The Knicks will have to decide what to do with a half-dozen players after next season due to partial guarantees in their contracts.
The Knicks entered the offseason armed with the most cap space in the NBA—and a lot of possibilities. The sin of not luring some of the league’s best talent to the league’s most valuable franchise falls on ownership. The Knicks haven’t been a stable franchise this decade, and with players holding all the power to decide their fate, they decided to pick a better boss. I can’t say that I blame them.
The fallback plan took effect almost immediately upon free agency. Kyrie Irving made his decision to go home to Brooklyn (Kyrie is from New Jersey, which I guess is in close relation to Brooklyn. Tony Soprano wouldn’t yield for this.) and Kevin Durant soon followed.
What felt like a nightmare scenario—the Knicks losing out on both these superstars to their hometown rival—had been brought to life. With just north of $70 million in cap space, general manager Scott Perry and team president Steve Mills had a contingency plan, and there were multiple deals announced right after the star signings. Taj Gibson, Wayne Ellington, and Reggie Bullock (altered later due to an unforeseen injury) all agreed to one-year deals. Later in the day, Bobby Portis and Elfrid Payton also agreed to a one-year deals.
New York’s management continues to give young players a chance to make it as a long-term piece on a roster built around young Knicks like Kevin Knox and Mitchell Robinson.
Success for each of these players means something different. Some are veterans who will provide a solid boost to the team in a specific area, while others are young players who have bounced around looking for a permanent home. Here, we look at what success may look like for each player, how the season could unfold for them, and how they could get the second year of their contracts guaranteed.
Payton has had a strange career thus far. The Magic coveted him so much in the draft they traded up for him using the rights to Dario Saric and a future first-rounder. Over the next three seasons Orlando placed nothing but mediocre talent around him, causing him force plays heading up the most tiresome offense in the league.
Payton found his way to New Orleans on a one-year deal, and although injuries kept his season to just 42 games, Alvin Gentry’s super fast offense boosted Payton’s numbers and showed off what he can be at his best. He is a good passer in the halfcourt and transition, and can be a capable defender. He has never been able to score reliably from anywhere on the floor, and his three-point shot has been bad his whole career.
The sixth-year floor general is in direct competition with another point guard on the roster for playing time. Dennis Smith Jr. was one of the main pieces in the Kristaps Porzingis trade back in February. Smith Jr. didn’t blow the breaks off other teams in his brief time with New York last season, but his performance was solid. He is projecting to be a good player in the NBA, and is still extremely young at age 21. Here are some numbers from BBall Index:
Don’t sleep on @Dennis1SmithJr.
Here’s the list of players w/grades equaling or exceeding DSJ’s Perimeter Shooting, Off-Ball Movement, Finishing, Playmaking, and Perimeter & Interior D grades:
Here are his full data-driven talent grades: pic.twitter.com/XorqMvT1Rn
— BBall Index (@The_BBall_Index) September 12, 2019
The defensive numbers from last season are encouraging. Not many players his age have put up solid defensive numbers, and it’s a good sign for his overall development.
Smith Jr. is looking to take a big leap this year. He has reworked his jump shot in the offseason, and spent time training with Chris Paul, who he has known since his AAU days. The potential for DSJ to become a more reliable shooter is intriguing, as he hasn’t been able to shoot above average from three in his first two NBA seasons.
This doesn’t preclude Payton getting his shot at the title of starting point guard. There’s a chance he’s slightly better in the short term, and head coach David Fizdale has shown before his willingness to play players on short-term deals over the young players—see Frank Ntilikina’s playing time last year, then see Emmanuel Mudiay’s, who is in Utah now. Payton has the tools to outplay Smith Jr. right off the bat this season.
I do not foresee Payton and Smith Jr. playing at the same time. The Knicks are absolutely loaded at the shooting guard and small forward position, and finding time for everybody is going to be difficult. Whichever point guard is one of the five on the floor needs to make the best of every moment. The Knicks will have competition for playing time this year for the first time in a while.
Payton could be a long-term piece even if Smith Jr. outplays him; they are the only two pure point guards on the roster, save for Frank Ntilikina who has been used off the ball. Payton surely wants to be a starter, but if splitting the backcourt between the two ends up working, the cap space is there to keep that going. Payton is making $8 million this season, with a non-guaranteed for next year at the same price. A long-term Payton partnership would likely mean Smith Jr. lost minutes to him, which is something no Knick fan is rooting for.
Gibson is a beloved player everywhere he goes. He has always contributed to winning basketball in Chicago, Oklahoma City, and Minnesota with solid interior defense, rebounding, and scoring in the paint. Being from New York City, he is going to get his chance to play for his hometown team—which is always awesome to root for.
Gibson easily has the least amount of pressure entering the season, as he is going to fill in the gaps at the power forward and center positions while Robinson and Julius Randle are off the floor. At this later stage of his career, the Knicks are paying him to lead in a mentorship role for some of the younger players. His most recent stint was in Minnesota alongside Karl-Anthony Towns, taking on big man defensive matchups and helping the Timberwolves back to the playoffs for the first time since 2004.
For a team lacking any veterans in the locker room, the Knicks getting Gibson in the mix is going to be helpful. His performance won’t matter too much when considering whether or not to bring him back next season; it will be centered around his relationship with the young Knicks and coach Fizdale. Gibson has been a glue guy everywhere he goes, and if he’s helping develop the Knicks’ big men, Perry and Mills will want to keep him on the roster.
The Knicks overpaid for him at $9 million this season, but with the amount of cap space they had, it wasn’t a difficult number to swallow. His $9.45 million next season is non-guaranteed, and there is almost no way the Knicks will pick it up. If the Knicks want to retain him, and Gibson wants to come back, they can decline it and structure a deal at a lower cap hit.
Ellington’s role on the Knicks is as clear as anything could possibly be: shoot the ball!
He is one of the most high-volume three-point shooters in the league, and was a vital part of the Pistons staying alive long enough to make the playoffs last season. Coming off picks and launching rainbow shots is going to be happening a lot in the Garden this year. Ellington will provide three-point shooting to a team that needs to lower it’s mid-range game and take more shots at the rim.
Here is the frequency of shots Detroit took while Ellington was on the court:
(Cleaning The Glass)
This is the type of influence I’d like to see on the Knicks, and one that will lead to a more modern NBA offense.
Ellington has competition for playing time, including Damyean Dotson, Allonzo Trier, R.J. Barrett, Reggie Bullock, and Ntilikina. I don’t envy Fizdale this season, as he will have to balance playing time for the veterans and the young guns very carefully. Fiz has a history of leaning on veterans, and if Ellington is playing at his best, there’s a good chance he takes these minutes. Having good shooting next to Smith and Robinson offers a useful model for what the team should look like long term: investing assets and cap space to good shooters.
Ellington is getting $8 million this season, with a non-guaranteed $8 million for next season. He is an obvious trade candidate once the Knicks are fully out of the playoff picture by midseason, and his low cap hit might not be too difficult to flip for a draft pick. If Ellington plays well next to the young guys and management decides to hold onto him for the full year, it’s not hard to imagine picking up his non-guaranteed year or restructuring it to a multi-year deal. The veteran is turning 32 this year, and shooters age more gracefully than any other player archetype in basketball.
To re-litigate what we have covered about Bobby Portis, there is much to be both excited and cautious about. His ability to shoot from three at a solid rate will help the Knicks stretch the floor on offense. His less than stellar defense brings concern as to whether he can play winning basketball.
For this season, he will play both power forward and center alongside Julius Randle, Taj Gibson, Robinson, and Marcus Morris, all of whom have the ability to outplay Portis for minutes. Portis is guaranteed his backup minutes, and in order to make them count, he has to be a quality rebounder and three-point shooter. Portis likes to back the ball down in the post and take mid-range jump shots, but that won’t be his best course of action if he wants to actually stay on the floor—it’s an inefficient style of play, and the Knicks are best served with the ball in the hands of a more capable player.
— The Knicks Wall (@TheKnicksWall) July 4, 2019
The fifth-year big man could massively benefit from some basketball guidance. He lazily fouls when he isn’t in position for a rebound. He is guilty of playing hero ball on offense. The Knicks staff should be aware of his flaws, and use him in a role that benefits his strengths and hides his weaknesses. While he is a good outside shooter, BP isn’t always playing to the advantage.
Portis is playing on a bloated one-year, $15 million deal, with a team option for next season at $15.75 million. You can go ahead and guarantee that second year won’t be picked up, as the Knicks were loaded with a ridiculous amount of money this offseason but won’t want to commit another season at that cap hit. It’s hard to imagine why the Knicks would invest in Portis long term, as they already have Robinson and Randle on long-term deals. Portis is the odd man out after this season.
Bullock is already going to be out at least the first month of the season after recovering from surgery for a herniated disc. His contract was originally two years, $21 million, but after discovering this injury, was restructured to a one-year, $4 million with non-guaranteed $4.2 million next season.
Missing the first month is going to be a big blow to Bullock’s favorability in New York. The team has a glut of wings, and it will be extremely difficult for the former Laker to find his way into the rotation. Bullock can shoot it from deep; he shot 37.7% last season on 6.2 attempts per game, and is a career 39.2% three-point shooter. Those numbers are solid, and if his recovery goes well he could fit into the rotation off his efficient shooting numbers. His defense and passing are a big downer; he ranked in the bottom 20 for shooting guards last season in real defensive plus-minus, per ESPN.
David Fizdale has the difficult job of managing the massive influx of new players. Lineup combinations and playing time will be more performance-based this year, as neither Fizdale nor management want another 17-win season. Exactly how many more games this team will win is still a big question mark.