There is a dominating principle in sports that helps frame the nature of each individual league. It is rooted in the fundamental principle that no player or team can peak forever. How I interpret this is through an idea that I call the “Timetable of Contention”. The idea can be used for different levels of success (division wins, playoff appearances, etc), but I typically use it for championships as that is the primary goal of management. Every team in every league (besides baseball, which has a different system because of the lack of a salary cap and massive salary discrepancies) has one. In a proper Timetable of Contention, a team could reasonably win a championship in those years. Naturally, they would not every year, but they would be in the likely pool of champions, which has held pretty firm in the NBA for my entire lifetime. Typically, these are defined and limited by a few central factors which I will detail below along with numerous other minor ones.
What I plan to do over the coming weeks is to analyze each and every NBA team with this lens in a feature now titled “Framework of a Franchise”, though I’m totally open to suggestions for better titles. My basic goal is to determine a reasonable Timetable of Contention for each team, noting potential deviations or alternate ones as well, accompanied by analysis of the roster and discussion of which current pieces fit in with my proposed timetable and which ones do not, as well as some ways to convert non-fitting parts into the greater scheme (trades, potential draft picks, and signings) as well as one potential roster that would fit in with that philosophy.
The Key Factors:
–Effectiveness and Ability of a Star Player (Suns are limited to however long Steve Nash can maintain his current level of performance or reasonably close to it)
–Current Talent Level (The Cavaliers do not have adequate talent to compete for titles in the immediate term)
-Roster/Cap flexibility (If and when a team will have the ability to meaningfully change their roster, either through reasonable trades or using cap space to bring in new talent)
–Development of young players (It will take 2-4 years for the young core of the Timberwolves to be at a meaningful level of contribution)
–Deterioration of older players (When will Tim Duncan lose effectiveness?)
First Up: The New York Knicks
Where they are now: The Knicks are unquestionably a lottery-bound squad that has talent, but major chemistry issues and mis-mashed players bog the squad down. The other significant factor that must be discussed when talking about the Knicks is their salary cap situation. The Knicks are essentially $30 million over the salary cap this year, closer to doubling the cap than approaching it, which is jarring to say the least given their record and future prospects (at least in the near future). However, New York does have some compelling pieces, including David Lee, who I see primarily as a great energy PF off the bench (but phenomenal in that role), Renaldo Balkman who can develop into a dynamic NBA SF, and Mardy Collins, who has interesting potential as a guard.
The Timetable of Contention: Unlike many other teams, the Knicks have some very clear restrictions on their Timetable. First of all, they have an inordinate amount of long-term contracts, which help set the stage. Secondly, their level of talent is glaring proof that they will need to add talent through the draft, trades, and free agency in order to make meaningful strides in their division and conference. For all intents and purposes, the Knicks are stuck over the cap and the luxury tax for both the current season and the 2008-2009 campaign. Ideally, they would be able to break the shackles of their contracts following that season (when Lebron James could enter Free Agency assuming he opts out of his current deal at that time), yet their $58m in committed salary for that season with a salary cap somewhere around $61m at that point makes that an unlikely solution. As such, the Knicks should be targeting the 2010-2011 season and the few years subsequent as their optimal Timetable of Contention.
How to Utilize that Timetable: While most people see the Knicks’ situation as a huge negative, there are numerous positives that become much more evident with a more clear and specified plan of attack. First of all, there is their James Dolan’s (their owner) willingness to pay the luxury tax. Because of the Knicks’ revenue structure, Mr. Dolan is willing to hemorrhage millions upon millions of dollars for a putrid team. Imagine what he would do with the potential of taking his team to the playoffs or possibly bringing a championship back to New York City. This may not sound like a huge deal to some people, but it can be a significant piece of making a competitive team. Take the example of the Phoenix Suns- their ownership being unwilling to pay the luxury tax has forced them to sell all their late round picks for fractions of their worth in terms of improving the depth of the team, a fatal flaw which could definitely prevent them from winning an NBA title with Steve Nash in his prime. If the Knicks can pull talent, they can keep it there with Dolan’s deep pockets, and that means the world. The other huge advantage for the Knicks is the situation surrounding the franchise. Players can be drawn to the team because it is a “glamour franchise” in the NBA and in the city where an entrepreneur player could make significantly more money than just their contract. One astonishing example of this is the rumored clause in Lebron James’ Nike contract, which has what is referred to as a “location escalator clause”, which in short means Nike would pay Mr. James significantly more money should he end up in a big market like NYC or Los Angeles. These factors work well to make the Knicks a more desirable location (along with NYC being a much more fun place to live than cities like Indianapolis and Minneapolis for most NBA players).
What these factors allow the Knicks to do is take a different strategy that requires a lot of intestinal fortitude and potentially a little luck. In short, what the Knicks should do is go all out in following this strategy, and picking a date in the near future (probably somewhere around the start of next season) and articulate this strategy publicly. I’ll go into the reasons in a bit. The first element in this plan is to move every contract that expires before the timetable goes into effect. Each and every year there are teams angling to get under the cap for the following offseason to try and pull some free agents (or better re-sign their own) and cutting long-term money has its own benefits as well. As such, this turns some of the Knicks’ absolute worst contracts into significant strengths. This offseason, Stephon Marbury’s contract turns into a $21.9m expiring deal, and Malik Rose will have a $7.6m one for himself. Also, given next year’s potential Free Agent market, there will be many teams interested in establishing space, especially if some players who are Restricted Free Agents this coming offseason simply take a qualifying offer and play for Unrestricted Free Agency the following off-season like Mickael Pietrus essentially did this year. The following off-season would make Quentin Richardson and Jerome James’ deals follow the same path. Another key point is that the Knicks simply cannot add any contracts that will push them beyond this 2010/2011 deadline, except rookies of course. That means no Mid-Level exceptions deal for more than a year or two and no acquiring of players who have longer contracts than that. In fact, getting Zach Randolph’s overpaid self jeopardizes the Knicks’ ability to even use that year, as they have around $40m committed to that season right now with his $17.3m.
The key benefit of announcing (and following through on) this plan is that it allows the Knicks to be a factor in the negotiations and thoughts of potential free agents in relevant years before that point. If a guy like Rudy Gay is looking at either signing an extension in 2009/2010 with Memphis or taking the Qualifying Offer for the following year and becoming an Unrestricted Free Agent in 2010/2011, the possibility of the Knicks offering the max to him might change his decision-making process in a meaningful way. Additionally, this strategy would allow the fans to see that there is a clear direction and move towards playing guys who could be actual parts of the Knicks’ long-term vision (Lee, Balkman, Collins, draft picks) instead of wasting minutes on guys like Jared Jeffries and Quentin Richardson in the interim years. Also, by making this policy public, they could foster an extremely compelling environment for players who would love to have an opportunity to make an impression and would take a shorter contract if promised playing time. This could be with D-League and Summer League studs (like the Warriors and Kelenna Azibuike) or through signing high-potential players like James White to one or two-year partially guaranteed contracts. If even one of those players becomes a success, it could pay dividends in the future.
Implementation: Since the Knicks have no expiring contracts, there are no players that require immediate dumping. However, it would be logical for them to look for deals with teams that are already working to clear cap for the 2009 offseason. Two teams that are looking at this already are the Portland Trailblazers and the Minnesota Timberwolves. Neither team can get under the cap in a meaningful way for the coming off-season, but have the pieces to do so for 2009. As such, any team with the willingness to take players off their hands which complicate this would be compensated handsomely for it. Interestingly, the T-Wolves also have some big expiring contracts, which could be then used to pass along to a team desiring that in a three-way trade that could make each team better. One of these is a potential deal between the Knicks, T-Wolves, and Pacers which would send Stephon Marbury’s 2009 expiring to Minnesota with their expiring contracts going to Indiana and the Pacers sending Jermaine O’Neal and his bloated contract to the Knicks.
RealGM Trade ID #4408404 fits the bill pretty well (imagine it with Indy’s Top-12 protected 1st round pick going to the T-Wolves and probably the Knicks 2009 2nd rounder), with Indiana getting to $11m under the cap going into this offseason and losing some significant long-term salary and the Wolves getting another pick and losing no talent. There is also an alternate trade that includes Ike Diogu, but I like this one better. A similar move with Seattle involving Luke Ridnour and/or Earl Watson for cap space works as well. Also, taking on Darius Miles’ contract from the Blazers (and presumably buying him out) in exchange for a PG like Sergio Rodriguez, Taurean Green, or Jarrett Jack would be a smart move as well.
In this year’s draft, the Knicks need to get either their PG or C of the future. Those are the two most important positions to fill on any NBA squad, and they should actually have the chance to get a guy who would fit that niche. If I were the GM, I would look most closely at Brook Lopez, a guy who has the skill to be both an offensive monster and a defensive presence and can run the well surprisingly well for a 7-footer. Bringing in a developmental PG is also essential, whether it be through a trade with a team like Portland or through buying another pick/using their 2nd rounder. For the time being, the Knicks have enough SG/SF players to get by, but that would be a priority in future years, though they are by far the easiest positions to fill. Assuming that the Knicks move guys like Marbury and Malik Rose for things which do not dramatically improve the team, this is one potential 2010/2011 Knicks line-up at the start of their Timetable of Contention:
PG: Brandon Jennings or Jrue Holliday (2009 1st Round Pick)/ Sergio Rodriguez (trade w/Portland)
SG: Jamal Crawford (Expiring) / Mardy Collins
SF: Rudy Gay (Maxed out) / Renaldo Balkman / Wilson Chandler
PF: David Lee / Zach Randolph (Expiring) / 2010 1st Rounder (DeMarcus Cousins is an option)
C: Brook Lopez (2008 1st Rounder- now 3rd Year Pro) / Eddy Curry (Expiring)
IR/D-League: Jared Jeffries (Expiring), Jerel McNeal (2009 2nd Rounder), 2010 2nd Rounder
This team would have somewhere around $38m committed to the cap for 2011/2012 (that includes potential cap holds for every one of the picks and $6.5m per for David Lee, $5.5m per for Renaldo Balkman, and $2.5m per for Mardy Collins). The cap then should be somewhere around $68m, so they could max out a player or two (probably a PF like Yi Jianlian or a SG/SF like Kevin Durant). Of course, they could also use the Rudy Gay money the following offseason to make an even bigger splash (or even get Gay then since he’s a Restricted Free Agent in 2010 and would be Unrestricted in the 2011 offseason).
As always, comments/suggestions are appreciated and encouraged.