There has been a lot of recent talk about Carmelo Anthony’s upcoming free agency – most of it centered on whether or not he will stay with the New York Knicks, as well as whether or not he is worth a full 5-year, $129 million maximum salary contract. Smart people have written smart things about both of those questions, so we’re not here to discuss either one of them. Instead, we’re here to discuss what type of contract the Knicks can afford to hand Anthony if they to be realistically able to afford the type of players they’d like to surround him with for the future, and – more importantly – what we feel (through intense scrutiny and player study) are the optimal player archetypes to surround Anthony with.
Given Anthony’s strengths and weaknesses, the optimal pieces to surround him with (in the starting lineup) would seem to be: a) a rim-protecting center who works well in the pick and roll; b) a point guard who controls the flow of the game, excels at finding spot-up shooters out of pick and roll, shoots well out of the pick and roll himself, and plays at least marginally average defense; and c) a couple of “3-and-D” wing players. You would then, of course, need to fill out the bench with a capable backup point guard, another strong defensive big man, more shooters, and probably a true power forward to afford the coach some lineup flexibility.
A quick diversion to dismiss two big names that will be available in the summer of 2015, though we’ll discuss a scenario involving one of them at the bottom of the page: Kevin Love and LaMarcus Aldridge. While the Knicks will certainly chase both of those players in free agency, we’re trying here to build the optimal roster for Anthony and the Knicks to thrive, and doing so does not involve signing players who play the same position as him. If anything has been proven the last two seasons, it’s that the Knicks work best when Anthony plays power forward in small lineups. A front line of Anthony and Love would be potent offensively, but would be liable to give nearly everything back on the other end. Aldridge would then seemingly be a better fit, but he has professed to not like playing center, and he mostly operates in the same places on the floor as Anthony does.
Anthony’s next contract will be handed out this summer if, as has been reported multiple times, he opts out of the last season of his current contract. However, the Knicks will not have enough cap space to surround him with new players until the summer of 2015, when the cumbersome contracts of Amar’e Stoudemire, Andrea Bargnani, and Tyson Chandler expire. Because the Knicks are such an asset-poor team (no tradeable first-round pick until 2018; only two players under the age of 25 that get regular playing time), we’re going to assume for purposes of this exercise that the Knicks will try to fill out the roster in the next Anthony era through free agency. If you honestly believe the Knicks can acquire, say, Rajon Rondo for Iman Shumpert, a 2018 first-round pick, and salary filler, that’s fine, but that’s not the assumption we’re operating under here.
When looking at the pool of 2015 free agents, the players who best fit the description of “rim-protecting center who works will in the pick and roll” are as follows: Tyson Chandler, Marc Gasol, Roy Hibbert, Omer Asik, Anderson Varejao, Robin Lopez, Kosta Koufos, and Nick Collison. Some of those players fit the description better than others, and some of them are flat out better players than others, obviously. In order to get a good idea of what it would cost to afford one of these players in free agency, we must first take a look at their salaries for the 2014-15 season.
2014-15 SalaryAll numbers in millions
*Holds $15.5 million player option for 2015-16 season
**2014-15 salary is not fully guaranteed
The reason we start with the 2014-15 salary is because – in the case of maximum salary players (like Hibbert) – it helps determine the maximum starting salary of the player’s next contract. The maximum starting salary for a player is never less than 105 percent of his previous year’s salary, even if that number is above the league-wide maximum, according to Larry Coon’s CBA FAQ. That means, for example, the maximum starting salary the Knicks could offer Hibbert in free agency is $15.6 million.
Obviously, this group of centers is not all equal. Hibbert, Gasol, and Asik, given their ages and skill sets, are likely to carry significantly higher price tags than Koufos and Collison, while Chandler, Lopez, and Varejao will likely fall somewhere in between those two groups. If one assumes that Hibbert is an unrealistic target (a fair assumption, given the current construction of the Pacers’ roster and the fact that they’ll likely be a championship contender for at least the next few seasons), the optimal targets for the Knicks would seem to be Gasol and Asik.
Gasol will be 30 years old in the summer of 2015, while Asik will be 29. Gasol is likely to command a higher salary, probably close to the maximum, but as an elite defensive big man, Asik will probably run somewhere in the $10-12 million range. If we assume the Knicks would offer Gasol his maximum starting salary, they could expect to spend $10-16.6 million on a center in this scenario.
Of course, they could opt for one of the lower end options, and spend somewhere from $2-6 million on one of Koufos or Collison, or a middle of the road option, which would likely involve spending $6-10 million on Chandler, Lopez, or Varejao.
2014-15 SalaryAll numbers in millions
*Holds $7.5 million player option for 2015-16 season
**2014-15 salary is not fully guaranteed
The Knicks are said to covet Rondo, who will be 29 years old, coming off his ninth NBA season, and eligible for a contract that carries a first-year maximum of 25 percent of the salary cap. While there is not yet a projected salary cap for the 2015-16 season, we can calculate a possible one by using the 2014-15 cap number of $62.1 million reported by ESPN’s Larry Coon and Marc Stein. That $62.1 million number is an increase of 6.2 percent over this year’s cap of $58.5 million. If we apply a 6.2 percent increase to the 2014-15 number to project the salary cap for 2015-16, we come up with $65.9 million, which would make Rondo’s maximum starting salary approximately $16.5 million.
Parker, Dragic, and Lin are all likely to carry significantly cheaper price tags, but each comes with caveats. Parker will be 33 by the time he hits free agency, and while the Spurs have a clean cap sheet in the summer of 2015, it would seem that they’d like to keep him around to help kick off the post-Duncan era. Even if he were to leave, at 33, he would not exactly fit New York’s timeline, even if he were still playing at a high level, which is extremely likely to be the case given his performance this season.
Dragic is a very good point guard having an excellent season, but doesn’t exactly carry the name recognition or cache that has been shown to be necessary to get Anthony to defer to a teammate. The only players he’s done so for are Chauncey Billups and Jason Kidd, past champions who are considered to be in the handful of best point guards of their time, or in Kidd’s case, all time. That said, he’d come with a much more affordable price tag than Rondo, and as a better outside shooter and more aggressive scorer, he’d arguably be a better fit as well. Players on a level similar to Dragic tend to receive around $10-12 million in free agency.
And Lin, well… let’s just say that one’s not happening.
Given these facts, it seems likely that the Knicks be expected to pay $10-16.6 million for a point guard in free agency. Of course, they could go another route with a lower-end point guard, but after the Raymond Felton experiment that has gone so badly this season, that option does not exactly seem appealing.
2014-15 SalaryAll numbers in millions
*Holds $5.0 million player option for 2015-16 season
**Holds early termination option
***2014-15 salary is a player option
****Only if not granted a contract extension in summer 2014
There are a wide range of players on this list, and each will come with varied price tags. If we take the average 2014-15 salary for the group, we get $3.6 million.
The Knicks realistically need two players that fit this archetype to surround Anthony, but it’s certainly possible that one of Iman Shumpert or Tim Hardaway Jr. could fit the bill by the time the summer of 2015 comes around. Shumpert looked exceedingly likely to be just that type of player as recently as last May before falling off this season. Hardaway certainly has the “3” part down, but needs to work very hard on the “D” end of things. J.R. Smith technically could be considered one of these players, but his recent stretch of play is more likely an aberration than a sustained trend.
Taking a look at the Knicks’ salary cap sheet shows us a few things. First, they could have anywhere from $1.3 million to $13.4 million in committed salary on the books for the 2015-16 season when the summer of 2015 rolls around, if they renounce their rights to Stoudemire, Bargnani, Metta World Peace, Toure’ Murry, Cole Aldrich, Kenyon Martin, Beno Udrih, Earl Barron, Mike Bibby, and Baron Davis. Second, they will have at least three (Anthony, Hardaway Jr., and the team’s 2015 first-round pick) players, and at most seven (Smith, Shumpert, Felton, and Pablo Prigioni all have either player options, qualifying offers, or non-guaranteed salaries for 2015-16) players on the roster, which means they would open the summer with anywhere from five to nine minimum salary cap hold charges on the books as well.
If we take the most likely scenario of the Knicks renouncing their rights to Stoudemire, Bargnani, World Peace, Murry, Aldrich, Martin, Udrih, Barron, Bibby, and Davis, as well as Prigioni (who will be 38 at the time), Felton and Smith picking up their $4.0 and $6.4 million player options, respectively, and the Knicks at least tendering Shumpert his $3.7 million qualifying offer, the Knicks would enter that summer with $15.4 million in salary on the books. If they do not extend Shumpert a qualifying offer (certainly possible, given his play this season and the Knicks’ likelihood of chasing at least one maximum salary free agent), that number would drop to $11.7 million.
Given all of the foregoing, we’re going to calculate the contracts the Knicks can offer Anthony while realistically expecting to surround him with the optimal roster to fit his skill set in 2015 free agency.
If the Knicks sign $10 million players at both center and point guard (say, Asik and Dragic), while signing one of the 3-and-D players for $3.6 million, it would bring their committed salary to $42.3 million for the 2015-16 season, including minimum cap hold charges, but before factoring in Anthony’s new contract. That number would allow the Knicks just enough space to sign Anthony for the full maximum of 5 years, $129 million.
Given New York’s fascination with Rondo, it also makes sense to include a scenario where New York signs him, along with a $10 million center like Asik or Chandler, as well as one of the 3-and-D players. Factoring in cap holds and the salaries of Felton, Smith, and Hardaway (but not New York’s 2015 first-round pick), the Knicks would then have $48.9 million on the books entering the summer of 2015, which would mean Carmelo’s 2015-16 salary would have to be $17.0 million for the Knicks to fit all their signings under the cap. A second-year salary of $17.0 million would mean Anthony’s first-year salary would check in at about $15.8 million, bringing his 5-year deal to a total of $91.9 million.
The Knicks could of course opt for a center on the lower end of the spectrum (say, Koufos for approximately $5 million) and sign a second 3-and-D player along with Rondo. This would bring New York’s salary commitments after cap holds and before Anthony’s contract to $47.5 million, making Anthony’s second-year salary $18.4 million. That number would bring his 5-year deal to a total of $99.4 million.
If the Knicks decide they want to offer maximum contracts to Rondo and Love, while neglecting to sign a center or a 3-and-D player, their committed salary for 2015-16 would be $53 million, meaning Anthony’s second-year salary would have to be $12.9 million or less, bringing his 5-year total to $69.7 million. If, like the Heat did when they formed their big three, Anthony, Rondo and Love all decided to take the same salary (albeit a year apart), they’d each have to be making $15.4 million in 2015-16, which would bring Anthony’s 5-year deal to a total of $83.2 million, while Rondo and Love would have to sign 4-year, $66.4 million deals.
If the Knicks wanted to give maximum salary deals to just Anthony (5 years, $129 million) and Love (4 years, $72 million), they’d have only $5.3 million left with which to pay eight more players, and that’s without including the first-year salary of their 2015 first round pick, or a salary for Shumpert, though it also does not include the $2.5 million “room exception” afforded to teams under the salary cap.
Each of the foregoing scenarios assumes the Knicks do not tender Shumpert a qualifying offer, and also does not include the first-year salary for the Knicks’ 2015 first-round pick or any bench players beyond Felton, Smith, and Hardaway, and also assumes a $65.9 million salary cap for the 2015-16 season based on the calculation described above. It is possible the cap is either higher or lower, that the Knicks do extend Shumpert a qualifying offer, and that Felton and/or Smith do not exercise their player options. Any of those things being true would change the calculations here.
What we wanted to accomplish was to provide a few different scenarios based on the available players the Knicks would be choosing from to optimally surround Anthony when they’d next have cap space, while projecting what was mostly likely to happen between now and then with the Knicks’ own books. While the Knicks can afford to hand Anthony a maximum salary contract, it would also involve compromising on at least one (and probably more) of their stated desires about which players they’d like to surround Anthony with, as well as the players you’d like to optimally surround him with.