Knicks: Forget trading for a superstar, build a cost-effective roster first

MILWAUKEE, WI - APRIL 30: A detailed view of Giannis Antetokounmpo #34 shirts for sale in the Milwaukee Bucks pro shop on April 30, 2020 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The NBA may allow practice facilities to reopen on May 8 that have been closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)
MILWAUKEE, WI - APRIL 30: A detailed view of Giannis Antetokounmpo #34 shirts for sale in the Milwaukee Bucks pro shop on April 30, 2020 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The NBA may allow practice facilities to reopen on May 8 that have been closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images) /

As rumors about superstar players always surround the Knicks, the path to a championship starts with team-friendly contracts.

New York Knicks fans never stop dreaming of ways the franchise can acquire other teams’ star players. A lot of rumors and trade scenarios revolving Leon Rose’s former CAA clients – Karl-Anthony Towns, Devin Booker and Joel Embiid – have been talked about since Rose took over as team president.

The rumors for Giannis Antetokounmpo will only intensify as the summer of 2021 approaches.

But what the fans and media need to realize is that trading for one or even two of those players doesn’t automatically make the Knicks a championship contender. In fact, doing so at this moment will most likely have the opposite effect.

How should the Knicks build their roster?

If you go back and look at all the teams that have won championships since unrestricted free agency started in 1988, no team has built a championship team without having great players playing at below market contracts. Most of those teams were built with young stars that were on rookie contracts.

Let’s start by reviewing the teams built around LeBron James, the NBA’s best player.

LeBron James with the Miami Heat in 2010. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images) /

LeBron James  – Miami Heat

When LeBron James decided to join the Miami Heat as a free agent, he did so at a discount. LeBron, Chris Bosh, and Dwyane Wade all signed for less than the max. And then their key role players – Udonis Haslem, Mike Miller, Shane Battier and Ray Allen – also signed below market contracts. The top 7 players on those Heat teams sacrificed money in order to compete for championships.

In fact, LeBron James wasn’t the highest paid player on those teams, and he wasn’t the highest paid player on any team he played for during his first 11 seasons in the league.

LeBron James  – Cleveland Cavaliers

By his 12th season, LeBron was tired of taking discounts to help the front office. One of the reasons he returned to Cleveland was that he understood that they could build a championship team with both Kyrie Irving ($7.1MM) and Tristian Thompson ($5.1MM) playing on rookie contracts. This allowed the team to have the necessary cap space to not only pay him a max contract, but also to trade for Kevin Love who was making $15.7MM at the time.

LeBron James  – Los Angeles Lakers

While the Lakers were not a championship team when LeBron James decided to join them, they did have a lot of promising young players on rookie contracts.

They had Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball and Kyle Kuzma, plus cap space to sign another max player. They ended up trading two of the three young players to acquire Anthony Davis, who made $27MM, which is still a bargain for a player of his caliber. Even after the trade, they still had enough cap space for one more max-level player, which they were hoping would be Kawhi Leonard.

But the reason the Lakers are one of the best teams in the NBA, even after missing out on Kawhi, is because their third best player, Kyle Kuzma, is still on his rookie contract.

Think about that: the third best player on their team is the 10th highest paid player at just under $2.0MM per year. His contract provides the Lakers the cap flexibility to fill out the rest of their roster with quality veteran players.

In other words, if it wasn’t for Kuzma outplaying his contract, LeBron James wouldn’t be vying for his 4th championship.

Now let’s look at the teams that have preventing him from catching Jordan and Kobe in the rings category.

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San Antonio Spurs

The Spurs won 5 championships over a 15-year period thanks to five future Hall of Famers. Throughout that period, Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Kawhi Leonard were playing on below market contracts. That is the only way a small market team like San Antonio was able to keep such a collection of talent intact for that extended period of time.

Golden State Warriors

The Warriors first championship was possible despite having two bad contracts on the books: David Lee ($15MM) and Andrew Bogut ($13MM) were their two highest paid players at the onset of their dynasty run.

They overcame those bad contracts because their young core players were on such cost effective deals. League MVP Steph Curry ($10.6MM), fellow splash brother Klay Thompson ($3.1MM), Harrison Barnes ($3.0MM) and Draymond Green ($915K) were all making well below what their production would have cost in the open market. Golden State paid those future Olympians and All-Stars a total of $l7.6MM for their 2014-15 championship season.

When Kevin Durant signed in the summer of 2016, as arguably the best player in the world at the time, he signed for a discounted $26.5MM over the first season. He then took another discount in his second season, signing for $25MM so Andre Iguodala and Shawn Livingston could be resigned.

New York Knicks – After “The Decision”

After LeBron James and Chris Bosh decided to sign with the Heat, the Knicks made a desperate move. They overpaid for Amar’e Stoudemire, by giving him a 5-year max deal when everyone knew it was a just matter of time before his knees gave out.

When Carmelo Anthony forced a trade to New York during the 2010-11 season, it was the equivalent of putting a bandage on a 10 inch gash.  To make matters worse, Carmelo and his agent Leon Rose later secured a 5-year max contract. The additions of Amar’e and Melo made the Knicks better, but pretty much closed the door on the team competing for Eastern Conference supremacy against the Miami Heat.

Carmelo was costing the Knicks $2 million more per season than LeBron James was costing the Heat. What’s worse was the cost New York paid to originally acquire Anthony: the Knicks traded two young assets that were on rookie contracts – Danilo Gallinari ($3.3MM) and Wilson Chandler ($2.1MM) – plus two 1st round picks. Denver was able to draft Jamal Murray with one of those future draft picks. The Knicks didn’t do the math right, so they ran out of assets before they could acquire the additional star player they desperately needed.

New York Knicks – Today

It’s time for the Knicks and their fans to change their mindset. I saw a trade proposal online the other day that made sense, in theory, but doesn’t in reality if you understand championship math. Someone was proposing trading Julius Randle, RJ Barrett and Mitchell Robinson for Devin Booker. I am sure the Knicks of old would have also included a couple of draft picks. While that trade makes the Knicks better, it limits their ability to compete for a championship. It’s another version of the Carmelo Anthony trade.

In order for the Knicks to have a viable chance at  a championship, they need either Barrett or Robinson, preferably both, to develop into All-Stars while they are on rookie contracts.

Booker and a high-priced free agent, alone, makes you better, but limits you from being great.

Next. Why LeBron was never coming to the Knicks in 2010. dark

The true value Leon Rose and World Wide Wes can bring to Madison Square Garden is not convincing players to come to New York, it’s convincing them to sign at a discount.