Knicks’ Options to Improve Roster Are Limited After Playoff Exit

The New York Knicks have little financial flexibility to improve an aging roster enough to end a 40-year championship drought, while some of the elite teams in their conference stand to get stronger.

The Knicks’ best National Basketball Association season in 13 years ended two days ago with a six-game loss to the Indiana Pacers in the best-of-seven Eastern Conference semifinals. While the Pacers take on LeBron James and the defending champion Miami Heat for a spot in the NBA Finals, the Knicks face questions about what’s next for a franchise that this season had its most wins in 16 years and won its first playoff series since 2000.

With almost $60 million in salary allotted to Carmelo Anthony, Amar’e Stoudemire and Tyson Chandler each of the next two seasons, the Knicks’ core may be the same through 2014-15, leaving General Manager Glen Grunwald few options under the NBA’s salary cap to overhaul the league’s oldest roster. The Heat, meanwhile, may be coming off a second straight title with James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, while the Bulls and Celtics next season will both probably have All-Star guards back from injury: former NBA Most Valuable Player Derrick Rose in Chicago and Rajon Rondo in Boston.

“The Knicks have issues in the NBA Eastern Conference called the Miami Heat with LeBron James and the Chicago Bulls with Derrick Rose,” said Jalen Rose, who played 13 seasons in the league and is now an analyst at Walt Disney Co.’s ABC network. “They’re not better than those two teams. They don’t get points in the paint, they don’t make each other better and they don’t compete defensively for long periods of time. All things you need to do to win in the playoffs.”

One Star

The Knicks were built in a fashion similar to the 2010-11 Dallas Mavericks, who assembled the right mix of players to complement forward Dirk Nowitzki. The Mavericks that year beat the Miami Heat in the NBA Finals for Nowitzki’s lone title.

Avoiding the recent mold of NBA championship teams having at least two star players, the Knicks sought to build around Anthony, who was the league’s leading scorer this season. The Knicks set an NBA-record for three-pointers and had the best turnover margin in the league, averaging three fewer than their opponents in winning a division title and earning the No. 2 playoff seed in the Eastern Conference.

Against the Pacers, Anthony’s supporting cast faded.

Chandler averaged 6.2 points and six rebounds per game and was outplayed inside by the Pacers’ 7-foot-2 Roy Hibbert, who had series averages of 13.3 points and 10.3 rebounds. Stoudemire appeared in four games, averaging 3.8 points and 2.3 rebounds in limited playing time, while J.R. Smith was held to 29 percent shooting, including 23 percent from three-point range.

“I wasn’t there for my teammates,” Smith told reporters after the Knicks’ 106-99 Game 6 loss in which he missed 11 of 15 shot attempts. “My teammates are supposed to be able to rely on me. I didn’t step up.”

Better, Stronger

Anthony, who averaged 28.8 points a game in the playoffs, said the Knicks will take the offseason to regroup and come back “better and stronger” next season. How much different they’ll be from this year’s squad remains to be seen.

Like Anthony, Chandler and Stoudemire, Raymond Felton, Jason Kidd, Marcus Camby and Steve Novak are all under contract for the next two seasons. Iman Shumpert is set to make $1.6 million next season, with a club option for 2014-15. Smith may test free agency this offseason -- with a $2.9 million player option for next season -- yet the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year said two days ago that he wants to “retire a Knick.”

Stoudemire, who has had two knee surgeries in eight months, is due a team-high $21.7 million next season and $23.4 million in 2014-15. The 30-year-old’s declining production and injury history will make it difficult for the Knicks to trade him and have the flexibility to pursue a potential free agent such as All-Star point guard Chris Paul of the Los Angeles Clippers.

Leadership Need

A player like Paul may be just what the Knicks need to take the next step, according to Earl “The Pearl” Monroe, who was part of the Knicks’ last championship team in 1973.

“They need somebody who can run the team, a real leader,” Monroe, a Hall-of-Fame guard, said on the Madison Square Garden network. “Not only a leader on the floor, but also in the locker room because you have a lot of guys who have a lot of different issues on this team. The name of the game is trying to pull it all together.”

Former NBA player Wally Szczerbiak, who also covers the Knicks for the MSG network, said the team has many of the pieces in place to make another playoff run next season, though the pressure on Anthony will only increase.

“It’s championship or bust at this time in his career,” Szczerbiak said. “The Knicks have got to make a bold move but still knowing they have some really good pieces right now.”

Time Left

Anthony, who turns 29 on May 29, said he’s optimistic about what’s in store for the Knicks, even if the path through the Eastern Conference could be even tougher next season.

“I still have a lot of time left in this league,” said Anthony, who is under contract for $21.4 million next season and $23.3 million in 2014-15. “We took some steps forward as an organization. It’s a learning curve for us and we’ll be back better and stronger next season for sure.”

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