Here’s hoping Amar’e's powers of persuasion fail with Joe Johnson and that he accepts a max salary deal to stay in Atlanta. And that’s not because I don’t like Joe Johnson. He’s a premium guy and a top 5 player at his position, but it’s one thing to be talking about signing Joe to a contract that starts at around $13-14 million. It’s a whole other thing to be talking about giving him a deal that averages $21 million per over 6 years. At $13 million Johnson is cumbersome but justifiable–the cost of doing business on an elite player for a franchise trying to reassert itself among the elite. But at $21 million he’s a two ton anchor that threatens to sink the whole ship.
I know what some of you are thinking right about now (especially Stallion): Well, what’s Amar’e at max dollars then? Isn’t he the same type of albatross as Johnson? And while I see the merit of that logic, I disagree with it. For starters Amar’e is an elite big man and elite big men are in short supply. Yes, the Knicks could’ve resigned David Lee instead but, for the reasons Dan discusses in his post from earlier today, I think Amar’e is the better play. Amar’e is a one dimensional player, but in that one dimension he is an absolute dynamo–the very best in the league at what he does best. With the way this free agent market is shaping up, paying top dollar for a premium player with dominant skill is justifiable.
Getting out in front of the market and taking Amar’e out of play with other teams was an inspired move by Walsh and Co. There are a finite number of elite bigs available and, of those, Amar’e was generally perceived as being second best. By removing him as an option for their competitors, the Knicks have created a Bosh or bust environment for pretty much all the other teams vying for Lebron. And if teams do go bust on Bosh (who in this process seems to be marching to the beat of his own drummer), they may find themselves in the midst of a nightmarish summer.
But even if you accept my argument for why Amar’e is a good risk for the Knicks, he’s still a big risk. And the risk is only compounded by signing another quasi-elite player for crazy money. With only Amar’e in tow, the Knicks still have great flexibility to improve the team significantly both in the short and long term. The worst thing the Knicks could do at this point is lock themselves into two insanely expensive max contracts for the next 5-6 years that would choke off that flexibility and put a hard cap on the team’s long-term potential.
I know Amar’e and D’Antoni love Joe Johnson and I know Walsh has a special relationship with Johnson’s agent, Arn Tellem of Wasserman Media Group, but all of their careers would be better served by loving him from afar. A much better way to go for the Knicks would be to position themselves to acquire Tony Parker (perhaps for Wilson Chandler, Tony Douglas and a sizable trade exception) while trying to extract young talent from David Lee’s quest for a max deal of his own. Wolves’ GM extraordinaire David Kahn is said to be in heat for D. Lee and if Kahn offers him that max deal it might be too much scratch for Lee to pass up. The Wolves are only about $7 million under the cap after locking down twin towers Nikola Pekovic and Darko Milicic so if Lee and Kahn want to hook up they’re going to need the Knicks to be their matchmaker. In that scenario, Walsh might be able to extract two players from a five man group consisting of Kevin Love, Jonny Flynn, Corey Brewer, Ramon Sessions and Martell Webster.
If the Knicks steered clear of Johnson and all of the above came to fruition, they could conceivably field a team next season consisting of, for instance, Parker, Webster, Gallo, Amar’e and Love. Or perhaps Parker, Walker, Gallo, Amare, and Love with Sessions or Flynn coming off the bench. You get the idea.
A team like that has much more long-term upside than one that’s irretrievably locked in on insane max deals for marginal superstars. Parker’s (and Eddy Curry’s) contract would be ending after next season and the other players on the roster would all be still-developing guys in their early 20s playing on short, reasonable contracts.
It’s not Lebron and Bosh or even Amar’e and Joe Johnson but that’s a pretty good blueprint to turn the Knicks into a serious contender for right now and well into the future.