No Time for a June Swoon

Only four times in franchise history have the Knicks played into June, with the last time being in the 2000 Eastern Conference Finals, when a Game 6 loss to Reggie Miller and the Indiana Pacers ended the season on June 2.

The Knicks haven’t won a playoff series since that year. In fact, they haven’t gone six games deep into a playoff series since then, either.

With such harsh realities relentlessly barking in its ears, this month of June might be the most critical since Miller and Co. triumphantly walked off The Garden floor and Patrick Ewing (18 points, 12 rebounds, 3 blocks in 38 minutes) unceremoniously trudged into the old tunnel toward the locker rooms for the last time as a Knick. No one knew at the time, but it would mark the beginning of the end of a very successful 13-year run for the franchise, which included two NBA Finals appearances, four Eastern Conference Finals appearances and at nine straight years of winning at least one playoff round.

The opportunity for the current team to return this franchise to elite status in the NBA may hang on the result of three important days in June. With the hope that success in this June leads to playing again in Junes of the near future:

June 13 — An arbitration hearing to settle a dispute between the NBA Players Association and the NBA regarding Bird Rights will be held. This will have a direct impact on the Knicks’ offseason free-agency plans, as both Jeremy Lin and Steve Novak are two of the four players in question.

The union is contending that Bird Rights should be transferred via waivers, much like they are transferred via trades. But the NBA says the collective bargaining agreement specifically states that Bird Rights — which allow a team to re-sign its own free agents without salary cap restraints — only transfer in a trade.

This is a classic “Letter v. Spirit” case, which we have seen for many years in U.S. Constitutional law. The league is following the “letter of the law”, in which the CBA only identifies trades as a means to transfer Bird Rights. The union argues that a waiver pick up is a similar transaction to a trade and the player’s Bird Rights clock should not reset because his contract remains effective.

Though the union has a compelling case and some legal experts feel there is a good argument to be made, the overwhelming opinion from lawyers I’ve spoken to with experience in this arena say the most likely result will be a ruling in favor of the letter of the law.

“We believe that the position that we are espousing here is the one that the contract says is the one and that the arbitrator will confirm,” NBA commissioner David Stern said at the NBA Draft Lottery on Wednesday.

If the players were awarded their Bird Rights, the Knicks, who are over the salary cap, could re-sign Lin and Novak without having to dip into either of their two exceptions (Mid-Level and Bi-Annual).

If not, the Knicks will have to get creative (and smart money says they’re already preparing for this scenario). Since Lin can — and potentially will — get offers from other teams as a restricted free agent, the Knicks are in somewhat of a bind if he signs an offer sheet. They will have three days to match — a shortened term under the new CBA — or decline and let Lin go.

While there is reported interest in Lin, not just as a player but as a box office draw, there are some who are skeptical that he would leave New York and the roster of all-star players, to take on the burden of a franchise savior and, in some cases, somewhat of a novelty act. It’s up to Lin’s agent, Roger Montgomery, to create a market for his client, but it’s up to Lin to make the right choice at this early point of his career.

“Other teams can offer what they want,” one NBA executive told me recently, “the question is, will he sign?”

General manager Glen Grunwald already said the team planned to re-sign Lin, what remains to be seen is if Lin plans to work with the Knicks. Here’s one idea: Offer Lin a two-year deal at $3 million each, with the second year a player option. He can opt-out after next season and the Knicks would have his Bird Rights for them to re-sign him to a bigger deal.

That would leave $2 million of the $5 million MLE to go after another player, potentially a veteran backup point guard to solidify that position, which is a direct benefit not only to the team, but to Lin.

That, along with the $1.9 million BAE, should be able to fetch some help, but it might not be enough to keep Novak, the sharp-shooter who had a breakout year as the NBA’s top three-point shooter. Novak is represented by Mark Bartlestein, one of the shrewdest at maximizing market value for his clients.

If Novak wants to stay in New York, he may have to take less. But that doesn’t mean he should make a quick decision. Most teams don’t spend their BAE until much later in the summer or just before training camps open.

June 26 — J.R. Smith has to decide whether he will remain with the Knicks for another season at the $2.5 million salary or if he will opt out to become a free agent. Smith could fetch a bigger salary as a free agent, but his recent trouble in South Beach, where he was arrested for not having a valid driver’s license, and other gossip-inspired notoriety could negatively impact his market value. Smith’s short time with the Knicks was volatile, with outstanding moments mixed with equal parts maddening, but at $2.5 million for a scorer off the bench, he’s still a good value. And with Iman Shumpert not expected to return from his knee injury until at least December, Smith’s presence as a shooting guard is of great importance in Mike Woodson‘s rotation.

In case anyone is wondering, if Smith opts out, the Knicks do not get the $2.5 million “mini” mid-level exception, which they used to sign him, back to use again this offseason.

June 28 — The NBA Draft. The Houston Rockets own the Knicks’ first-round pick at No. 16 overall as part of the Jared Jeffries/Jordan Hill salary dump trade in 2010. The Knicks own only a second round pick (No. 48 overall) and are currently in the process of working out candidates to keep alive their streak of second-round finds (Landry Fields in 2010, Josh Harrellson in 2011) that made the roster.

Keep an eye on Iona point guard Scott Machado, a New York City-bred playmaker, though the Knicks could look to go big if they can find a good athlete with defensive instincts. Gonzaga’s Robert Sacre, at 6-11, could be one potential target, though he could be the type that could be signed as an undrafted free agent. If it’s outside shooting the Knicks want to add — especially if Smith opts out — Darius Johnson-Odom of Marquette could be of interest. Johnson-Odom has a terrific outside touch and is a tremendous athlete, but at 6-foot-2, he is another one of those combo guards who is a tweener: a shooting guard in a point guard’s body.

Though the Knicks could trade a player for a first-round pick, they can not buy themselves into the first round because they used their cash considerations allotment ($3 million) in the Tyson Chandler sign-and-trade scenario. More than likely, the second round is where it’ll happen for them this season. Can they land another roster-quality talent?

June 29 — The Dallas Mavericks are expected to attempt to trade Lamar Odom on draft night or waive him the next day and owe just $2.4 million on his 2012-13 salary. If not, his full salary of $8.2 million will be fully guaranteed if he is not waived by this date.

There have been reports that the New York City native has the Knicks high on his list of teams to play for, and the versatile forward would be an outstanding complement to the Knicks’ star-studded frontcourt, but the Knicks won’t have much money to offer, especially if they have to use most of all of the MLE for Lin.

Odom may be a hot commodity on draft night, but most teams will probably wait for the Mavs to waive Odom, who would become a free agent on July 1. While most believe Odom, who has sworn to severely limit his participation in the reality television world where his wife and her family do most of their business, would certainly take a major pay cut to return to the Los Angeles, the question is would he give a hometown discount to play in New York?

MELO: SELFISH LABEL ‘HURTFUL’

Carmelo Anthony had some strong words about the widespread belief that he and Amar’e Stoudemire can not successfully co-exist on this team — “I’m getting tired of hearing that, man,” he said at the end of the season — and continues to face the bullets fired at him after a mercurial season.

In a one-on-one interview with Hannah Storm as part of NBA Face-to-Face for ESPN, Melo responded to Storm’s suggestion that he wears the label of a selfish player.

“From one night, going from being the leader of your team and the face of the organization and being called a selfish player, I don’t know,” he said. “Out of everything that I was going through, that we were going through as a team, that was one of the most hurtful things to hear.”

Anthony has a predilection for isolation offense (mainly because he is most confident in his skills as a one-on-one player) and that is the genesis of this label. But knowing the man personally, this is not someone who prefers statistics to wins.

The addition of Lin, who emerged as a scoring point guard who, similarly to Anthony, thrives when the offense plays through him (as we saw during Linsanity), adds more intrigue to the debate about whether the Knicks can succeed.

“Give me a reason why we can’t play together,” Anthony snapped at Storm’s assertion.

Actually, history proves otherwise. Anthony’s best scoring season was in 2006-07 with the Denver Nuggets, when he averaged 28.9 points per game. That season he joined forces with Allen Iverson, a scoring guard who needed the ball to be effective. The Nuggets won 45 games and lost in the first round to the San Antonio Spurs, who went on to win the NBA title.

The following season, Anthony and Iverson once again split the scoring and led the Nuggets to a 50-win season. Yes, it resulted in another first-round ouster but once again to a team that reached the NBA Finals: the Lakers.

No, Anthony was never comfortable in Mike D’Antoni’s system, much like Jamal Crawford admitted to me a few years ago that he wasn’t comfortable in it as a wing option, where you move without knowing for certain whether you will or won’t get the ball, or where you’ll get it. It’s up to Woodson to create a system that fits the talent and it’s up to Anthony — and Lin and Stoudemire — to be involved all offseason to help create it so that when they hit the floor on the first day of training camp, each of them are unilaterally on Page 1.

Some might argue that they’ve already been there. The first seven games after Woodson took over as coach, the Knicks went 6-1 with Lin, Melo and Amar’e in the lineup. After that, Lin and Amar’e were knocked out of the lineup because of injuries and Melo had to immediately increase his offensive production.

But let’s isolate — sorry, couldn’t resist — those seven games. Stoudemire led the way with 16.9 points per game and a blistering 57.9 percent shooting, with 10.8 field goal attempts per game in 30.7 minutes. Anthony averaged 14 points on frigid 39.3 percent shooting with 13.4 field goal attempts per game in 28.9 minutes. And Lin was at 13.3 points per game on 42.9 percent shooting and nine field goal attempts per game in 28.1 minutes.

Each one of them scored below their respective season averages and had less attempts per game than their season averages. Melo and Lin shot below their season percentages. But the result was six wins in seven games, which tells you something was working.

Of the seven games, only three were against playoff-bound teams (home-and-home with Pacers, road win over the 76ers), which can’t be discounted, but for a group that hadn’t spent a lot of time together as a unit, it is abundantly clear that there is a foundation from which to build off these games.

Specifically for Melo, his poor shooting percentage was the biggest impact on his scoring, not the lack of shots. Actually, he still took the most shots on the team. It’s a matter of need: with Stoudemire and Lin in the lineup, Anthony isn’t required to carry the offense as he was when they were out (and he went on to have a prolific month of April).

In his own words, to Storm:

“I don’t need Jeremy Lin to score 20-30 points, and he knows that . . . We don’t need 20-30 or 40 points out of Amar’e, we don’t need 30-40 points out of me. When all of us is out there on the basketball court, if we all do what we have to do out on the court, we’ll see what happens.”