A Free Agency Deep Dive: What Positions Do Teams Value Most?
Cap space and the Knicks are two things that historically have mixed like oil and water. The last time that the team was in a position like this with boatloads of money to spend, it was used on a shoddy power forward that had just a half season left of max value and a small forward that really should have been a four the whole time whose Knicks career peaked in the second round of the Playoffs thanks to Roy Hibbert. Translation: in 2010 the Knicks struck out on the same A-list free agents that they've been linked to all of this season and when that plan backfired they committed just about all of that max money to players that never quite enjoyed any run of sustained success. It's taken the team nearly a decade to recover from those — and many more — ill-fated moves, and only now have they reached a point where they could potentially pivot into contention. Regardless, this is uncharted territory for the Knicks: they are equipped with the best possible assets short of stars in their young talent mostly on rookie or dirt cheap contracts, an abundance of draft picks, and of course that aforementioned cap space. If they miss out on big names yet again, or if the doomsday Kyrie and KD to Brooklyn scenario happens, the company line remains encouragingly firm: be patient, and don't commit long-term money to B-list free agents.
Stars or not, the Knicks are going to need to sign some players this July just to hit the minimum team salary, which is 90% of the cap. And in deciding which players they may pursue it's worth taking a look at all of the contracts handed out over the past three years to see which positions that teams valued the most. I chose the period from 2016 to 2018 because 2016 was the year of the infamous cap spike, which shifted the nature of contracts around the league. (It will go down as one of the worst summers ever for big-market GMs: I'm still looking for answers as to how Joakim Noah, Luol Deng, and Timofey Mozgov managed to secure a combined $208 million.) But not only did the dollar amounts increase, the NBA game itself also underwent significant changes, with teams like the Rockets and Warriors showing the value in three-point shooting from all positions as well as multipositional players that can be plugged in across various lineups. With this newfound emphasis on lineup flexibility, the traditional one-to-five position classifications have become antiquated, and for the purpose of this article I chose to group the signings into four, more fluid positions: guards, wings, forwards, and big men. For every contract I divided it into a one-year average for comparison's sake (for example, Zach LaVine's 4-year, $78 million contract was counted as $19.5 million for a guard) and I also chose to exclude minimum contracts because I felt it was more worthwhile to look at the salaries that teams willingly handed out above the minimum mark. Let's get into the averages:
Guards Average Salary: $10.42 million
Sample Size: 61 Players
Wings Average Salary: $10.81 Million
Sample Size: 87 Players
Forwards Average Salary: $11.53 Million
Sample Size: 32 Players
Big Men Average Salary: $9.84 Million
Sample Size: 77 Players
I'll be honest, the gap between the respective positions isn't huge, but does confirm a few trends that we've seen in the league over the past couple years. For starters, forwards, albeit a smaller percentage of the player pool, include some of the league's most valuable players and are paid like so. Now, you could say the numbers are slightly inflated because a player like Kevin Durant has signed a new contract every single year of his Warriors tenure, yet 1+1 contracts are becoming more and more prevalent, and are the exact type of deals I'd hope the Knicks explore should they be forced into their contingency plans. Speaking of backup plans, Julius Randle has been someone often linked to the Knicks should they need to pivot from Durant, and his situation draws some similarities to another 24-year-old forward: Jabari Parker. Parker signed a two-year, $40 million "prove it" contract last season with the rebuilding Bulls, and lasted just half a season in Chicago before being shipped out to Washington. Parker's circumstances deviate from Randle's in that he had already suffered two torn ACL's before signing that contract, and in lieu of that, hats off to Parker for securing $20 million a year. The ideal Randle contract would resemble something similar to that of Parker's, however in all likelihood he will get more money for more years because he's much better at basketball. We'll soon find out how sincere Mills and Perry are about sticking to this rebuild if that's what it comes to, because all of this good will that the team's been building could disappear with one Tim Hardaway Jr. offer sheet.
While the fact that the averages say that forwards are the most valuable position may be up for debate, there's no question that wings are the most in-demand position in the league right now. Wings make up by far the largest share of $10-$20 million contracts — not quite the max nor the mid-level exception — and confirms one of the most fundamental truths of the modern NBA: shooting pays. Take Joe Ingles, a player who came into the league as a three-point specialist and was then given the necessary playing time and role to develop into a valuable two-way wing. In 2017, Ingles signed a 4-year $52 million contract that at the moment looks far from an overpay. That's one of the best outcomes for a free agent wing signing, as paying double digits for role players can be a dangerous game. For every Ingles, there's an $85 million Evan Fournier or a $106 million Otto Porter — the types of contracts that can leave you in cap space purgatory for years. Those are also the sorts of contracts that loom as the biggest threat to the Knicks rebuild: maxing someone like Tobias Harris just doesn't make sense in a vacuum — if this was a team that was one player away from a title contender then sure, make the gamble, but for a franchise with nothing but NBA adolescents, it ain't moving the needle.
If teams are paying more for middling wings, it means that other positions are getting paid less — specifically big men. It's damn near impossible to play more than one traditional center or big guy that can't shoot, and oftentimes in the Playoffs even valuable centers like Clint Capela and Rudy Gobert are relegated to the bench in the game's highest leverage moments. As a result, big men (which I classify as centers and power forwards that now mostly play center, i.e. Kyle O'Quinn) have become the most disposable position in the league, and make up the largest share of $1-$8 million contracts over the past three years. The decreased value of centers may not bode well for the Knicks given that their current prized possession plays just that, however one of the things that makes Mitchell Robinson so special is that he has the chance to become a generational defender who can also play alongside a more traditional center. To maintain relevancy, many centers have had no choice but to embrace the three-point shot, and those who don't face NBA extinction. Last season, Brook Lopez traded in almost all of his low-post game in exchange for a career-high 6.3 three-point attempts, and illustrates how a big that can stretch the floor could be a fascinating fit next to Robinson. We got a taste of this last season when Fizdale experimented with playing Luke Kornet alongside Mitch, and although the results weren't anything eye popping (103 offensive rating and a -3.9 net rating in 218 minutes) it's still an intriguing pairing if the Knicks can replace Kornet with a higher caliber player. Even though Robinson is an elite defender from just about every area, it's his ability to stymie the perimeter like a guard (and block three-pointers, of course) that make him such a unique talent. It also means that Mitch paired with a rim protecting big who can also shoot threes is not just plausible, but could be the rare twin towers pairing that works in today's NBA. Moreover, there's a few potential bigs that fit that mold who hit the market on July 1:
I know, I get it. This one's still a little raw following this Stein Bomb™:
But this is the exact type of one-year wonkiness I can get behind. Even if the Knicks do land Durant, next year will be a lost season regardless, so why not throw several short-term fliers and see what sticks? It will be Cousins' first full season since the achilles tear, and even though he may ultimately just be too slow to play next to Robinson, the potential upside is a dominant two-way frontline that could mirror certain elements of the AD-Cousins era. Cousins shot just 27% from three last season, and would need to raise that to something closer — or even better — than his 33% career average for this pairing to have any viability. We saw how much Robinson benefitted from having a veteran center around in DeAndre Jordan, perhaps Cousins could also play a role in Mitch's development.
Despite being a veteran NBA big man, Dedmon will not come cheap. He's an ideal center in so many different lineups given that he shot 38% from three last season, and was also a key component of the Hawks' young, upstart offense. Dedmon getting offered the mid-level by multiple teams is all but a guarantee, but if the Knicks offer a fat one-year contract — somewhere in the $10-$20 million range — then maybe Dedmon could be theirs. Spacing would be no issue between him and Robinson, as the lane would be free for Mitch to roll into with Dedmon parked out on the three-point line. On defense, Dedmon could protect the rim with Robinson offering elite perimeter defense. Multiple teams are expected to be aggressive in pursuing Dedmon, but if anything he fits the stretch five archetype that would behoove the Knicks to experiment with next to Mitch.
If a Julius Randle 1+1 contract is going to be too unrealistic, then Portis may be a more attainable target. The Wizards reportedly won't match his asking price of $16 million per year, and he does fit the timetable of the Knicks' young core. Portis shot 39% from three last season, and if nothing else put up solid counting stats on a pair of bad teams between the Bulls and the Wizards. He could also be a more flexible defensive fit next to Robinson, as he provides more switchability than a lumbering center like Cousins (for the record, the tracking data does paint Portis as a turnstile on defense). There are no such thing as bad one-year contracts for a rebuilding team like the Knicks, and if Mills and Perry want to roll the dice on young players that have shown flashes of useful NBA skills, sign me up.
The number of teams that have significant cap space this summer has many comparing this offseason to 2016: A.K.A. the summer of bloated contracts handed out just because teams had the space. Everything that the Knicks have said indicates that we won't get a repeat of the 2016 Courtney Lee-Lance Thomas-Joakim Noah trifecta, and the front office deserves a lot of credit for shifting the perception of the team to what a New York basketball team should be: a destination. During the Phil Jackson era, not even rookies would meet with the Knicks because of how dysfunctional the organization appeared to be. But today, at the very least the front office seems to have made New York attractive again at an opportune moment of player empowerment. Star chasing is still the Knicks' fastest and most realistic path to contention, but the true test of this front office will be what happens if New York doesn't get those stars. We've seen that movie before — we're about to find out if the Knicks remember it too.