Last week I posited five questions that will define the Knicks off-season. The first of those, addressing who will be the Knicks coach next season, has apparently been answered, as multiple reports indicate that Mike Woodson is about to have the “interim” removed from his title – a shiny new three or four year deal as reward for the coach’s stewardship of the franchise following Mike D’Antoni’s unceremonious ouster in March.
With that little bit of business settled – the team had no interest in even speaking with Phil Jackson – attention will now be squarely focused on New York’s fascinating point guard dilemma, a matter as divisive as it is clouded by external factors outside of the team’s control.
Player personnel decisions aside, the impending arbitration hearing on the NBA Players Association’s challenge to the league’s position on Bird rights for waived players has been scheduled for mid-June. The impact of this determination cannot be overstated for the Knicks. Should the arbitrator find that Bird rights – allowing teams to re-sign their own players without regard to the salary cap – do, in fact, travel with a waived player once he is picked up by another club, then New York will be able to retain both Jeremy Lin (waived by Houston) and Steve Novak (waived by San Antonio) and sign a respectable free agent or two. If, however, the union’s position is determined to be without merit, the Knicks’ options will be severely limited, not only with regard to the point guard position, but their overall roster flexibility as well.
As discussed previously here, I still believe there is virtually zero chance that the arbitrator will side with the NBPA.
Which brings us to the matter at hand: Who should the Knicks be targeting at PG, and why? Some folks think Lin is the answer. The only answer. Still others, myself included, think it should be Steve Nash or bust. Ironically, the debate may well be purely academic, as the Knicks may not be on the latter’s wish list.
Of course, as with everything else that happens at the Garden – aside from occasional fits of amazing and even more starts of discombobulation – it is rarely about just the Xs and Os. If it were, convincing Nash to take the Knicks’ mid-level exception – the NBA’s Collective Bargaining Agreement restricts the MLE to $5 million per season for a maximum duration of four years for teams that are over the cap either before or after the signing, but did not pay luxury tax in the previous season – would be the obvious course of action.
But forget the obvious for a moment. Even the most ardent Nash support would be hard-pressed to deny that Lin has produced at an incredible pace thus far during his nascent career. Per Basketball Reference, here’s a snapshot of the first two years of their careers:
Admittedly, comparing statistics between the two is a difficult proposition given Lin’s smaller sample size (he barely played before that fateful second half performance as a Knick against the New Jersey Nets). Still, the players’ production per 36 minutes is revealing in that it suggests Nash to be a better shooter, especially from long-range (we know as much from his career percentages), whereas Lin seems more adept at penetrating and getting to the free throw line. (Nash’s career average is just 2.8 FTA-per-game.) From an armchair-scouting perspective alone, neither is a good defender, though Lin’s size gives him an edge on that side of the floor. Lin is also a better rebounder, though Nash is undeniably one of the best passers to ever play the game, a skill particularly useful when paired with a pick-and-roll finisher like… I dunno, say… Amar’e Stoudemire.
The most obvious reason to bring Nash to the Knicks, even if it means letting Lin walk, is the nature of the team’s construction. This is a win-now squad with Carmelo Anthony, Stoudemire and Tyson Chandler under contract for the next three seasons. Not only is there significant risk that Lin will not be able to live up to the promise he showed during “Linsanity,” but there is also that little matter of ‘Melo playing nicely in the Garden sandbox. What, exactly, will the back pages of the tabloids look like if New York’s mercurial small forward – who actually plays better as a power forward despite the Knicks already having one in Amar’e – finds himself unable, or even worse, unwilling, to coexist with fan-favorite Lin?
In Nash, who turns 39-years-old next February, the Knicks would be getting a proven veteran and Hall of Fame talent, who despite the mileage, remains a superior athlete in amazing physical condition. (Nash has averaged over 33 minutes-per-game since the 2001-02 season and this season produced 12.5 PPG on 53.4% shooting and 10.4 APG.) Anyone who frequently watches the Knicks knows that their biggest problem on offense is their stagnation, mostly due to Anthony’s proclivity toward isolation. One would think that Nash, who has better court awareness than virtually any other player in the league, would excel in feeding ‘Melo the ball, not only at the latter’s preferred locations on the court, but perhaps more importantly, after other offensive options have been exhausted. Hero-ball can work, you see, but it should not be relied upon until at least half of the shot clock has expired. Additionally, unlike Lin, Nash is a lethal shooter, especially from 16-23 feet away from the basket, where he has averaged 48.8% from that range over the last six seasons (data courtesy of Hoopdata.com). Having a player with Nash’s sharpshooting prowess would undoubtedly improve the Knicks’ floor spacing, and presumably make life easier for their bigs.
Alas, as many have pointed out, no one knows whether Nash – despite making his off-season home in Manhattan – is willing to come to the Knicks. And even more have fairly opined that the MSG powers that be now view Lin as the centerpiece of their marketing initiatives, now global in scale.
So what about keeping Lin and signing Nash?
Fat chance. Even if the aforementioned arbitration hearing breaks in the Knicks’ favor, a roster with both Lin and Nash seems highly unlikely for several reasons. First, enticing Nash to come to New York, ostensibly to capture the NBA championship that has long-eluded him, seems somewhat less desirable if Lin is breathing down his neck for minutes and glory.
Secondly, a roster with both Lin and Nash would present significant salary cap issues. Without going into painstaking detail, using the full MLE on Nash would trigger the so-called “apron” – applicable when teams go $4M over the salary cap, now $59M, essentially functioning as a secondary hard cap, meaning the Knicks would not be able to go over $74M for the entirety of next season for any reason. With approximately $60M already committed to Anthony, Stoudemire, Chandler, Iman Shumpert, Toney Douglas (how does picking up that option look now, BTW?), Josh Harrellson and Jerome Jordan, $5M each for both point guards would leave approximately $4M in cap room to fill out the rest of the roster. Not exactly encouraging as far as depth goes. This doesn’t even take into account the possibility that J.R. Smith actually decides to exercise his $2.5M player option for next season. After all, guys with rap sheets aren’t usually oft-courted in free agency.
In the end, for better or worse, all signs “point” toward Lin running the show in Gotham. Good luck with all that, Jeremy!
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Image courtesy of Getty Images/Chris Trotman