Being a die-hard fan of New York sports, I have been forced to suffer through some excruciatingly painful seasons during my lifetime. I watched nearly every minute of every New York Knicks game throughout the Isiah Thomas era, the Rangers went 27-40-7-8 despite having the NHL’s highest payroll during the 2003-04 season, and the Jets are going to miss the playoffs for the third consecutive season.
However, with my beloved Knicks currently holding a dismal 9-18 record–good for a third-place tie in the pathetic Atlantic Division–it’s safe to say that this is the most miserable I have ever been through one-third of any major professional sports season.
It’s not that the Knicks have never been this bad of a team while I’ve been a fan–trust me when I say that those Isiah teams were much, much worse. It’s that, like most New York fans, I came into this season with relatively high expectations. The Knicks were coming off of a 54-win season and an appearance in the Eastern Conference Semifinals in 2013, and had most of their core returning for this season.
But nothing is the same as last season. The Knicks have, for unknown reasons, gone away from everything that allowed them to be successful last year–two point guard lineups that featured Carmelo Anthony at the power forward, an offense usually predicated upon ball movement, and a defense that gave maximum effort on almost a nightly basis. The results have not been pretty: New York is 25th in points per game, 23rd in opponent field goal percentage, and tied with the Brooklyn Nets for the sixth-worst record in basketball.
Having said all of that, I have one message to get across: It is not time to blow up this team. Not yet, at least.
With Carmelo Anthony set to become a free agent after this season, why not trade him right now? Why not see what you can get in exchange for him, rather than possibly losing him to free agency?
Here’s why not: Because, despite the egregious start, the Knicks can still salvage their season.
The Knicks are fortunate enough to play in the Atlantic Division, or what I like to call the worst division in any sport since the 2010 version of the NFC West. And, because of that, New York–along with its 9-18 record–is still very much in the playoff hunt. The Knicks trail the Toronto Raptors by just two-and-a-half games for first place in the Atlantic, and I would argue that the division is still New York’s to win–by default.
What do I mean, “by default”? Well, let’s start with those division-leading Raptors. No team has made more of a point of tanking this season for a high draft pick than Toronto has. General manager Masai Ujiri traded Andrea Bargnani in the offseason, dealt Rudy Gay to the Kings earlier this month, and is currently shopping Kyle Lowry, Amir Johnson, and DeMar DeRozan. It’s pretty evident that the Raptors don’t even want to win the division this season, so I can’t possibly pick them to finish the season on top of the Atlantic. Boston, Brooklyn, and New York at least all appear to be chasing a playoff berth. Eventually, the Raptors will make another trade, and eventually, they will start losing more and more basketball games.
After the Raptors come the Celtics, currently a half-game out of first place. I actually like what the Celtics are doing; Brad Stevens looks like the NBA’s next great coach, and he has his team playing inspired, competitive basketball. But, these aren’t exactly the Rajon Rondo-Paul Pierce-Ray Allen-Kevin Garnett Celtics. These are the maybe Rondo in January-Avery Bradley-Jeff Green-Brandon Bass Celtics. There’s just no way that I can see that group holding off the Knicks over the course of an 82-game season, even if Boston is able to acquire Omer Asik. And, heck, even GM Danny Ainge said getting into the playoffs isn’t really the goal of this season. Tanking!
Finally, there’s the one team in the Atlantic that, prior to the beginning of the season, I actually had finishing in front of the Knicks–the Brooklyn Nets. And, with their poor start notwithstanding, I was planning on sticking with the Nets as my pick to win the division until this past Saturday. On Saturday, news broke that Brook Lopez–Brooklyn’s All-Star center–has a broken foot and is going to miss the remainder of the season.
As someone who has seen most of the Nets’ games this year, I can’t even begin to express how large of a blow losing Brook will be. With all of the bad headlines and negative aspects surrounding Brooklyn’s disastrous start to the season, the Nets’ one bright spot has been Lopez. He’s averaging career highs in points per game (20.7) and field goal percentage (.563), and his other nightly averages include two blocks and six rebounds.
Without him, the Nets don’t stand a chance. Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce are finally running out of gas, Joe Johnson is once again having an inconsistent year, and though Deron Williams has begun to play better as of late, he alone can’t win this division for the Nets. In the end, Billy King and Mikhail Prokhorov decided to take a win-now approach for their franchise, and it looks like they failed miserably.
Since the Sixers are surely one of the league’s worst teams, both record-wise and personnel-wise, all of this means that there is only one team left that qualifies–according to my reasoning–to win the Atlantic Division. That team is……the New York Knicks. The New York Knicks will win the Atlantic Division. By default.
Why am I still so confident in the Knicks? Well, they do have the best player in the division, Carmelo Anthony, and Tyson Chandler–maybe the Knicks’ most valuable player–is finally back and healthy after suffering a fractured right fibula on November 6.
To complement Chandler’s return, point guards Raymond Felton and Pablo Prigioni should both be fully healthy within the next few weeks, and I have to believe that, at some point, J.R. Smith will break out of his horrendous shooting slump. (If the latter never happens, Mike Woodson will need to start giving more and more minutes to Tim Hardaway Jr., who has quietly been the Knicks’ best shooting guard this season.) I also have to believe that Woodson will start putting Andrea Bargnani and Amar’e Stoudemire in positions to succeed, rather than insisting on ever playing the two at the same time.
The bottom line is that this group of players just has way too much talent for it to go a whole lot longer without at least beginning to resemble the team that won 54 games a season ago. I’m not necessarily against the idea of hitting the restart button in order to prepare for the future, but here’s the problem: New York isn’t going to find a better player than Carmelo.
LeBron James isn’t coming to the Knicks after this season. Kevin Durant isn’t coming to the Knicks in 2016. And, even if Anthony is traded in exchange for draft picks, those picks aren’t going to be lottery picks, meaning that the Knicks won’t have any chance at ending up with Jabari Parker or Andrew Wiggins next summer.
As of this second, I don’t think that Anthony is planning on staying in New York past this season, but that doesn’t mean that he can’t change his mind. If the Knicks were to fight back to take the division title and maybe even win another playoff series or two, then who’s to say that Anthony won’t seriously consider staying in New York long-term? If the Knicks were to deal Iman Shumpert for Rajon Rondo or another point guard, who’s to say that Carmelo wouldn’t find that situation attractive?
Speaking of dealing Shumpert, isn’t right now the perfect time for the Knicks to trade him? Hardaway Jr. is almost two years younger than Shumpert, plays the same position, and just might be emerging as a better all-around player. If the Knicks can get Rajon Rondo or even Kyle Lowry for Shumpert, then I would fully support a trade involving the third-year guard.
I am still of the belief that if the correct pieces are built around him–almost like what the Mavericks had in 2011 with Dirk Nowitzki–then Anthony could win a championship. For ‘Melo, the perfect pieces would be an elite point guard (Rondo), a center that rebounds and plays defense (Tyson), another point guard that can start in a two-point guard lineup (Felton), a shooting guard that can play the three (Tim Hardaway Jr.), and a serviceable bench (Prigioni, Smith, Bargnani if he stays past 2015, Stoudemire if he stays past 2015, Metta World Peace, and whomever else the Knicks can acquire.)
Even if the Knicks don’t end up making a trade this season, they will still be able to look forward to the summer of 2015, when the terrible contracts of both Andrea Bargnani and Amar’e Stoudemire are set to expire just in time for New York to target plenty of big-name free agent point guards–namely Rondo, Kyrie Irving, and Damian Lillard. I don’t expect Lillard to leave Portland, but Irving could want out of Cleveland if LeBron stays in Miami, and I have to imagine that Rondo would leave Boston if it meant a better chance at a championship.
If I were in New York’s front office, that’s the blueprint I would lay out for Carmelo to convince him to stay: We”ll try to make a trade for Rondo or Lowry, but even if we are unsuccessful in doing so, we can stay competitive and probably win two more Atlantic Division crowns over the next two seasons. After that, we will have approximately a three-year championship window, starting with the 2015-16 season.
To me, Anthony staying in New York just makes sense for both sides. His most likely destination in free agency would be Los Angeles to join the Lakers. Kobe Bryant is now injury-ridden and will turn 36 years old before he and Carmelo would even potentially play their first game together. On top of that, the man at the helm in Los Angeles–head coach Mike D’Antoni–is the same guy that Anthony ran out of town in New York in 2011. It’s just not the right fit for Anthony, especially not at this stage in his career.
For the Knicks, it makes sense because–as I keep saying–they won’t be able to acquire a better player than Carmelo if they decide to blow it up.
I’ll repeat myself once more: If the Knicks can find the right point guard to pair with Melo, and if they can keep Tyson Chandler, then they can compete for a championship in the near future. I will admit that I still wouldn’t expect them to get past the Pacers or whatever team LeBron signs with after this season, but I do think it would at least give them a chance, and I know it would give them a better chance than if they were to trade Anthony.
So, Steve Mills and James Dolan, please don’t give up on the 2013-14 season quite yet. I know that the 9-18 record looks awful, but this is the same core that is only a few months removed from a 54-win season and an appearance in the Eastern Conference Semifinals. The Atlantic Division is still very winnable this season and, let’s be honest: the Knicks need Carmelo Anthony as much as Carmelo Anthony needs the Knicks.