Up until now, we’ve been contemplating the Knicks’ impending offseason within the context that they do not own the Bird rights for either Jeremy Lin or Steve Novak and, as such, will be extremely limited in the moves they can make to improve the team. Specifically, if the Knicks want to use their full mid-level exception to retain Lin or to sign another higher-end veteran PG, the team is going to be hard-capped at $74 million and limited to only the bi-annual exception and veteran minimum signings to fill out the remaining spots on the roster.
Yesterday, though, Howard Beck of the New York Times reported that the NBPA intends to challenge, before an arbitrator, Lin’s and Novak’s (among others) status as non-Bird free agents. The players association’s argument is that, since Lin and Novak were waiver claims, their contracts transferred to the Knicks in the same manner as a traded player’s contract would. Traded players retain their bird rights so players claimed off waivers should as well.
If the NBPA prevails (and, having seen the language in the old CBA concerning waived players, it’s not far-fetched to think they could), it would all but guarantee that Lin and Novak would be re-signed this summer and–this is the kicker–the Knicks would remain armed with, in the best case scenario, their full, non-taxpayer MLE (roughly $5 million dollars) to pursue other free agents. Needless to say, this would open up a whole new world of possibilities.
- No Bird rights for Lin and Novak and the offseason likely consists of re-signing Lin (or chasing a different PG) with the MLE, perhaps re-signing Novak (or signing another lower-tier free agent) with the bi-annual exception, and veteran minimum signings.
- With Bird rights for Lin and Novak the offseason likely consists of re-signing Lin and Novak, signing a player or multiple players with the non-taxpayer MLE (or the taxpayer, mini-MLE), and filling out the roster with veteran minimum signings.
Quite a difference.
(Note: In any scenario where the Knicks re-sign Lin and Novak and add a free agent using their MLE, they will certainly lose the bi-annual exception which, like the non-taxpayer MLE, is only accessible to teams below the $74 million tax apron.)
For the purpose of illustration–and because it’s fun–let’s look at potential permutations in this very awesome alternate universe:
1. Knicks re-sign Lin and Novak. If the NBPA wins the challenge and their Bird rights attach, these moves become no-brainers.
2 (Scenario A). Knicks sign O.J. Mayo with their non-taxpayer MLE. For my money, this would be the single best addition the Knicks could realistically make this offseason at the MLE price point. Mayo is what we wish J.R. Smith was: a sweet-shooting, solid all-around two guard in his mid-20s who plays relatively disciplined defense. He’s formed an effective pairing at SG with Tony Allen in Memphis and would similarly compliment Shumpert in the backcourt here. Most importantly, he’s a very good fit with Carmelo Anthony as a guy who can consistently make 3 pointers off the catch.
There are some significant caveats here: First, he’s a restricted free agent so the Grizzlies can match any offer. Memphis has a lot of money tied up in other players, so it’s possible they’d decline to match (the Grizzlies owner has already declared they won’t go over the luxury tax). But at the mid-level Mayo might just offer too much value for the Grizzlies to let him get away. Second, depending on what Lin and Novak command, the Knicks might get pushed above the $74 million apron. If that happened, the team would only have access to the mini, taxpayer MLE of $3 million, and that certainly wouldn’t be enough for Mayo. (More on the mini-MLE in a minute.)
Or, if Mayo proves unobtainable…
2 (Scenario B). The Knicks sign Ray Allen with NT-MLE. Allen offers all the same things that Mayo does, but with championship experience to boot. Only thing is he’s 12 years older and doesn’t provide long-term value. I’m sure there are some out there (the “built to win now” crowd) who’d prefer Allen to Mayo but, if I have a choice between adding a 24-year-old who can be a core piece for years or a 36-year-old at the end of his career, I’m taking the young guy every time.
2 (Scenario C). Use the NT-MLE on a high-end, veteran PG. No, not Steve Nash, because someone else is going to offer him more money than that and he’s going to take it (believe it). But perhaps someone like Andre Miller, who has a lot of experience, is habitually undervalued, and can reliably pilot a playoff team while Lin grows into the role.
2 (Scenario D). Split the NT-MLE between a couple of players. Probably in the backcourt, using half on a shooter and the other half on a backup PG. I like this option the least. If you have the chance, in my opinion it’s better to add one higher-quality player than several lesser ones.
Now, about the taxpayer mini-MLE…
2 (Scenario E). Use the mini-MLE on a backup PG. If bringing back Lin and Novak pushes the Knicks over the apron and they only have access to the mini-MLE, I think the team could squeeze the most value out of it by spending it on a veteran backup PG for Lin. The free agent market this offseason is over-saturated with marginal veteran PGs. By marginal, I don’t mean PGs that are struggling to stick in the league. I’m referring to guys that could start in some situations but if they’re presently starting for you, you’re in the market for an upgrade. Think Kirk Hinrich, Ray Felton, D.J Augustin, Jordan Farmar. Guys like that.
3. Re-sign Landry Fields. Fields is a restricted free agent and, in his case, there is no dispute that the Knicks own his Bird rights. He gets a separate section from Lin and Novak because it’s less clear whether the Knicks should retain him. I like Fields but only at a certain (pretty low) price. If he can be re-signed at an appropriate price, it certainly wouldn’t hurt to have him around. I’d be surprised if, coming off a very inconsistent season, Fields gets a substantial offer from anyone and, as such, I think he’ll be back on a low-cost deal, at least for next season.
4. Bring back Jared Jeffries on a veteran minimum contract and try to find other veteran minimum bargains to fill out the roster. I think it’s safe to say that we, as fans, grew to appreciate Jared Jeffries this season in a way that we never did when he was making $6 million a year and standing in the way of an earnest run at Lebron James. Nevertheless, while in a vacuum Jeffries is probably worth more than a veteran minimum deal, I don’t think the Knicks should pay him more than that. He tends to get injured and it seems like every season he misses significant time and barely makes it to the finish line. Couple that with the fact that Jorts showed flashes this year and it’s hard to justify spending real money on him. He seems to love it here, and he’s clearly appreciated by his teammates, so it’d be great if he sticks around.
Other than that, hopefully Grunwald can work his magic and unearth another veteran minimum gem or two a la Lin and Novak this season. If the Knicks signed Mayo or Ray Allen using the MLE, as in the examples above, Grunwald would need to find a veteran PG to back up Lin for the veteran minimum. Maybe someone like Keyon Dooling.
* * *
Chances are, this entire exercise has been a big waste of time (and I apologize for that), as the arbitrator will surely rule against the NBPA (because nothing this good will happen to the Knicks), Lin and Novak will remain without Bird rights, and the Knicks will be faced with the limited player acquisition options I described at the start of this post.
But, as you can see, if the NBPA did win this challenge, it would completely alter the tenor of the Knicks’ offseason. Next season’s team would shift from one that looks precariously thin with limited ability to add depth to one that is incredibly deep, and armed with another cornerstone player.
Cross your fingers.