal an interest in trying to improve the team's chances of rising through the East's second and third tiers in the hope of grasping at the hem of the "top-three or top-four" status Anthony spoke of in May, financial consequences be damned.
At first blush, giving up what amounts to five players and something like $16 million total seems like a really steep price to pay for a 38-year-old who's played 16 years in the league and has nearly 31,000 combined minutes on those long legs. But considering that neither the outgoing players nor the '14 and '15 second-rounders figured to make much of an impact on the Knicks over the next three years and Camby only has a partial guarantee for the third year of his contract, this amounts to New York paying $5 million per year for the next two years for a capable defensive backup at the five, which was an important hole for the Knicks to fill.
Camby isn't the dominant shot-blocker and paint protector he was in his early 30s with the Denver Nuggets, and he's not as fleet of foot in covering the screen game as he used to be (and certainly isn't as adept in that department as Chandler is at hedging, recovering and supporting his wings on the perimeter). But he still blocked just under 5 percent of opponents' 2-point tries while on the floor last year, 15th best in the NBA among players who played at least 500 minutes, and he's likely to be miles more effective on the defensive end than Harrellson, Jordan or Knick-in-name-only Dan Gadzuric — whose $1.4 million non-guaranteed contract for this season is roundly expected to be shopped in yet another sign-and-trade deal that could net New York some additional depth, perhaps in the backcourt or on the wing — were liable to be this season.
More than that, Camby was the Knicks' best shot at being able to give Chandler more frequent breathers this year, which could be critical, since the reigning Defensive Player of the Year has played nearly 5,000 minutes over the last two seasons, turned in his heaviest regular-season workload in five years for the Knicks in 2011-12, and is about to spend his summer in London as Team USA's lone true center in the 2012 Summer Olympics.
If the Knicks can get Chandler closer to the 28 minutes per game he averaged in his championship season in Dallas, they stand a much better chance of keeping him healthy, productive and capable of anchoring yet another surprising top-tier New York defense through a full 82-game slate after putting so many miles on his (apparently rippling) body over the past two years. In theory, Camby allows the Knicks to do that without simply conceding that the team's D will collapse in Chandler's absence, especially if (as many expect) New York also brings back stalwart defensive forward Jared Jeffries to continue papering over its wing defenders' deficiencies when Chandler's off the floor.
Adding Camby also figures to make the Knicks better on the boards, because even at age 38, he's one of the best rebounders in the game. As he had done for the previous two years, Camby led the NBA in total rebound percentage last season, grabbing 22.8 percent of available misses during his time on the court for the Rockets and Portland Trail Blazers. He was especially good on the defensive glass, where only Orlando's Howard snared a greater share of errant shots (33.1 percent to Camby's 32.7 percent), but he was no slouch on the offensive boards, corralling the league's fifth-highest percentage of his teammates' misses (13.3 percent). That last part's particularly important, as offensive rebounding and offensive efficiency were two weak spots for the Knicks last year; New York finished tied for 18th among the NBA's 30 teams in offensive rebounding percentage and placed 17th in points scored per 100 possessions, according to Basketball-Reference.com.
In fairness to New York, the team scored at a 106.1-per-100 clip and pulled in 27.8 percent of available offensive rebounds in its 18-6 finish to the season under Mike Woodson following Mike D'Antoni's resignation, according to NBA.com's stat tool. Both rates would have ranked among the league's top 10 over the course of a full season. But it's hard to know whether that kind of improvement can be relied upon, given the relatively small 24-game sample size, the schedule against which it came (13 of the Knicks' final 24 opponents finished 17th or lower in defensive rebounding percentage, which could've helped boost New York's offensive-board numbers down the stretch) and the fact that those upticks coincided with injuries to Stoudemire and point guard Jeremy Lin, which both moved Anthony up to the four spot (where he was much more effective) and made him the Knick offense's unquestioned focal point and primary possession-user. With everyone healthy and available, that early and mid-season offensive stagnation could once again rear its ugly head.
The Knicks hope to be better offensively next season with a full season of Lin (whose four-year, $28.8 million offer sheet from Houston the Knicks are expected to match before the ink even dries on Lin's signature), the addition of Jason Kidd (who will join the Knicks, presumably for New York's mini-midlevel exception of $3 million per year over three years, once free agents can officially sign on Wednesday), the addition-by-subtraction of jettisoning Douglas and Mike Bibby, a return to health (and Dream-improved post play) from Stoudemire, and a full training camp and preseason to bring it all together. But so many moving parts in the improvement plan means an awful lot of opportunities for things to go wrong, and a move up the league's offensive ranks is by no means guaranteed. So if you're not especially adept at scoring points, trying to create more possessions makes some sense. For the 20 or 25 minutes per game he's likely to play, Camby can help do that.
Speaking of missed shots in need of rebounding ... hey, there, J.R.
Following the Camby move, the Knicks also reportedly agreed to terms to bring back Smith, who joined the team midway through the 2011-12 campaign after spending his lockout and the first half of the season in China, which sounds like it went appropriately J.R. Smith-ily. According to a statement released in the wee small hours of Tuesday morning through his representatives at Creative Artists Agency (the entertainment powerhouse that some think is now basically running MSG) and shared by the New York Post's Marc Berman, Smith "just felt that, despite my other options, NY is the best situation for me." He'll make $2.8 million this coming season, and will hold a player option for 2013-14 (though the price tag there isn't yet clear).
The sight of J.R. back in orange and blue and ready to hoist a few (word to Clyde) probably won't thrill Knicks fans still shaking their heads at Smith's playoff turn against the Miami Heat — a five-game clinic in awful that saw him average one field-goal attempt in every 2.3 minutes of floor time, hit just 31.6 percent of them, make only five 3-pointers in 28 tries and contribute a Player Efficiency Rating of 5.4 (remember, league-average is 15). But, as Seth Rosenthal of the excellent Knicks blog Posting and Toasting points out, someone has to play shooting guard.
Off-guard was (and, frankly, remains) the Knicks' most glaring need, with Iman Shumpert out until at least January rehabbing his surgically repaired left knee and the Knicks considered unlikely to match the three-year, $20 million deal the Raptors have offered last year's starter, Landry Fields. After Douglas' inclusion in the Camby deal, there was literally nobody on the Knicks roster who could play the two on opening night; now, there is.
Add that to the fact that New York will pay less than $3 million for someone who showed during his 40 games in a Knicks uniform the capacity to contribute with his passing, defense and rebounding in myriad lineup combinations, and you can see why Grunwald made the deal. Relying on Smith for big minutes is a gamble no matter how you look at it, but at this price tag, it's a relatively minimal one; the potential upside outweighs the downside.
That may be true of the Smith and Camby signings in particular, in their individual cases, but I remain pretty unconvinced that the Knicks' roster in general has the same kind of upside.
New York appears to be totally cool with paying giant luxury tax bills over the next three seasons. For proof of that, you need look no further than the Knicks choosing to take the break they got when an arbitrator ruled in favor of the players union in a labor case concerning whether players who had been waived by one team and signed by another — such as Lin and forward Steve Novak — could retain their Bird rights and take advantage by breaking open the vault. Freed by the arbitrator's decision to spend over the salary cap to retain these two free agents, the Knicks made it clear that they intend to match Houston's $7-plus million per year offer sheet on Lin and agreed to terms with the sharpshooting Novak on a new four-year, $15 million deal.
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Now, add in Camby to bolster the bench and Smith to keep the off-guard slot warm until Shumpert comes back before returning to his second-unit scorer's role, and the Knicks have committed "something like $76 million this season, $77 million in 2013-14 and as much as $85 million or so in 2014-15, depending on how much Kidd's and Camby's contracts are guaranteed that season" for nine players, according to the number-crunching of SI.com's Zach Lowe. As we said up top, the Knicks can still use Gadzuric's non-guaranteed deal to try to hash out another sign-and-trade for some more help, but they'll likely have to fill out the bench with veteran minimum free agents as the summer drags on. Plus, as Lowe points out, due to the terms of the collective bargaining agreement, tax teams like the Knicks won't be able to use sign-and-trades, the full $5 million mid-level exception or the $2 million biannual exception to add outside free agents while spending beyond the so-called $74 million "apron."
From here on out, for the next two years, this group — Chandler, Stoudemire, Anthony, Camby, Novak, Kidd, Smith, likely Lin and perhaps Jeffries — is what the Knicks will put out on the court every night. I don't know about you, but barring Lin and Kidd miraculously healing the well-known 'Melo/STAT offensive fissures or Shumpert turning into an elite two-way two-guard, I don't see too great a chance that this collection has enough to compete with the likes of the defending champion Miami Heat. And, depending on how things shake out with the Brooklyn Nets, Boston Celtics and post-Derrick Rose injury Chicago Bulls, might not have enough to be any better than the fifth or sixth best team in the East.
All of which means that, in two years time, we may very well be talking about the Knicks spending nine figures in salary to be a middle-of-the-pack team and just biding their time until 2015-16, when the books are almost entirely clear and the team can take another shot. Again. Still. After all that.
Oh, well. If you're going to be throwing good money after bleh, at least it's James Dolan's money.
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