Phil Jackson returned to the Knicks to deliver the franchise its first championship since he played for them in the 1970s. Instead, he helped the Cavaliers get closer to the NBA title while the Knicks endured their worst season ever.
Sending J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert to Cleveland in January netted little immediately for the Knicks and bolstered the Cavaliers' championship chances. But the Knicks' president cleared about $6.4 million in cap space and positioned the franchise for a top-five draft pick.
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The Knicks have entered their most critical offseason since 2010. They should have about $30 million for free agency and perhaps their highest pick in 30 years.
Although Jackson and general manager Steve Mills, during a "town hall" with season-ticket holders two weeks ago, seemed to give indications that the Knicks are unlikely to trade the pick, some league insiders say the Knicks could consider doing so to become competitive immediately. Otherwise, the fix might not be as quick.
"They could try to trade it for Kevin Durant," one NBA executive said. "Or maybe Kevin Love. Cleveland probably would do that."
The Thunder isn't expected to move Durant, who is recovering from foot surgery. Love reportedly is unhappy in Cleveland and could be a free agent this summer. If Love doesn't opt out, the Cavaliers could try to deal him rather than risk losing him to the Lakers or Celtics for nothing.
Jackson and Mills have said they won't chase the biggest names, but it's too early to know what any team will do. For the Knicks, it could depend on the May 19 NBA Draft Lottery results. The Knicks' 17-65 record was the NBA's second-worst and gives them a 19.9 percent chance of winning the lottery. If they do, Jackson will have many options.
Duke center Jahlil Okafor is polished offensively and projected to be able to contribute now. Kentucky's Karl-Anthony Towns is more versatile and far better defensively. Jackson said he wants a defender in the middle. That would seem to favor Towns.
Jackson said a No. 1 pick "can move the whole organization." Patrick Ewing did that for the Knicks 30 years ago. But now that most star players leave college after one year and there are few guaranteed franchise players like Ewing in the draft, Jackson has to listen to offers. "You have to sit back and see what comes toward you," he said.
If the Knicks select first or second, they could take Towns or Okafor and hope they get a future franchise player. They could trade the pick for a proven player (DeMarcus Cousins?) after making the selection or send it to a team with multiple choices, given that the Knicks will need bodies.
Dipping to third, fourth or fifth in the draft could change the approach. Ohio State's D'Angelo Russell and Emmanuel Mudiay, who played in China, are impressive guards, but Jackson might not want to hand over the team to a teenager and could move the pick. Kentucky's athletic and defensive-minded 7-footer, Willie Cauley-Stein, or versatile Duke wing Justise Winslow also are possibilities in that range.
"They're going to get a very nice draft pick," an Eastern Conference official said. "The decisions they have to make is do they take that draft pick and try to multiply it into different assets or keep the pick? You have to look at that option."
Jackson already has said that most of the rebuilding work will be done in free agency. The Knicks have four players with fully guaranteed contracts next season -- Carmelo Anthony, Jose Calderon, Tim Hardaway Jr. and Cleanthony Early -- and their 2018 first-round draft pick is the first one they can trade.
"They don't really have any trade assets," a Western Conference executive said. "It's going to be hard to get off the deck. They have a long road up the hill. They got to go one block at a time. One piece at a time and have some patience."
The Knicks are banking on Anthony coming back strong from season-ending knee surgery and still plan to build around him. Jackson said he would like to get two starters in free agency. The Knicks also want to maintain cap room to be big spenders in the summer of 2016, when Kevin Durant will be the main target.
Memphis center Marc Gasol and Portland's LaMarcus Aldridge, this summer's top free agents, aren't expected to choose the Knicks if they leave their teams. But there's plenty of buzz about the Knicks signing skilled Pistons big man Greg Monroe, who fits the triangle offense.
"Monroe is the logical choice," the East executive said.
According to the West official, "Monroe is a perfect triangle center. He can pass. He can score a little bit. He's never going to dazzle you with his numbers, but he's a good, solid pro and a good fit. If you have Towns, Melo, Monroe, that's a pretty good front line. Now you're in a position to make that turn."
The Knicks still would need backcourt help and a bench.
Finding a point guard with strong leadership qualities who has Anthony's respect could be critical to the Knicks' success. He had his best seasons, individually and team-wise, when he played with Chauncey Billups in Denver and Jason Kidd with the Knicks.
Securing that type of player will be difficult. Goran Dragic is expected to re-sign with Miami. The Knicks might give Calderon another shot unless something unexpected arises.
Other possible targets include restricted free agents Jimmy Butler of the Bulls, Draymond Green of the Warriors, Kris Middleton of the Bucks and Brandon Knight of the Suns.
Among the unrestricted free agents the Knicks could pursue are the Hawks' Paul Millsap and DeMarre Carroll, Nets center Brook Lopez (if he opts out), North Babylon product and current Spur Danny Green, the Trail Blazers' Arron Afflalo and the Magic's Tobias Harris (Half Hollow Hills West).
The Knicks would have to get creative with the restricted free agents. Many could re-up with their teams, but the West executive said the Knicks "might be able to get Butler."
The summer of 2016 will be big for the Knicks and everyone else. Team and player salaries will increase dramatically because of the new $24-billion TV contract.
The list of potential 2016 free agents includes LeBron James, Pelicans big man Anthony Davis, Hawks center Al Horford, Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard, Grizzlies guard Mike Conley Jr. and former Knick and current Warriors forward David Lee. The Knicks will chase the big names then.
"They got the money to get some players this year and try to put the team together and go for the home run the next year," the East executive said.
The Knicks have decisions to make with their current roster.
Hardaway is a candidate to be traded. Calderon is, too, or he could be waived using the stretch provision, which would clear another $3 million for free agency. But they need a proven point guard before they do that.
Langston Galloway, who has a partially guaranteed deal, is expected back. The Knicks could try to re-sign Lance Thomas, Lou Amundson and Alexey Shved.
"They've got end-of-roster guys," the West executive said. "I think they got to make a great draft pick, sign some guys and get ready for 2016. One piece at a time and have some patience."
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