If you asked any Knicks fan before the season if they would take a trip to the playoffs and a trade that brings them Carmelo Anthony this season, they would have taken it.
But it’s premature to hang the “Mission Accomplished” banner.
The Knicks accomplished goals and a good season. You can say they are back. But the Celtics sweep showed just how far the Knicks as currently constructed are from contenders. Only the first part of the job is done, there is hard work left before a real banner can be hung.
It appears that the Knicks are going to bring Donnie Walsh back, not just for next season but for two more years. As it should be. The man cut the payroll in half while getting Amar’e Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony in house (Anthony at a steep price, thanks to the Knicks owner). He found Landry Fields and got solid role players in place. He did the hard work of laying a foundation for a title team, he should be allowed to finish the job.
If Walsh is safe, it’s likely Mike D’Antoni is safe too. That is going to anger some Knicks fans who will say his teams don’t play defense. I would say you can’t say his teams don’t play defense until you give him some players willing to play defense.
Then we get to the on the court issues. There are two key areas to deal with this offseason — and no, the answers are not Dwight Howard and Chris Paul. Well, those would be good answers, but I prefer to live in reality not in a magical chocolate factory with golden tickets needed for entry (even if Knicks ticket prices make it seem like the tickets should be printed on gold). Those two may be the long-term dreams, but you are not getting them before next season (whenever that starts). And maybe not ever. So, back to our questions.
Do the Knicks bring back Chauncey Billups?
He’s an aging point guard who is due $14.2 million next season, and the Knicks have five days now to pick up his extension for next season or let him walk as a free agent.
Billups at the point changed the Knicks from what Raymond Felton had done. Less pick and roll, for one. But he also brought better scoring — 17.5 points per game — and an ability to get to the line. He hit some big shots and he seemed to be figuring out. He can rack up more assists, he’s a smart player who can adjust and fit his game with D’Antoni’s up-tempo system. But he also will turn 35 next month. He broke down during the playoffs this season, a sin that seems unforgivable to some Knicks fans.
Keeping him pushes the Knicks up to $58 million in payroll. It also gives them a big expiring contract to trade, which may be the best option.
The other real question — who can you get that’s better? Paul is much more likely to come as a free agent in 2012 if he comes at all (and if they have the cap room under whatever the new CBA system is) than in a trade. Billups is still better than much of what is out there. Better than Toney Douglas (unless you hate assists and like your guards to be gunners). There may not be a better choice for one more season.
The more pressing need is to find defense in the form of a shot blocking, rebounding, big presence in the middle center. That is the Knicks biggest need. Which puts them in the same boat as about 20 other teams. There just are not a lot of those guys out there, and the ones that are out there are coveted. And expensive.
Marc Gasol becomes a restricted free agent this summer, but the Grizzlies likely would match anything the Knicks offer. And again, we don’t know what the financial system will be, so the Knick may or may not be able to make a serious offer for him, but you can bet the Grizzlies will have the upper hand. (Smart money says there will still be strong incentives for teams to be able to keep players, and Memphis very much wants to keep him.)
Still, by trade or free agency, the Knicks need a real big man who can own the paint on defense.
After that, it’s about finding role players that fit the system. Landry Fields has a spot. Ronny Turiaf is nice as an energy big man off the bench, Douglas as some scoring punch from the guard spot. But guys that fit the system and can play with Stoudemire and Anthony can be found.
The Knicks have their foundation, but the Celtics showed what a fully built house looks like. What a contender looks like. And the Knicks still have a ways to go to get there.
But at least it looks like Walsh will be doing the building. Which is a good start.