How do we evaluate the play of Lee, Thomas, and Beasley this season, and do any of them have a realistic chance to stay on the roster next season?
For bad teams, one would assume that as the regular season winds down, players begin to check out—it’s only a matter of time. The playoff hierarchy mathematically eliminating teams from postseason contention is deflating, and, at times, relaxing for fans in a way. If you’re a New York Knicks fan, clocking out after a long season of losing is a yearly affair; however, it’s not as clear-cut or poetic of a narrative closer for the franchise.
Although the fans’ job might be done, the front office still has a lot of work to do. General manager Scott Perry’s reiterated vow of “commitment to youth” has finally stopped being lip service. The first step to real commitment was Jarrett Jack being nailed to the bench for what may be his final NBA season. The Knicks won’t be young forever, but if their core is to reach their peak around the next five years, current veterans on the roster need a multi-layered assessment on how they’ll fit in a rebuilding team, and, maybe, one that can be competitive.
In the case of the collection of Courtney Lee, Lance Thomas, and Michael Beasley, being the stalwart veterans on the Knicks could find the end of the road as the team re-groups and re-evaluates the makeup of the roster headed into next season.
Lee has had the closest thing to a career peak that he ever will this season. His first two years with the Knicks will be the first time he has averaged double digits in points in back-to-back seasons in his entire career. Individual success for Lee has never been too grandiose, though. His shooting numbers suggest he has never had a real “prime” in his career, and defense that isn’t strictly on-ball is difficult to assess in Lee’s case, whether you key in on him on every play or you’re a member of the Blog Boys community reading stats. Somehow, Lee still stands out—leading the team to the best of his ability on the offensive end when the opportunity arises and doing his best on a consistently awful defensive team (the eighth-worst team in defensive rating, according to NBA Stats).
That’s all good and well, but Lee is slated to earn $12 million for the 2018–19 season and the following one, according to spotrac. While his on-court and off-court strengths together are more than sufficient to justify his salary, it may be in the Knicks’ best interest to move the nine-year vet.
Diminished role, diminishing returns
All season long, anyone in the NBA could see that Lee was one of the most consistent ‘Bockers on the roster. Dependable isn’t the greatest compliment, but it counts for something.
However, his decrease in minutes changes the story quite a bit. Before All-Star break Lee averaged 13.6 points, 3.3 rebounds, and 2.7 assists in 32.6 minutes of action, per Basketball-Reference. Post-All-Star break, a period annotated by the absence of Kristaps Porzingis and the subsequent lineup changes, Courtney’s numbers took a dip; in 21.5 minutes per game, Lee has been averaging 6.5 points, 1.2 rebounds, and 1.1 assists per game.
Courtney Lee with a corner three off a THJ fast break pic.twitter.com/PFfGLKgr2A
— The Knicks Wall (@TheKnicksWall) February 23, 2018
It’s no surprise that a cut in minutes would diminish productivity, but his decreased role changes the perspective of his contract, too. If the Knicks have cap space of an even $100 million, they could pay over 11 percent of the space to one player who increasingly spends the majority of his time on the bench. (By the way, to illustrate the gravity of the Knicks cap situation, subtract $17 million for a remaining yearly cap of $83 million—that $17 million doing nothing is Joakim Noah.) Now, Lee is almost one-seventh of the salary cap. Lee isn’t a bad player per se. In fact, his field-goal percentage has increased since his playing time augmentation during the final months of the season. But is he really what the Knicks need on the wing for two more seasons?
Too many wings
Another problem for New York is allocating Lee, and other wings, minutes throughout their wing-heavy depth chart. Right now, Lee sits in front of rookies Frank Ntilikina and Damyean Dotson on the depth chart. Each of them could manage a chunk of 48 minutes on the wing without much of a problem whether a coach wanted to focus on youth development or push for the playoffs. The truth of the matter is a bit more complex, however. If Ron Baker comes back, he could see minutes at shooting guard, too. Supposedly, a couple of prospects who would play on the wing, like Mikal Bridges or a Knickerbocker rookie in 2018–19, would fall to the Knicks in the draft. Granted, positions are much more fluid today than they were in the past, like Ntilikina’s development at both guard positions, for example. Some of the aforementioned Knicks could see minutes at point guard or small forward, but the truth is their optimal position, as well as Tim Hardaway Jr.’s, is at shootin guard. Forty-eight minutes distributed among four players or more, even if some did find additional playing time by positional shifting, won’t work, at least not for a full season. And, if the Knicks are serious about developing youth through on-court experience, Lee would be among the first to sit. Which brings up the saddest truth: his age.
Lee has done everything right. He plays defense, carefully picks his spots when he shoots, can be an on-court leader when necessary, and even has a respected voice as a co-captain. As the epitome of a reliable 3-and-D player, for better or for worse, he’ll never give anyone surprises. He’s the antithesis of fellow swingman Tim Hardaway Jr. Brash and energetic with more ups-and-downs than a rom-com, Hardaway Jr. is the living embodiment of a Knicks’ season. Some games he’s so good it looks like he’s Kobe, other games he’s so awful it looks like he’s Kobe. Either way, Lee is 32, and veteran leadership is only worth so much on a rebuilding team.
In a nutshell, Lee’s short-term and long-term future doesn’t lay with the Knicks. He’s a solid wing who could give a team what they need off of the bench in the playoffs. Too bad, the Knicks have squandered his talent thus far. Hopefully, the Knicks can find a deal for him in the summer that sends him to a contender and gets some cash off the books for the following seasons.
Lance Thomas is in the second season of his four-year, $27 million contract and his third year overall as a New York Knick. The road to the NBA has been long and hard for the Duke product. The long, arduous road he explained in-depth in his contribution to The Players’ Tribune was exactly the experience necessary for him to secure the aforementioned contract.
His fearlessness on defense, the defining trait of his game, and his self-awareness as a non-scoring role player are the key characteristics on Thomas’ plus side. Unfortunately, in the NBA, hard work is a supplement to talent, not a substitute.
The season has been tough on plenty of Knickerbockers, but it has been particularly difficult for Thomas. Early on, he struggled with a minimal amount of minutes in the lineup, but even after he saw a bump, partially due to Hardaway Jr.’s injury, his production, or lack thereof, on the offense end was magnified by uncharacteristic lapses on defense and bouts of silly fouls. At that point in the season, it was expected for the rest of the team to fill the void left by Hardaway for playoff contention. It didn’t turn out that way. In fact, his averages of 4.0 points per game and 2.3 rebounds in 18 minutes tell the entire story of his season.
Arguably, at $7 million per year, you get what you pay for. The biggest issue going forward may be the viability of his roster spot past April 11. The Knicks’ current rebuilding method essentially is, throw shit at the wall and see if it sticks. So far, that’s been the case with Emmanuel Mudiay, Troy Williams, and Trey Burke, all of whom are perceived to having potential with the bets hedged on short, cheap deals—and all succeeding and failing in fluctuating areas.
Knicks ball movement gets Lance Thomas a wide open three
— The Knicks Wall (@TheKnicksWall) April 4, 2018
The Knicks made a commitment to youth, not to shelling out lengthy contracts to underperforming role players. Nevertheless, the problem isn’t necessarily the cap space hit his salary is responsible for, it’s that Thomas isn’t worth the space he’s taking up.
For the sake of numbers never lie: The average age of the ‘17–’18 Knicks on the roster is 25.5. Subtract Jarrett Jack from the equation, whose career as a Knick is effectively over after this season, and that drops to 25.1, cut the wrathful ghost of Joakim Noah, they’re at 24.6.
Minus their two impotent veterans, the Knicks are a youthful team getting younger, and it’s become obvious Thomas has reached his ceiling as an NBA player. That fact isn’t ideal for a team living in the future. For the Knicks, youth is potential, and potential is a diamond waiting to be mined.
Ironically, Thomas’ 10-day contract to full-fledged Knick route during the atrocious 2014–15 season was the first of its kind, and it worked for a while. But three seasons and two coaches later it’s not holding up. And there are always younger, hungry stretch forwards on the market for less than $7 million per year—like the promising role player Troy Williams. In other words, the model they used to pick up Lance Thomas in the first place now renders him obsolete, in a cruel twist.
It’s tragic, but if the Knicks wish to go forward with their rebuild, finding a new home for Lance Thomas would be in their best interest.
As prophesied, Beas has been especially Beasley this season. A foil to the mild-mannered Lance Thomas, Beasley’s uptick in playing time during THJ’s injury stretch spurred the 29-year-old for what can only be known as #BeasleyGames. He offered a great lift when the Knicks were hoping to stay in the playoff race during the end of 2017 and early 2018. Even these days Beasley has managed to pull off amazing feats of basketball prowess. Of the past four months, Beasley has averaged at least 15 points and five rebounds in all but one month, per Basketball-Reference. Additionally, he has shot over 50 percent from the field and 41 percent from three-point range.
With numbers like those, his off-court weirdness is endearing. The Knicks are in full-tank mode, but it doesn’t mean the games can’t be entertaining. As Kristaps Porzingis recovers, the Michael Beasley Show might be in the front office’s best bet in attracting fans. He even publicly stated his wish to return to the Knicks after this season. The Knicks have had defensive issues since the resurrection of Christ, and Beasley’s entire shtick conveys the team’s woes in a single package. Ironically enough, in regard to fit, Beasley may stand a chance of staying a Knick for a long time, assuming he can permanently come of the bench and expect not to run the offense for long spans of time in a starting role.
Beas AGAIN, gets the tough jumper to drop pic.twitter.com/FHz32lziT1
— The Knicks Wall (@TheKnicksWall) March 22, 2018
Security over Money
Michael Beasley has been playing for pennies since 2013. The $2 million salary he’s currently earning is the most since the Phoenix Suns signed him to a three-year $18 million deal back in 2012, a year before they waived the Walking Bucket. Even worse, he’s been a nomad. The Knicks are the sixth team the former second-overall pick has played for, and there’s been backtracking. New York is pretty strapped for cash in the upcoming free agency, but, should it scrape together enough funds, Beasley could be at the top of their free agency list.
Fiscally, they’d only be able to offer him a hair above the minimum—sounds like business as usual for both sides, but the Knicks could offer Beasley one thing that he’s never had: security. A long, cheap contract doesn’t sound appealing, but if the Knicks can secure him for an average of $2.5 million for three years, it’d be a big win for both sides in the realm of stability.
The Knicks’ turnover rate skyrocketed during the tenure of Phil Jackson, who roster was filled with players just passing by, not teammates ready to stay and compete. So, adding a veteran who can hold down scoring while Porzingis recovers and lead the bench after the All-Star’s return could be a moderate success in building a roster from the bottom up.
Realistically, Beasley won’t break the bank or stop the tank since “iso” doesn’t win games, but if the Knicks do end up as contenders sooner than later, securing veterans on the bench like Beasley and Kyle O’Quinn could be vital to supporting the core of the starting lineup taking shape. Beasley is at the tail-end of his 10th NBA season, but still hasn’t hit 30 years of age. It sounds like a lot of mileage, but if a coach is wise enough to slightly limit his minutes going forward, there’s still a lot of NBA minutes left for Michael Beasley to score buckets.
The Knicks have been flipping their roster for the last few seasons, each iteration producing a veteran completely different from the other. Unfortunately for them, the front office will continually be combing through the roster to find the wrinkles. Courtney Lee and Lance Thomas won’t survive the next purge if Scott Perry stays true to his rhetoric and sacrifices vets for youth. Funny enough, it might be the Walking Bucket who ends up as the geezer on the Knicks roster.