New York’s prickly predicament with veteran and team co-captain Courtney Lee hurts playing time for the Knicks’ backcourt teammates. Perhaps it’s time to part with Lee, eschew his sizable contract, and patiently re-work the team while dispensing Courtney to a future playoff-bound team.
Courtney Lee’s two seasons in a New York Knicks uniform haven’t exactly gone according to plan. The Knicks, the latest of seven NBA teams for the 33-year-old journeyman, have 60 wins and 104 losses since Lee’s arrival. This record, of course, has more to do with the Knicks than with Lee, who is actually coming off a career year in the Big Apple, but the veteran swingman was promised at least a modicum of success in New York.
Unfortunately, however, Courtney is owed $25 million through the 2019–20 season, the end of his four-year deal with the Knicks, and he makes up part of a crowded Knicks backcourt rotation full of young players that better suit the rebuilding Knicks timeline—meaning the front office has a decision to make on Lee’s future.
As last season showed, Lee still has a lot of basketball in his legs. He shot better than 40 percent from three for the sixth season in his career on a career-high number of attempts per game, 3.7. Lee has always been a good defender; smart, fundamentally sound, long at 6-5—he’s the kind of plug-and-play shooting guard that would find his way into a playoff rotation wearing whatever threads they throw him.
The problem, on this unbalanced Knicks roster, is that Lee’s positional versatility tops out at small forward. The Knicks’ backcourt rotation is going to be a bloodbath next season, with nine players jockeying for minutes at spots 1–3; Frank Ntilikina, Trey Burke, Emmanuel Mudiay, Ron Baker, Tim Hardaway Jr., Damyean Dotson, Troy Williams, Lance Thomas, and Lee. That’s simply too many bodies and not enough minutes, especially given the need for developmental priority to all except Thomas and Lee.
— Troy Williams (@troywilliams_) May 28, 2018
Both Lance and Courtney have been invaluable veteran voices in the Knicks locker room the last few years, something a young roster needs, especially when the team has lost so many games. The team’s captains—experienced, professional, and vocal veterans—are a buffer to young players picking up the kind of habits that otherwise fester in losing environments. General Manager Scott Perry knows this, and should ensure that next year’s roster has enough of a veteran presence to withstand a season that will likely feature many defeats sans Kristaps Porzingis.
Twenty million dollars combined for Thomas and Lee, though, is just too high a cost for a team looking to be a player in free agency in 2019. Thomas’s lower salary, $7.5 million, and his broader defensive versatility at 6-8—the Knicks used him against Giannis Antetokounmpo, LeBron James, and Ben Simmons last season—make him the obvious guy to keep around. Beyond the option to stretch Joakim Noah’s untradeable $19 million paycheck in 2019–20, trading Lee and his $12.8 million is really Perry’s only available move towards maximizing 2019 cap space.
Nevertheless, moving Lee, a team captain and probably the Knicks’ most consistent player over the last two seasons, would be an indictment of the Knicks organization rather than Lee himself. By all accounts, Lee has been utterly professional despite all the Kazoo-era Knicks turmoil off the court and as advertised with his production on the court. He can absolutely help and contribute to a playoff team, a situation he himself could, understandably, prefer at this stage of his career.
There was interest in Lee at last season’s trade deadline, and the Knicks’ front office, if they decide to go down that route, would have a good chance of bagging a minor asset—a young player, late first-round pick, or second-round pick and expiring contract—for the veteran. This summer is set to be a shaky offseason, with unpredictable moves cautioned ahead. Potential destinations for Lee could emerge as the free agency dominoes fall and the dust from the trade bonanza settles. The type of team that would value Lee is a playoff team with a hole at shooting guard and enough cap flexibility to swallow his not-awful-but-not-great contract.
The Oklahoma City Thunder, should Paul George leave, would be a nice on-court fit next to Russell Westbrook. The Portland Trail Blazers, should they move on from C.J. McCollum and decide the diminishing returns of having your two best players in your backcourt, are a nice fit in theory. The Philadelphia 76ers, if they net the big fish free agent they’re reportedly eyeing, could be looking for a J.J. Redick replacement. Again, Lee is the type of player with the type of skill set that would be of value to many teams.
Another option is to wait until the trade deadline midseason, when Lee’s value may be inflated as teams’ contexts are clearer closer to the playoffs. Injuries could leave teams devoid of depth at shooting guard, and his salary will be less painful to swallow halfway through the season. The Knicks’ front office can afford to be patient here (stop laughing at the words “Knicks” and “patient” in the same sentence!). All things considered though, the rebuilding Knicks, looking for cap space in 2019, with a glut of backcourt “depth,” should be looking to move on despite Courtney’s contributions.
It’s a funny conclusion to come to, as we watch these 2018 playoffs develop and distill down to a fight to the death determined predominantly by a teams’ ability to perform two skills: switching and shooting. Courtney Lee would be in the rotation for every current conference finals team. ESPN’s Zach Lowe wrote an article this week extolling the virtues of Houston Rockets swingman, and former Knick, Trevor Ariza. Both guys, Lee and Ariza, have the same basketball DNA—work hard, put the team first, do-your-job mentalities coupled with a penchant to knock down open shots and defend admirably.
It would be a shame to lose Lee, but there is a best-case scenario for both parties; the Knicks can unearth and develop a 3-and-D wing in the Lee/Ariza mold with the minutes opened up (and at a lower salary) and acquire assets via trade. Lee can contribute to a playoff team in an NBA era screaming out for exactly the type of player the 33-year-old veteran has been his entire career.