Note: All stats per www.basketball-reference.com
Crazy. The only way to describe day one of the NBA Free Agency hysteria is “crazy”. With the expansion of the salary cap, teams can now offer more money to players than ever, and the league’s front offices whipped out their checkbooks in a big way. At the stroke of midnight, contract talks between teams and players were allowed to proceed. Most organizations wasted no time in making big moves. The Lakers, for example, locked up Timofey Mozgov and Jordan Clarkson to lucrative deals. The Raptors inked shooting guard DeMar DeRozan to a max deal, the Grizzlies gave Mike Conley the largest contract in NBA history, and the Wizards paid Bradley Beal near max money to ensure their promising backcourt stayed in tact. Most of these signings, though, are re-signings. Teams are giving whopping deals to players who were already on their roster this past season. Granted, these re-signings are key, but which teams can truly say their roster looks significantly better than it did last year? One team in particular has made several key moves this summer, cementing themselves as the Most Improved Team of the offseason after day one of Free Agency. That team? The New York Knicks.
Every afternoon as I drive home from work, I listen to ESPN radio. At this point in the sports year, most of the topic of conversation is geared towards the Knicks and the Mets/Yankees. Of course, the Derrick Rose trade has been in the limelight, and to my surprise, the caller base on the radio seems to be 50/50 on the Rose deal. How can anyone think the Rose trade was a bad move by the Knicks? Not only does the deal give the organization major cap options, but it gets them the best point guard they’ve had in years. Jerian Grant had the makings of a nice player, but he wasn’t going to be the starting point guard on a team that’s looking to contend in the East. Robin Lopez was a fine center, but wasn’t the difference maker a healthy Rose can be. Undoubtedly there are concerns with Rose’s health. Last year, however, he proved he can stay on the court (Rose played 66 games with Chicago). At 16.4 PPG and 4.7 APG, Rose is a major step up from what the Knicks had last year in Jose Calderon and Jerian Grant.
The economics of the free agent market explain why so many players are seemingly so overpaid. Common sense tells us that Timofey Mozgov isn’t worth $64 million, and Mike Conley shouldn’t make $30 million PER YEAR. However, the league’s Collective Bargaining Agreement makes sense of these ridiculous spending sprees. According to the CBA, teams must pay a minimum of 90% of the total cap to its players. If they fail to meet this mark, the unspent cash goes to the players currently on the squad. In other words, teams who try to save money will just wind up giving it to their players anyway. The funds are better spent as an agent of persuasion. Rather than waste the money on players already employed, teams are using extra cash to lure in new assets. As it stands now, New York has one of the cleanest caps in the league, meaning they have plenty of money to spend, and very few players tied up in long term contracts. To some extent, Noah was a cheap get at $18 million per year. What Noah brings to the team goes beyond the stat sheet: a tough, passionate attitude and a will to win that hasn’t been present for the Knicks in quite some time. $18 million for a guy who can incite a complete culture change in the locker room while competing as a highly effective center seems like a reasonable deal.
Take Rose and Noah, add them to a lineup with Carmelo Anthony and Kristaps Porzingis, and the Knicks are significantly better than they were last year. Knicks fans aren’t upset about the departure of 34 year old Jose Calderon. Rather, the anti-Rose and anti-Noah purporters are upset about saying goodbye to Jerian Grant and Robin Lopez. Grant would have been nice to hold onto, but as Anthony ages, the Knicks are looking for ways to win now. Combined, Jerian Grant and Robin Lopez scored 15.9 PPG. Rose alone averaged 16.4 PPG. Combined, Jerian Grant and Robin Lopez averaged 9.2 rebounds per game. Joakim Noah averaged 8.8 per game alone. The point being, Rose and Noah together are far more productive than Lopez and Grant. And if their injury woes are so dreadful, why was Rose on the court for 66 out of 82 games last season? Noah missed a good portion of games last year, but only twice in his nine year career has he played less than 64 games.
For the first time since the Carmelo trade, New York is actively making moves that have their team looking like a solid playoff contender. Overall, Phil Jackson seems to have a plan for these Knicks. I’m not even a Knicks fan myself, but seeing Knicks fans still disgruntled at the state of their team is incredibly perplexing. So far this offseason, New York has added: A former MVP who, while not what he once was, can still be one of the better point guards in the league; A former defensive player of the year who, once he gets healthy, can be an elite defender and rebounder. Those two players combined with one of the cleanest caps in the league should have Knicks fans excited about this season. Both have injury histories, but is it better to roll the dice on greatness or remain content in a state of mediocrity? The Knicks have made their choice, and thus, stand as the Most Improved NBA team at this point in the offseason.