2:12 pm Dec. 16, 2011
When we last left the Knicks , they'd made the decision to go for broke in 2012.
After spending years just to undo the mind-boggling damage to the roster perpetrated by former General Manager Isiah Thomas over much of the last decade, the Knicks got under the salary cap in the Summer of 2010 to land Amar'e Stoudemire, and then collected enough surrounding talent to get Carmelo Anthony from Denver in a roster-roiling trade this past spring.
Their next move appeared to be to hoard the remaining salary-cap room for one more year, hoping that elite point guards Chris Paul and Deron Williams or center Dwight Howard would seek a trade to New York, or that one of them would sign as a free agent next summer. With one of those superstars to add to Stoudemire and Anthony, the Knicks would then match up with Miami's LeBron James, Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh, putting them in a position to battle the Heat for the Eastern Conference title for much of the next decade. That was the plan.
But when the defensive-stalwart center Tyson Chandler decided he wanted to sign with the Knicks as a free agent last week, New York grabbed him—a perfect fit for a team in need of rebounding and shot-blocking around the hoop. In the process, they jettisoned point guard Chauncey Billups and center Ronny Turiaf to make enough salary room for Chandler, leaving the team with little margin for error and plenty of holes to fill.
In short, the Knicks were left with one $2.5 million salary exemption with which to land an impact player at shooting guard, point guard, or a key bench role. Hoping that the lure of playing with a front court that projects to be among the best in the N.B.A. would be enough, they offered that contract to a number of guards and small forwards.
But one by one, the Knicks' would-be recruits have turned them down. And with the season opener just nine days away, and the first of two exhibition games Saturday against the Nets, exactly how the Knicks fill out the non-star portion of their rotation remains a huge question.
Let's start with the rejections.
There was J.J. Barea, a solid defensive playmaker who proved a key part of Dallas' N.B.A. championship run last season. He chose Minnesota, and a back-up role to guards Luke Ridnour and Ricky Rubio, over a starting spot on the Knicks. The reason was simple: a four-year contract for more money than the Knicks could afford.
Then there was Jamal Crawford, a former Knick who could have provided scoring punch at the off-guard spot. The Knicks might have landed him with a sign-and-trade with his former club, the Atlanta Hawks, but New York was unwilling to give up point guard Toney Douglas. The team can't afford to give up Douglas—his only backup is Mike Bibby, who looked suddenly past his prime last spring in the playoffs. Crawford signed a two-year deal with Portland, again making more than the Knicks could afford to pay him.
While Crawford debated taking less money to come to the Knicks, New York held back from offering that one remaining salary slot to Shawne Williams, a small forward who'd resurrected his career in New York last season. He would have been a key bench player, providing long-range accuracy that is largely missing from the Knicks' roster at this point. But a combination of irritation over being forced to wait in line behind Crawford, and a chance to make more money—and start—with the Nets, led Williams to choose New Jersey early Thursday morning.
So who is left to help fill out this Knicks roster? Well, there's Baron Davis, who is probably the most talented player mentioned so far as a possibility, and who has expressed a strong preference for playing in New York.
Naturally, there's a catch. Davis has been "amnestied" by Cleveland—it's a new kind of release that allows any other team under the salary cap to bid on him. The Knicks, however, are over the salary cap, and thus unable to bid unless and until all of those teams with cap room pass.
But teams may not bid on Davis at all, because his back—a frequent source of trouble for him throughout his career—contains a herniated disk. Davis is expected to need 8-10 weeks to recover, meaning he'd probably not be available until March. And with a back injury, timetables are written in pencil, as are declarations of health.
Then there's Michael Redd, a shooting guard with six seasons of 20-point-per-game averages, a career three-point percentage of better than 38 percent, and even some playoff experience. What's the catch there? That all came before he tore the ACL and MCL in his left knee in 2009, tore them both again in 2010, and played just 10 games in 2010-11. He could recover his health, but the Knicks certainly wouldn't be able to count on it.
Finally, they're expressing interest in Maurice Evans, a guard/forward and career backup. And with both the Wizards and Spurs interested in Evans as well, they may not even get a chance to negotiate with him.
So it may be that the Knicks are left to cobble together a starting back court and reliable set of back-ups for Stoudemire-Anthony-Chandler and the rest of a roster out of a group of rookies and second-year players like Landry Fields and Iman Shumpert at guard, Jerome Jordan and Josh Harrellson up front, and supplement them with defense-only forwards Jared Jeffries and Renaldo Balkman, along with offense-only point guard Mike Bibby.
Which probably leaves them crossing their fingers and hoping for a return to health from Redd and Davis. For one thing, when both are healthy, they can do it all. For another, the Knicks don't have a choice anymore. After they maxed out on a stellar front court and going for it all, the Knicks' chances in 2012 could be dictated, in the end, by the little people.