Courtney Lee is a wanted man.
The New York Knicks, of course, knew this before the season started. At 32, with a nice three-point stroke, some defensive chops and a reasonable three years (including this one) and $36.8 million left on his deal, he fits the bill for playoff hopefuls and contenders. Not surprisingly, then, the team needed to tell Lee they wouldn’t be moving him over the offseason once they signed Tim Hardaway Jr., per Newsday‘s Al Iannazzone:
Lee had inside information that the Knicks’ plan was to play him and Hardaway together. Team president Steve Mills and coach Jeff Hornacek called Lee to tell him he was still part of their plans after Hardaway signed a four-year, $71-million deal.
“I kind of knew that over the summertime before you all knew it,” Lee said. “I just kept that in. Early on they told me, right when they made the move, I got a phone call from Steve, Coach, everybody, saying your role doesn’t change. We need you to be more aggressive on both ends of the court and just play your game.”
Will the Knicks keep their word through the season?
It’s tough to tell.
Though their .500 record suggests they will, they’re not really a playoff hopeful, let alone a contender. Their early start is overrated thanks to a home-heavy schedule, and they have no business chasing a bottom-three playoff seed anyway. They should be selling off their win-now pieces to increase the value of this year’s draft pick. Play their cards right, and they could add a top-seven prospect to a core of Kristaps Porzingis, Frank Ntilikina and Hardaway.
Pulling the trigger on a quasi-teardown also figures to be fairly easy. The Knicks won’t be able to get rid of Joakim Noah, or even Enes Kanter, but Lee is having a career year and, given his contract, holds real value around the league—so much so that teams continue to call the Knicks about his availability, according to ESPN.com’s Ian Begley:
It might sound a bit hyperbolic, but it’s not a stretch to say that how the Knicks respond during Hardaway’s absence could define their season. If New York (12-12) sputters with Hardaway out, team president Steve Mills and general manager Scott Perry might choose to unload veterans at the trade deadline with an eye toward the draft. (On that front, opposing teams continue to show interest in Lee, per league sources.)
If the Knicks can get a first-round pick in exchange for Lee’s services without dampening their financial outlook any further, they should absolutely be making a move. He is a great plug-and-play option, but their timeline runs counter to his. Lee deserves to play for a team in the running for something special, and the Knicks need to restock their draft-pick cupboard the best they can while continuing to rebuild around Porzingis.