TO LINSANITY AND BEYOND… A BUSY OFFSEASON AWAITS

Glen Grunwald wore a smile when he officially got the job as Knicks general manager earlier this season. It was not a reward for a job well done as the interim, but a vote of confidence in his ability to continue to get the job done.

He spent a majority of the season as an inconspicuous presence, which is just how he likes it, yet as the Knicks went into the offseason following Wednesday’s Game 5 loss in Miami, Grunwald takes his first step into the spotlight now facing a summer that will be loaded with critical decisions. Another move like what we saw in December, when the team aggressively maneuvered to land free agent prize Tyson Chandler, and the Knicks could be a championship contender next season.

But one or two false moves could limit the potential of this team, which next season will mark its 40th year since its last NBA title.

“I didn’t come here to lose in the first round,” Chandler said. “I don’t plan on doing this in the future.”

A lot of that depends on the team’s three stars, Chandler, Carmelo Anthony and Amar’e Stoudemire, raising their respective levels as they each hit the peak years of their careers. But it also depends on assembling the right supporting cast around them.

It starts, of course, with a player who could be considered a star in his own right, though mainly in popularity after what was essentially storybook month of February that will forever be known as “Linsanity.” What Jeremy Lin now faces is an offseason in which he absolutely must return for training camp in October a better, smarter and stronger player than he was this season. That much is on him.

But the team has to decide just how much value to put into 35 games — yes, 35 mostly impressive, sometimes inexplicable games — when they discuss his contract situation. What happens with Lin on this front will directly impact everything else they can and will do in the offseason to improve the team.

Lin is a restricted free agent, which means the Knicks can match any offers made by other teams. With the Gilbert Arenas provision, teams can not offer Lin more than the league’s average salary, about $5 million. But because the Knicks don’t yet own Lin’s “Bird Rights” (which allows teams to go over the cap to sign their own players), the team would have to use some, or possibly all, of their Mid-Level Exception ($5 million per season for a maximum of four years).

Here is where the Knicks are in a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t situation. Let us explain:

Lin’s market value can’t be judged like most players because of his incredible popularity and the resulting impact he potentially has on ticket sales, television and advertising revenue and more for a small-market team, especially one with a large Asian population (i.e.: Toronto), looking to make money, or get a return on its investment. So as several NBA executives have indicated to me recently, it’s not outrageous to believe at least one team may make a full mid-level offer to Lin in the hopes the Knicks will pass.

The Knicks, who are over the salary cap, have so many other areas of need to address (point guard, backup center, bench scoring) and to tie up their entire MLE on one player, which would leave them with little else to use to fill the roster than the Bi-Annual Exception ($1.9 million) and veteran’s minimum contracts.

With an obvious need for an experienced playmaking point guard and the ideal fit in Steve Nash available, the Knicks might prefer to make a play for Nash with their mid-level and, in an idealistic world, have him around to mentor a protégé like the 23-year-old Lin. (This is, of course, assuming Nash would come for merely $5 million, which, according to people I have spoken with, is way below his perceieved value even at 38 years old).

How could they possibly do this? By getting Lin to make a sacrifice for one season.

This is an extremely unlikely scenario, but hear me out.

Lin could conceivably accept his qualifying offer of $1,029,389 for one season, which will keep him on the roster for one more season. That allows the Knicks to get his “Early Bird” rights next year, which, again allow them to re-sign him in 2013 for a multi-year deal up to the league average regardless of their cap situation.

Now, while this scenario works best for the Knicks, who could then make a determined play for Nash, who, in my opinion, would be like the trade for Dave DeBusschere in 1968 as the final piece to a championship-caliber puzzle in New York, it is hardly an ideal move for Lin.

Sure, everyone wants to do what’s best for the team, but if you were his agent, would you think this is a good idea? That kind of move would be a major risk for Lin, who could see his market value plummet as a reserve behind Nash. What Lin and his representation what to promote is the idea that Linsanity wasn’t a novelty this season and that Lin is this team’s answer at the point guard position.

Still, with just 35 games to go on, it makes it a very precarious decision with many what-ifs to haunt Grunwald and his staff into July: 1. What if Lin signs elsewhere and emerges into an all-star? 2. What if Lin struggles as defenses exploit his weaknesses?

Now the Knicks don’t have to use their entire MLE on Lin. They can use some of it — say $3 million — and use the remaining $2 million to take care of other business, such as a backup center or a veteran point guard not named Nash (would Jason Kidd come at Chandler’s request?).

Still, there’s no denying Lin is the first domino of the offseason for the Knicks once we get to July 1.

RESTRUCTURE CONJECTURE

So many of you have asked about the possibility of the team’s highest-paid players, Melo ($20.4 million in 2012-13) and Amar’e ($19.9 million) restructuring their respective contracts to open up some salary cap space so the Knicks can go after another free agent.

The fact is the new collective bargaining agreement does include a restructuring provision. But the rule is written in such a way that neither the players, nor the team, are eligible to do it.

It’s really an inane provision in the agreement when you consider the restrictions. For starters, a team has to already be under the salary cap for restructuring to be permitted. And after that, the player has to be three years into his current contract.

You can thank both the NBA and the players union for this. The union did not want a rule that would create public pressure for a player to restructure to help a team that has made poor contract decisions and needed help. The NBA did not want to see players get monster contracts only to immediately restructure to create room for more monster contracts.

So forget restructuring as a means to alleviate cap issues for the Knicks or open up room to make a play for another free agent. The Miami Heat’s Big Three had it right when they each agreed to take less than the maximum in order to fit each other and still field a decent team around them. Even then, that roster is extremely shallow, so it puts even more emphasis on good drafting and waiver pick ups.

Hey, isn’t that where Jeremy Lin comes in?

THE REST OF THE ROSTER

So with no first round pick (the Rockets get the Knicks’ pick at No. 16), no money left to buy a pick (cash considerations were used in the Chandler trade) and a long wait to No. 48 in the second round, how else can the Knicks improve the roster?

By trades, of course.

• Consider Toney Douglas ($2 million) as an expiring contract, but a young player in need of a second chance somewhere. Package that with Jerome Jordan’s non-guaranteed salary ($760,000) for next season and you can attempt to acquire a $3 million player from a team looking to save some money.

• Landry Fields is a restricted free agent ($1.03 million qualifying offer) who could garner some interest if you want to sweeten the pot for a higher-end player, but while Shumpert seems to have moved ahead of him on the shooting guard depth chart, the sense is the organization still believes in Fields. But that also depends on how much Mike Woodson, should he return as head coach, believes in Fields. Also, if you can find a veteran scorer who can fill that shooting guard role, it may make more sense to upgrade the offense.

• J.R. Smith is expected to opt-out and become an unrestricted free agent this summer, which comes as no surprise. The second year was added only as insurance at Smith’s request. The Knicks have very few tools to re-sign Smith and, considering Lin’s situation with the MLE, I don’t expect him to be a priority.

• Steve Novak is an unrestricted free agent and the Knicks do not have his Bird Rights. Novak’s value on the open market will decide whether or not he can return, but the Knicks could either use some leftover from the MLE or the BAE ($1.9 million) to keep Novak if he really wants to stay.

• Mike Bibby and Jared Jeffries are both wild cards here. Woodson has a great deal of confidence in Bibby, who performed well as a starter in Game 5 against Miami but throughout the season seemed to break down a lot. As a third string point guard and veteran in the locker room, he’s fine to keep for the veteran’s minimum.

• Jeffries, who will undergo surgery to repair a balky knee that severely limited him late in the season and in the playoffs, may not be so easy to re-sign with a veteran’s minimum. The defensive specialist opened some eyes this season with his play off the bench and may attract better offers elsewhere. You can be certain if Mike D’Antoni returns to the NBA next season (Clippers?), Jeffries will likely wind up wherever D’Antoni lands.

KEEP AN EYE ON…

• Expect to see Josh Harrellson in Las Vegas for the Knicks at the NBA Summer League along with Jordan. One of the understated disappointments of Shumpert’s knee injury is he will once again miss the chance to play in the summer league, which is a great opportunity for young players to work on their game, work with team coaches and prepare for the coming season. Shumpert missed out on the summer league last year because of the lockout.

• Chandler and Anthony will be in camp in July with USA Basketball and it is possible both players will be starters for Coach K’s team when the Olympic Games open in London. While that’s great for them — and for the U.S. — it sets up some concerns about either coming to training camp in October with an injury or needing rest. But perhaps it’s the best thing for Melo, who has been maligned for his conditioning in the past. Two months of workouts with the best players in the world may be exactly what he needs going into what could be a pivotal season in his Knicks career.

• As the predraft process begins, a name to monitor (as many of you, I know, already are) is Scott Machado, who was coach Tim Cluess’ outstanding point guard at Iona College and is a New York City product (though he played his high school ball at Newark’s St. Benedict’s Prep). Machado isn’t big, but plays with great speed and has impressive floor vision, which are two needs the Knicks have in their backcourt. Most draft boards right now project him to be a mid-second rounder, but that could change with strong predraft workouts.

Another busy offseason awaits with some critical decisions to be made.