5:44 pm Dec. 12, 20112
As recently as late last week, the waiting game the New York Knicks were playing to assemble just the right team, which has been ongoing since Donnie Walsh began the overhauling process in 2008, appeared set to continue for at least another season.
After spending two years clearing salary-cap room to acquire LeBron James, settling for the still-impressive Amar'e Stoudemire, the Knicks endured the better part of the 2010-11 season waiting for the Denver Nuggets to trade Carmelo Anthony to them. But that trade robbed New York of almost all its other talent, leaving the team in need of a long-term answer at point guard, at least one sharpshooter, and most of all, a defensive presence at center.
With point guards Chris Paul and Deron Williams, along with center Dwight Howard headed for free agency after this season, it seemed likely that the Knicks would wait out those three for one more season, preserving the room they had under the salary cap and hoping that one of them would head to New York, either via trade or as a free agent next summer.
But the Knicks shocked much of the basketball world by signing center Tyson Chandler, most recently of the NBA champion Dallas Mavericks, to a four-year, $56 million contract this weekend. The move, along with a number of other moves made necessary as a result, means two things: the Knicks now have very little room, salary-wise, to fill out a roster that still has a number of gaping holes. In addition, though, it means the waiting is over, and the Knicks are reaching for the championship ring now.
In Chandler, an athletic 7-foot-1 center, the Knicks aren't getting another superstar in the mold of a Paul or a Howard. But this isn't necessarily a disadvantage as New York tries to supersede the trio of James, Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami. While Bosh often struggled to get touches and did little to help Miami defensively last season, Chandler is one of the finer defenders and rebounders at his position. An offense that will already need to find possessions for Stoudemire and Anthony will be able to accommodate Chandler.
"I know what my job is coming here," Chandler said at his introductory press conference on Saturday. "I know I came here to defend. I'm going to defend the rim, I'm going to rebound, I'm going to get extra shots. And I think if we play on both ends and play as a team, the sky is definitely the limit for this squad."
On paper, this should be the most complete Knicks front court in decades, since the Willis Reed-Dave DeBusschere-Bill Bradley trio that gave the Knicks their last championship back in 1972-73. Anthony is an elite scorer, Stoudemire a tremendous scorer and plus rebounder, and Chandler will provide a double-double on most nights while blocking shots and generally making up for other defensive lapses around the basket.
However, the cascade of moves made to bring Chandler in didn't leave this season's Knicks with great options to fill out the roster.
For one thing, New York needed to use the new N.B.A. amnesty clause—a team can waive a player, getting his contract off of the books for salary cap purposes—on point guard Chauncey Billups. It isn't as if Billups lacked starting point guard talent, but his salary of more than $14 million in 2011-12 would have kept New York from having the room under the cap to add Chandler.
The Knicks also forfeited the right to add a player this season at the $5 million annual salary level—a veteran exemption to the salary cap—by exercising that amnesty clause. And they don't even have the option of paying any cash to another team in a potential trade—the maximum of $3 million may be used in one year on a trade, and they needed to send that to Washington to convince the Wizards to take Ronny Turiaf (and more importantly, Turiaf's $4 million-plus salary) off their hands to make room for Chandler.
So the Knicks now need to fill out a starting backcourt, find rotation members who can hit perimeter shots, and front-court players to rest Chandler and Stoudemire. And they'll need to do so by utilizing an uninspiring group of in-house players.
Inconsistent third-year point guard Toney Douglas seems to lack the decision-making skills necessary to run a Mike D'Antoni up-tempo offense. Just-signed point guard Mike Bibby, whose play for Miami last season got him benched in the playoffs, would be a perfect fit if he returned to his level of play from five years ago. Shooting guard Landry Fields slumped badly over the latter half of last season. And recent draft picks like guard Iman Shumpert, interior players Josh Harrellson and Jerome Jordan are largely unknown quantities.
They are also all the Knicks have to offer, along with a $2.5 million cap exemption salary slot, to buttress the roster prior to the December 25 season opener at home against the Celtics. The hope remains that someone like Cleveland's point guard Baron Davis (who could be amnestied the way Billups was), former Knick combo guard Jamal Crawford or long-range shooter Shawne Williams, who helped the Knicks last season, will take that slot to play for a playoff-bound team.
If not, the Knicks could land a point guard like Raymond Felton or Steve Nash next summer, once they have the larger, $5 million exemption back to use. But don't expect New York to keep any roster spots or roles open in the meantime. The waiting period is over.