Joakim Noah


Schmeelk: Noah Stretch Puts Knicks All-In On 2019 Summer Free Agent Class

Move Robbed Team Of Future Salary-Cap Flexibility

John Schmeelk
October 15, 2018 - 11:52 am

All offseason long, Knicks president Steve Mills and general manager Scott Perry have preached patience in their approach to rebuilding the team to respectability. Their patience has been reflected in most of their moves until this weekend, when the Knicks waived center Joakim Noah by using the stretch position, allowing them to spread the cap hit over a few seasons.

I’ve written many times in great detail why waiving Noah in this way is a mistake, so I won’t waste everyone’s time regurgitating those same reasons here. It really is very simple. By waiving Noah, the Knicks gain about $13 million of salary-cap space next summer but lose about $6.5 million in the 2020-21 and 2021-22 seasons.

The Knicks did not have to stretch Noah now, unless there was some kind of guarantee he was going to be a serious disruption in the locker room. A back-end roster spot currently claimed by Emmanuel Mudiay is not valuable enough to warrant the move. The Knicks could have just as easily waited until next summer to make this move when they would know whether or not they needed the extra salary-cap room in the summer of 2019 before sacrificing future flexibility.

So what does this mean? It means the Knicks' front office is pushing all of its chips to the center of the table and going all-in to sign a free agent next summer. The Knicks are now within $1 million of affording a maximum contract for a player with seven to nine years of experience but are still about $6.4 million short of affording a maximum contract for an older veteran like Kevin Durant.

There is significant risk to pursuing this strategy. Kyrie Irving has all but committed to returning to the Celtics. Jimmy Butler is still trying to push the Timberwolves into a trade that could lead to a maximum extension. Karl-Anthony Towns, scheduled to be a restricted free agent, has signed his maximum rookie extension.

With the market thinning, there are only three players likely worth a maximum-level contract from NBA teams: Kawhi Leonard, Klay Thompson and Kevin Durant. If -- and only if -- the Knicks are able to land one of those three players will their Noah gambit make any sense. As Knicks fans have been made to realize over the past 18 years, there are never any guarantees that the best free agents want to come to New York.

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If the Knicks do miss on those stars, they will be stuck spending money on players such as Kemba Walker, Goran Dragic, Khris Middleton, Tobias Harris, Terry Rozier and Eric Bledsoe. They are all fine players, but for different reasons, not the type of franchise player the Knicks need to add next to Kristaps Porzingis to make them contenders moving forward.

The worst thing the Knicks can do next summer is to feel so much pressure to spend their available salary-cap space that they give it to the wrong guy who turns into an anchor on the team’s ability to get where it wants to go. Amar’e Stoudemire was a fallback player for the Knicks the year they lost out on the LeBron James sweepstakes. Stoudemire's salary, injuries and lack of production on the court turned out to be a huge reason the team could never win with Carmelo Anthony.

The move to stretch Noah now puts pressure on the Knicks to make the same exact mistake. The option to wait until the summer of 2020 to sign the right player is no longer as attractive. Kristaps Porzingis’ cap number, if he signs his max extension, will jump from a $17 million cap hold in 2019 to a $29 million salary in 2020. There will now still be $6.5 million of Noah’s contract left on the books as well.

Courtney Lee’s expiring contract mitigates some of those issues, and whether Tim Hardaway Jr. activates his player option is no sure thing, but the fact remains that the best way for the Knicks to maximize their cap space is to spend what they can in 2019 before Porzings signs his mega-extension. If Noah was not stretched and both he and Lee were completely off the books in the summer of 2020, waiting would be far more palatable from a cap perspective.

It is still an option, but a far less attractive one. It would be more or less impossible to clear enough space in 2020 for a 10-plus year veteran max deal that someone like Durant would demand with Noah still on the books, unless Hardaway Jr. opts out or they trade one of their players still on a rookie contract. All those numbers also assume no one is added to a multiyear deal in 2019.

The problem is that the Knicks have forced themselves to make all these calculations in October 2018 thanks to an artificial timetable they placed on themselves for little reason. If Durant is ready to commit to the Knicks next summer, Noah could have been stretched just as easily then.

The only way this makes any sense at all is if the Knicks have some kind of tacit understanding that they are going to be able to land Durant, Leonard or Thompson next summer. There are an awful lot of rumblings that Durant would like to finish his career in New York, but that could just as easily be noise as news. He might also decide to stay in Golden State for one more season to play in the Warriors' new arena before leaving. If he does that, the Knicks would have cost themselves the space necessary to offer him a maximum deal in 2020.

Stretching Noah was an unforced error of impatience of the Knicks' own making. Unless Noah was going to actively sabotage the team, having him on the roster this season was well worth the cost of improved future salary-cap flexibility. Instead of exercising the type of patience Mills and Perry have preached, they’ve made a move similar to past mistakes that could pressure them into a misstep next summer. It’s something the Knicks franchise, in its current state, cannot afford.

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