Despite a 7-5 start to the season led by rising star Kristaps Porzingis, the Knicks still can’t shake a head-scratching decision from their past.
The team announced Sunday afternoon it waived forward Mindaugus Kuzminskas, who had lost his place in Jeff Hornacek’s rotation. The Knicks needed to open a roster spot for Joakim Noah, who will return for Monday’s game against the Cavs after serving a suspension for violating the league’s anti-drug policy.
“The respect this franchise has for Mindaugas cannot be overstated,” Knicks general manager Scott Perry said in a statement. “His professionalism and work ethic were greatly appreciated by his teammates, coaches and the entire staff. This decision was extremely tough for us. We wish him nothing but the best moving on with his playing career.”
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Kuzminskas averaged 6.3 points and 1.9 rebounds on 42.8 percent shooting in 14.9 minutes per game as a rookie last season. The 28-year-old is in the second season of a two-year contract he signed in the summer of 2016. The Knicks will take a $3 million cap hit on Kuzminskas, and he will spend two days on waivers before becoming a free agent if he goes unclaimed.
The Knicks were in a tough spot. They couldn’t waive Jarrett Jack, who signed a one-year, non-guaranteed contract in September, after the team’s fast start with him at point guard. Ramon Sessions was also a waivers candidate, but New York has a bigger logjam in the frontcourt than the backcourt. Kuzminskas was the odd man out.
But this isn’t really about Kuzminskas, a capable role player but not a franchise-altering talent. It’s about former Knicks president Phil Jackson giving Noah a four-year, $72 million contract in 2016, a deal which will pay Noah more than $18.5 million in 2018-19 and more than $19.2 million in 2019-20.
The ideal scenario would be for the Knicks to move Noah, but his contract is essentially untradeable. ESPN.com’s Ian Begley reported last week New York had made Noah “available in conversations with several teams.”
No one is touching Noah’s deal. Despite his ability as a screener and passer, his poor shooting limits his effectiveness on offense. His injury problems have zapped much of the quickness that enabled him to be the anchor of a defense in Chicago. He has played 30 minutes or more in a game only 10 times in the past two years. On top of all that, he’s turning 33 in February.
It remains to be seen what kind of minutes Noah will receive upon his return. Hornacek certainly doesn’t want to do anything to disrupt a hot start to the month with the Knicks winning four of their first five games in November. Willy Hernangomez is having a hard enough time cracking the rotation behind Porzingis, Enes Kanter and Kyle O’Quinn. Where does that leave Noah?
As great as it has been to see Knicks fans excited to attend Madison Square Garden to see the home team play, Kuzminskas’ departure was yet another small reminder New Yorkers still haven’t fully escaped Jackson’s decision to back up the truck for Noah. And it may be another couple years before they do.