An NBA organization is a complex creature. The fifteen humans paid to play are one organ within a larger organism, as are the God-knows-how-many humans who work in the front office, as is the organization's rep. Together, they're one holistic being. The most successful organizations flow in different ways -- the Warriors give off a real humanistic vibe; in Cleveland, LeBron's accumulated more power than any player I can remember, and it works for them; the Spurs create heaven on Earth and player-disciples the world over make the pilgrimage to San Antonio. But the universal is they all flow.
Phil Jackson began this final chapter of his Knick kismet taking the reins of a perennially dysfunctional Mecca. If there was any organizational ethos, it involved hamstringing their future by overpaying for overrated redundant talent in the present, all the while cynically pimping the past to create a diversion (a Stalinesque-censored past). Jackson inherited a 27-40 team making a failed run at the eighth seed with no draft pick that summer (and just one pick total from 2014-2016) and no cap room. The payroll was $86M (thanks to spotrac for salary figures). Their average age was 27.2. Amar'e Stoudemire and Andrea Bargnani combined to earn $33.6M when their market value, combined, was closer to $5M.
Jackson traded players he didn't think fit for younger projects and three second-round picks (Houston's in 2017; Houston and Cleveland's in 2019). Your average Knick next season will be 25.5 years old. Some projects are works-in-progress (Cleanthony Early). Some are long shots (Thanasis Antetokounmpo). Some didn't pan out (Shane Larkin). All are something. Something = potential. Something = flexibility. Something = inexpensive. This inexpensive flexibility allowed Jackson to afford free agents with complementary skill sets. This summer's additions - Robin Lopez, Arron Afflalo, Derek Williams, and Kyle O'Quinn - earn about $29M next year. Combined.
Culture changes don't tend to announce themselves. Something shifts and after enough time passes, there's a new normal. The Warriors didn't know Draymond Green starting would blow up the way it did. Sometimes what doesn't happen shapes years and years of consequence; if Tim Duncan signs with Orlando in 2000, Gregg Popovich doesn't have carte blanche to IDGAF sideline reporters and NBA commissioners with equal impunity. It's tempting to label drafting Kristaps Porzingis the birth of the A.D. era (After Dolan), particularly given his impressive start in the Vegas Summer League, but if the Knicks' old normal was still in place in 2015, they'd have picked up a Reggie Jackson or Dion Waiters. Sometimes the moves you don't make are as big as the ones you do.
Of course, the moves you make are pretty big too. Take a look at how the Knick payroll looked two years ago:
And here's the breakdown for next season:
At first glance the charts look similar. In each case, the top two salaries make up half the total payroll. But in 2014, the top-5 earners took up 87% of the whole; next year's take up just under 73%. There are other differences of note. Next year's roster is younger. It's quite possibly more multitalented. How many players from 2014 were two-way talents? Tyson Chandler and...? Pablo Prigioni, maybe. Next year, Lopez and Afflalo, while unspectacular, are at least competent on both ends, and it's conceivable one or more of the Porzingis/Jerian Grant/O'Quinn/Langston Galloway set could be, too.
Given that only one prominent free agent left his old team this summer, it may seem cap space is passe. But the variables of every offseason shape each summer differently. Cap space means options, not only for big glamour signings, but for trade opportunities that don't currently exist. Speaking of possibility, check out the payroll breakdown for 2017 (assuming Afflalo and Williams exercise their options to stay and Calderon isn't stretch-waved):
Remember: the cap goes up about 29% next year, from $70M to $90M. If Afflalo, Williams, and Calderon all stay, the top-5 salaries will combine for just 65% of the total payroll. Carmelo's $24.6M in 2017 is equal to $17M under last year's cap or $19M under this year's; if 2018's cap ends up around $110M, which is currently forecast but could change
if when the league locks out the players, Carmelo's contract drops to 24% of the total cap. Whether you view him as a long-term piece to build around or a piece to move for assets sooner than later, his salary's no albatross.
People are noticing the Knicks acting like a healthy, functional organism, as opposed to someone suffering a chronic disease they refuse to treat; it's like they're finally giving the pills a chance. Derek Fisher coached their summer league squad for the second straight year. That's not a back page headline, but it's one of those little things that can add up to payoff later. One of the neat things about culture change is the prominent role continuity plays in creating it.
For too long now Knick culture consisted of top-dollar dreams: pay the biggest name (you can get) the most money, or land the biggest name in a trade regardless of contract or roster fit, and trust that star power to seismically reshape everything. That's Reaganomics roster-building. Any grass movementarian knows sustainable, meaningful change doesn't trickle down like that. Stars shine from above, but their light is distant. The ground that shakes and transforms foundations is immediately beneath us.