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By stretching Joakim Noah, the Knicks might create a new problem to solve an old one

It seems likely that Joakim Noah’s brief career in New York is over. How the Knicks handle the dismount, though, matters a great deal.

Like an awful lot of other deals done during the early days of the NBA’s 2016 free-agent season, in which teams suddenly flush with spending power thanks to a new-TV-contract-sparked salary-cap spike wasted zero time throwing good money after bad, Joakim Noah’s contract became a problem the second the New York Knicks offered it.

It wasn’t so much that it didn’t seem possible that a 31-year-old version of Noah could be a useful defensive presence for a Knicks team in desperate need of talent, organization and passion. It’s that there seemed to be no timeline in which the former Defensive Player of the Year and MVP candidate, damaged and diminished by years of huge minutes and hard driving under Tom Thibodeau, would produce at least $72 million worth of on-court value between 2016 and 2020.

It seemed much more likely, rather, that Noah — who had played more than 67 games just once in the seven seasons before his homecoming, and who had been limited by shoulder problems to just 29 appearances the year before Phil Jackson opened up James Dolan’s checkbook — would wind up spending more time on the injured list than on the court, and would look like a millstone before he even reached the halfway point of the deal. Two summers after the signing, Noah has played in 53 of a possible 164 games, paired a season-ending knee surgery with a return-delaying drug suspension, and wound up banished from the team after a practice beef with his then-head coach.

The coach is gone now, but that doesn’t mean the Knicks are any more eager to bring Noah back into the fold. Some seven months after beginning to “explore ways” to part with the 33-year-old center, they’re still looking to cut bait on Noah … and, according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski and Ian Begley, to do it before New York opens training camp next month:

Unless general manager Scott Perry can find a trade that includes Noah, the Knicks will use the NBA’s waive-and-stretch provision to release Noah sometime after Sept. 1, league sources said.

Noah, 33, has two years and $37.8 million left on his contract, and waiting until September to stretch it allows the Knicks to spread the balance of his remaining contract into smaller cap hits over the next three years.

Why the Knicks want to stretch Joakim Noah’s contract

Perry’s considering the stretch provision because he’s reportedly been unsuccessful in finding a suitor willing to offer anything of value in trade for Noah. (Color me stunned that nobody’s opening up the war chest for a 33-year-old who hasn’t been the same since a “minor” 2014 knee surgery that kept him out for months rather than weeks, who has made less than 50 percent of his shots inside the restricted area over the past four years, and who’s still got nearly $38 million left on his deal.) And since the perhaps-finally-rebuilding-based-on-a-plan Knicks don’t want to attach mammoth sweeteners like future first-round draft picks or talented and inexpensive recent draftees to pay Noah’s freight, well, Noah’s still a Knick, and Perry’s got to explore other options if he wants to send the two-time All-Star packing.

It’s reasonable that Perry would want to move Noah as soon as possible. A healthy Noah — which, again, we haven’t really seen in about five years, but just for the sake of argument, let’s assume he could still exist — might be a quality backup center for a team in need of a second-unit captain. But the Knicks are going to be very bad this season, as they await the return of Kristaps Porzingis from his torn ACL and feed minutes to a slew of young players — like recent draftees Frank Ntilikina, Kevin Knox and Mitchell Robinson, and short-money reclamation projects Mario Hezonja, Noah Vonleh, Trey Burke and Emmanuel Mudiay — in hopes of developing a new core capable of competing a few years down the line.

A very bad team committing to rebuilding has no use for a past-his-prime one-way center who can’t stay healthy and will make $18.5 million this year. Better to give up the ghost of being able to get anything for him, treat him as a sunk cost, and move on, allowing him to pursue another opportunity if he can find one — like, say, in the Twin Cities, with some familiar friends. (It’d also free up a roster spot, which would be useful, since last month’s signing of Vonleh gave New York 16 guaranteed deals for 2018-19 — ne more than you’re allowed to carry into the season.)

At issue, though, is whether doing so by stretching Noah at the start of September is really the Knicks’ best way of moving on from him.

Why the Knicks should think hard about waiting to stretch Noah

On one hand, if the Knicks are committed to stretching Noah, it definitely makes more sense to wait a few weeks. Before Sept. 1, stretching Noah means the Knicks would have to spread out the remaining balance of his salary ($37,825,000) over “twice the number of years remaining on his contract, plus one” (so, for Noah’s two-year deal, that’d be five seasons). Getting rid of Noah now, then, would mean signing up for a $7,565,000 salary cap hit for Noah’s services next year and for four more seasons after that.

By waiting until after Sept. 1, though, the Knicks would take the full $18.5 million hit for Noah’s 2017-18 deal, and then only have to stretch his final season’s salary ($19,295,000) over three more years (“twice the number remaining, plus one”). That would set the Knicks up for a smaller annual amount of dead money (about $6.43 million) that’d stick around for two fewer seasons, limiting their cap space only through the summer of 2021 rather than the summer of 2023.

Since the Knicks are already over the salary cap for this season, it’s not like stretching Noah in the next three weeks to reduce his ’18-’19 cap hit would provide any meaningful roster-construction benefit in the short term. By swallowing this year’s salary and waiting until September, though, the Knicks would be able to open up an additional $12.86 million in cap space for next summer, affording them much more flexibility with which to go big-game hunting in a free-agent pool that could include more than a half-dozen bona fide All-NBA talents.

But while stretching Noah in September would lock in that extra $12.86 million in cap space next summer, it would also eliminate the possibility of finding a resolution that doesn’t wind up plunking $6.4 million worth of dead money on the Knicks’ books for the next two summers.

Stretching Noah in September eliminates what could be better options

Without significant draft assets or prime prospects attached, no team in its right mind would have considered taking on two years and $37.8 million of Noah, especially ahead of a summer in which so few teams had any financial flexibility. A one-year, $19.3 million expiring contract might look a bit different, though, especially for a team looking to either reduce their luxury tax payments or duck the tax entirely. See: how the Nets offloaded Timofey Mozgov to the Hornets, how the Nuggets shipped Kenneth Faried and Darrell Arthur to Brooklyn, and how Carmelo Anthony landed in Atlanta (if only briefly).

If the Knicks can’t find a taker for Noah at any point before next summer, well, they could always stretch him then, and still get the same boost in 2019 salary cap space with which to pursue top-flight free agents. And if they strike out there, too — not the rosiest possibility, but a real one for a franchise that’s swung and missed plenty of times before, and that has a long way to go to establish itself as a serious option for a star player eager to contend — then they can continue taking the long view, swallow hard on Noah’s 2019-20 salary and avoid carrying any dead money from his disastrous deal into 2021 or ’22.

At that point, New York would have Tim Hardaway Jr. as the only incumbent high-priced vet, its young pieces in place, and a clean balance sheet moving forward. It’s not the most satisfying solution in the here and now, but it might just be the Knicks’ best path for the future.

Taking your medicine isn’t always fun, but it can help you get better

From a financial perspective, then, the drive to get Noah out of town as soon as the calendar flips to September rather than remaining patient doesn’t seem to make too much sense. It’s possible, though, that Perry and new head coach David Fizdale view resolving Noah’s situation as soon as is reasonable as a way to ensure that this year’s squad remains focused on the brick-by-brick building task at hand, rather than getting sidetracked by the sort of off-court ephemera that seem to bedevil the Knicks year in and year out. From Stefan Bondy of the New York Daily News:

If the 33-year-old wants to return and the Knicks forbid it, the player’s union will get involved and New York is faced with the type of image issue it has worked to avoid. If they bring back Noah and he doesn’t buy into the direction, the Knicks risk fracturing the locker room. A clue was provided recently by David Fizdale when discussing the need for veteran leadership. It helps explain why the Knicks are keen on ridding themselves of Noah as soon as possible, reportedly planning to buy him out next month.

“You can’t bring in a guy who is looking for more than we can give,” Fizdale said, “because that could end up tearing your locker room apart.”

Acting as that kind of disruptive force doesn’t exactly seem like Noah’s M.O., but you can understand a first-year coach who just came out on the short end of a battle with a disgruntled veteran feeling like, all things being equal, he’d rather avoid the potential unpleasantness. All things aren’t necessarily equal here, though. As tempting as it might be to put a glaring mistake behind them in hopes of landing a big fish next summer, the Knicks shouldn’t commit another — putting an immovable $6.43 million object on their books for two more years when they don’t have to — in the process.

Perry, Fizdale and team president Steve Mills have made it clear that they intend to chart a new course for these Knicks, in hopes of leaving the turmoil and disappointment of the past two decades behind. If they’re true to their word, they’ll let the calendar flip to September, and then they’ll do what’s often the toughest thing to do: wait, be patient, and keep their options open.

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Dan Devine is a writer and editor for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at devine@yahoosports.com or follow him on Twitter!

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