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Knicks 2018-19 Preview: Courtney Lee & Lance Thomas

Rocking steady, veteran presence.

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NBA: New York Knicks at Chicago Bulls David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

These days the Knicks say they are all about youth, athleticism and the position-less buoyancy therein. Courtney Lee and Lance Thomas hold fast as the elder statesmen of this young squad. The last remaining old heads. Born all the way back in the crack-dimension called the 80’s.

These two gents supply the coaches with the certainty that a well laid plan will be followed. Maintaining relevance as sturdy, if ineffectual players that lack the fluidity to bounce all around the lineup, try as they might. Lee has been a starter-level player with a rotation player’s framework for his entire career. Thomas has swung back and forth through the rotation as the not-quite mediocre pendulum of Knicks hoops.

What do these players bring to the team’s culture?

New York doesn’t project to be an especially good team this season. That doesn’t imply, however, that veteran leadership can’t impact the team’s long term trajectory. Can Lee and Thomas instill good practice habits that teach the youth? Absolutely. Give them tips and tricks on how to read some of the league’s great players? Certainly. So surely they can play for the Knicks and make positive contributions.

To be good Knicks this year, they’ll have to figure out how to guide the youth through the fog and mist. The complexities of the game and life. Steer them around the pitfalls and quick sands. Tell them when to expect a bumpy ride. The tricky part will be maintaining their own good habits and self esteem when it’s their ride that’s rough. Their futures in flux. The only smooth sailing they’ll encounter could seem like the lost at sea variety.

Can these guys still play (for the Knicks)?

Last year was probably the most statistically effective season Courtney Lee has had as a pro. He’s never really been a stand out, but he’s been an effective player going all the way back to his rookie season. He keeps fine tuning his game, and it’s within reason that he could offer any playoff team a sound, stabilizing presence for their rotation. To wit, Lee should be a counterbalance for a reckless, young rebuilding team just the same.

On the other side, starting power forward Lance Thomas has never really had a good statistical season. This year should be much of the same. Thomas will be in charge of keeping all the young and inattentive Knicks in the right spots on defense. Early returns suggest Fizdale has Lance barking out defensive assignments and anticipating all the transactions they’ll need to stay on top of to balance their check book. Even mid-career guys like Enes Kanter and Tim Hardaway Jr have a lot of outstanding bills. So Thomas certainly has his work cut out for him.

Can they be traded?

Lee makes just over $12m this year and next making him account for just over ⅒ of any team’s salary cap. That manages to fall awkwardly into the tough sell zone. New York will need to trade Lee for expiring contracts if they wish to completely open up their renovation budget to make a full blown maximum offer to Kevin Durant. But they’ll be close to $32mil and that could pull someone like Kawhi Leonard, Klay Thompson or Kyrie Irving. Steve Mills and Scott Perry will probably want to move Lee at some point between now and free agency to be certain they have the space. It’s hard to think they’d dare hold onto him all the way up to the draft, where they’ll be adding a cap hold to their already starched sheet.

He can still manufacture playing time most anywhere in the league based on his all around competence. Wing players are supremely valuable these days, but Lee doesn’t project as someone that can singlehandedly win a quarter for a playoff team. That may leave him stranded with the Knicks. He’s refuted reports from before camp saying he would like to be traded. Still, one wonders how much longer he’ll want to wait before he tries to make his way to a contender. Possibly bookending his career going from a Finals appearance as a rookie to Finals champion late in his career. Conversely- if winning a championship doesn’t concern him- you might not want that old man’s ennui infecting an otherwise hungry piranha tank.

Thomas makes a more modest salary and his 2019-20 season is non-guaranteed. That allows the Knicks to keep him through the season (renouncing his rights after) without the worry of a few million bucks gumming up their cap sheet for next year.

It’s possible they can be used in a sign and trade to get a big name free agent. The specter of having to shed future assets for the immediate slack seems like something they should avoid however.

So, boom. This is like having a pair of perfectly good sneakers. You want them in the closet, because, hey their Chuck’s, you’ll wear ‘em. But maybe you can drop ‘em off at the Salvation Armani and create the requisite space to grab that pair of Bally’s. Time will tell.