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Knicks didn't improve roster as free-agent market settles

Knicks president Leon Rose watches his team play

Knicks president Leon Rose watches his team play against the Rockets during the first half at Madison Square Garden on March 2, 2020. Credit: Jim McIsaac

After the opening of the free-agent market this past weekend, with nearly every team filling its roster during the NBA’s version of musical chairs, the contenders could assess their new lineups and make an argument that they are ready for another title run.

A few teams — Atlanta, Phoenix and Charlotte, for example — could say they are on the rise and hopeful of taking their place in the chase.

The Knicks? They finished the weekend with a flurry of moves but still found themselves with a roster that might be worse than the one with which they began last season.

That is, if you believe that Marcus Morris was the best player on that team. He, along with some other experienced hands, are gone.

The argument the Knicks could make, one that is hard to debate, is that unlike the summer of 2019 makeover, there were few difference-makers on the market this time around. And the few who were out there were paid beyond the impact they could make on a team like the Knicks, one that is starting from zero.

Even the most celebrated names out there, such as Russell Westbrook via trade or Gordon Hayward, who commanded four years and $120 million from Charlotte, would not be likely to lift the Knicks into the elite levels of the league standings.

So they went with low-cost, short-term deals for players who won’t ruin the locker room, and new coach Tom Thibodeau will try to get the most from them. Thibodeau is tasked with helping Omari Spellman and the other young players on the roster realize their potential.

There could be more moves to come, either before the season begins or before the trade deadline. Team president Leon Rose and his front office did not lock the team into onerous contracts, so if a disgruntled player wants out — or an unhappy team wants to move a star — the Knicks, able to absorb a large salary into their cap space, will be in position to strike.

Right now they are $8 million under the salary-cap floor and approximately $18 million under the salary cap. They are one guaranteed contract over the limit, which must be resolved before the season.

Could Rose change course if Westbrook’s price comes down? What if the Spurs put DeMar DeRozan and the final season of his contract worth $27 million up for bid?

University of Kentucky coach John Calipari, who is close with Rose and team executive William Wesley, spoke Monday and raved about the additions of first-round pick Immanuel Quickley and free-agent addition Nerlens Noel, who both played for him (and also for Kenny Payne, who has joined the Knicks as an assistant coach after serving in a similar capacity with Kentucky).

"I will be watching a lot of Knicks games," Calipari said. "Leon is a dear friend. Wes is a dear friend. Kenny, he’s like my brother. Now you’ve got some of my guys there. Nerlens was a great pickup. Let me tell you why — it’s time to break through for him.

"What they’re trying to do, how they’re trying to do it, they’re not trying to do it in a hurry. They’ve got a terrific coach, a proven coach, a playoff coach. Now they’ve just got to build within. They’re going to start doing it.

"The reason I encouraged them with Kenny Payne — how good can Julius [Randle] be? He’s good. Where can we really go? With Kenny there, he’s got one more guy in his corner to help build his confidence, to train him, to push him. Also Kevin Knox . . . Let’s see how good he can be. That’s why you want a Kenny Payne with you.

"The Knicks are on a different path," he added. "You may not see right away overnight, the results. Listen, it took [Kentucky] a while to get here; it’s going to take a little while to get where we want to go . . . So let this thing play out, and in the end, I think everybody is going to be pleased."

The newcomers

Alec Burks

SG, 6-6, 29 years old, 1 year - $6 million

Solid combo guard who flourished in Philadelphia - scoring 15 points per game and converting on 38.5 percent from three-point shooting last season.

15 ppg - 38.5 3-piont shooting last year

Austin Rivers

PG/SG, 6-3, 28 years old, 3 years - $10 million

Another solid veteran scorer who was a part of the Rockets approach of firing from beyond the arc, hitting 35.8 percent with more than half of his attempts from three.

Nerlens Noel

C, 6-10, 26 years old, 1 year - $4 million

Consider this a Mitchell Robinson lite, an athletic backup if - when - Robinson gets in foul trouble. Ranked in the 94th percentile in blocks percentage and 98th percentile in steal percentage among centers.

Omari Spellman

PF-C, 6-8, 23 years old, 2 years - $4.57 million (team option 2nd year)

Arrived in Ed Davis deal and Knicks see low-risk, high-reward project. Conditioning was an issue in Minnesota and if right a big man who can stretch the floor (39.1 percent from 3 last season).

Jacob Evans

SG, 6-4, 23 years old, 2 years - $5.6 million (team option 2nd year)

Has traveled with Spellman from Golden State to Minnesota and now to New York. Right now more a defensive guard than a threat offensively.

Back again

Elfrid Payton

PG, 6-4, 26 years old, 1 year - $5 million

Waived and then re-signed, Payton was the most productive Knicks point guard last season but in a league dependent on three-point shooting he hit just 20.3 percent from beyond the arc.

Draft picks

Obi Toppin

PF, 6-9, 22 years old, University of Dayton

The good: A tremendous athlete - the comparison to Amar’e Stoudemire are well-earned for a player who led Division I basketball with 107 dunks last season. He has the ability to stretch the floor with three-point range. Mature and hard-working, he went from a player with no Division I offers to a lottery pick.

The bad: Scouts have picked apart his defense, a lack of lateral speed and the mind drifting at times. That will be a project for new head coach Tom Thibodeau, but he also might be what he is - already older than Mitchell Robinson, Kevin Knox and RJ Barrett with a post-grad year of high school and a redshirt season at Dayton.

Immanuel Quickley

PG, 6-3, 21 years old, University of Kentucky

The good: The reigning SEC Player of the Year began the season coming off the bench for the Wildcats but emerged as not only the starter but the player of the year, leading Kentucky to the SEC regular season title. Deep range as a catch and shoot guy, sort of a combo guard who was in a three-guard rotation at Kentucky for most of his two seasons.

The bad: 1.9 assists to 1.6 turnovers - not exactly the sort of numbers you want to see in your point guard. But he wasn’t a pure point guard at Kentucky, sharing the backcourt with Tyrese Maxey and Ashton Hagans.

Myles Powell

PG/SG, 6-2, 23 years old, Seton Hall University

Undrafted but signing - possibly a two-way contract. Prolific scorer with deep range and ability to absorb contact and score against bigger players. Likely will see some G League time.

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